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The truth about kids and TV

Doesn’t it seem like every child in America knows who Elmo, SpongeBob and Dora are? Many children today watch more TV than is recommended for their age groups, according to research, which may give them the opportunity to become well-acquainted with these characters. Although television viewing can be useful and educational in certain circumstances, too much TV can prove detrimental to your child’s health and development.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children under age 2 watch no television and that all children over age 2 watch no more than two hours per day. But studies have found that up to two-thirds of infants and toddlers watch about two hours of TV daily, and older kids watch almost four hours per day.

Too much TV time means that kids interact less with their parents, siblings or caregivers and have fewer opportunities to converse or learn. Children also typically sit idle while staring at the screen, so they’re missing out on countless hours of potential physical activity, which may contribute to the obesity epidemic. What can you do?

Flip off the TV around infants and toddlers. Studies have found that children under age 2 who watch TV are spoken to less than their TV-free counterparts, which may slow their cognitive development and delay their ability to speak. And the short segments plus quick scene changes in many programs may make it difficult for youngsters to concentrate, possibly contributing to a rise in attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

Read to your youngsters. For some children, TV time replaces reading time. Whenever possible, choose books over television; too much TV time may delay your child’s ability to learn to read.

Watch with your kids. You can help your kids develop healthy attitudes about what they see on TV if you’re there to comment on it. Explain that commercials are designed to make people want things that they don’t necessarily need. Focus on lessons learned in educational programs such as certain letters or numbers.

Help older kids map out what to watch. Set hourly limits on daily TV viewing time, and promote educational programs over fluff. Teach kids that it’s better to watch their favorite shows than surf the channels.

Limit all screen time. Some kids play video games or use the computer for two hours a day, in addition to four hours of TV viewing. Experts recommend that the two-hour limit on TV viewing should include video game and computer time, too. Keep televisions and computers out of kids’ bedrooms to ensure that they’re following the rules.

Ban eating in front of the television. Excess TV watching among children has been associated with obesity for a number of reasons: Kids sit passively while they watch, instead of getting exercise, and they’re bombarded with commercials for sugary breakfast cereals and junk-food snacks. If they eat while watching something engrossing, they may not notice when their bodies signal that they’re feeling full. Parents should lead by example to make it easier for kids to stop snacking or eating meals in front of the TV.

Opt for commercial-free viewing. One recent study found that the amount of idle time in front of the television wasn’t linked to obesity; it was time watching programs with commercials. Children ages 6 and under who watched commercial-free television shows or videos were less likely to become obese than their junk-food-commercial-viewing counterparts.

Spend more time outdoors. Run around the backyard or head to the park when your kids would normally hunker down in front of the boob tube for an hour of cartoons. The fresh air and physical activity will be good for both of you.