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My wife and I have always been careful about what our kids see on TV, and that includes video games. So we were none too pleased last year when our son, then 15, begged us to buy him Resident Evil 4. Knowing we'd object to the M-rated (age 17 and older) zombie shoot-'em-up, he plied us with every argument in the book: "Most kids my age already play it." "The game's not going to turn me into a violent person." And the clincher: "You've said I'm old enough to make my own decisions, and I wish you would live up to that." He had a point. Though we had our doubts, we granted his wish.
It's a compromise familiar to any parent of a tween or teen. As kids get older, even the most cautious moms and dads begin to ask themselves how much they really need to worry about the harmful effects of television. Three out of four parents say they're concerned, yet few actually restrict viewing -- and when they do, it's usually to make sure kids do their homework and chores before plopping down in front of the tube. In a survey of more than 2,000 children between ages 8 and 18 by the Kaiser Family Foundation, only 13 percent said their parents imposed limits on which shows they could watch; even fewer had rules about video games.
"We've found that parents start to cede control over television once their kids start school -- which is way too early -- and monitor less and less as kids reach adolescence," says Shari Barkin, MD, chief of pediatrics at Monroe Carell Jr. Children's Hospital at Vanderbilt University in Nashville. "That's distressing because the evidence of TV's negative impact is overwhelming." Hundreds of studies have linked TV viewing to all kinds of problems among kids: Commercials help make them selfish and materialistic, not to mention overweight; racy, provocative shows lead them to have sex at an earlier age; violence onscreen encourages aggressive, sometimes dangerous behavior in real life.
Trying to micromanage an adolescent's viewing habits, however, is likely to backfire. "When you issue rules and ultimatums, kids feel like you're speaking down to them, and they'll watch what they want when you're not around," says James Steyer, founder of Common Sense Media, a San Francisco-based nonprofit organization that provides reviews for parents of TV, movies, and other entertainment (commonsensemedia.org). But there are effective strategies parents can adopt. Family Circle took a look at the latest research on the ways TV harms our children -- and gathered expert advice on how you can help them.
Quick -- what does the V in V-chip stand for? Does your TV have one? Do you know how to use it? If you flunked this test, you're like most moms and dads. But if you want to regulate what your kids view, it's your first line of defense -- and it's free. Since 2000, all sets 13 inches and larger come with the device, which lets you block programs according to rating. (All broadcast and cable shows have one of six labels, from toddler-friendly TV-Y to graphic, explicit TV-MA. See www.fcc.gov/vchip.) You can restrict certain channels or selectively screen out profanity, sex, or violence (yes, that's what the "V" stands for). Just use the remote to bring up an on-screen menu, choose your settings, and lock them in with a pass code, which even the most tech-savvy teen won't be able to circumvent.
These days TV is the virtual equivalent of a one-stop junk food supermarket, tempting kids with snacks, sweets, and other unhealthy treats. A recent Kaiser Foundation review of over 8,800 ads aimed at youth found that nearly 75 percent of food commercials viewed by kids are for products high in sugar, sodium, and fat (teens see 17 food ads a day, while tweens see 21). And the Kaiser review didn't turn up a single commercial for fresh fruits or vegetables.
Little surprise, then, that the more TV kids watch, the more unhealthy their eating habits are. According to a 2006 Harvard University study, adolescents consume an average of 167 calories every hour they're parked in front of the set. (Multiply that by 4 -- the average number of hours kids watch TV daily -- and they can easily pack on a pound a week.) What's more, "Extra calories don't just come from snacking while in front of the TV," says Jean Wiecha, PhD, the senior research scientist who led the Harvard study. "The endless pitches for soft drinks, chips, candy, and cookies lead kids to make poor diet choices all day long."
First, get your kids to watch less TV. An easy way to accomplish this is to gather the family for sit-down dinners. Since many kids routinely skip at least one meal a week to watch a show or play video games, having meals together not only brings everyone closer but also automatically curbs tube time. Kids see an average of four to five food ads every 60 minutes on TV, so shaving off even one hour of viewing significantly reduces their exposure.
When junk food commercials do come on, and you child asks the inevitable, "Mom, can you buy that?" say no and spell out your opposition to high-calorie, low-nutrition food, suggest Wiecha. Parents can also encourage their tweens and teens to be mindful of what they eat by renting a movie like Super Size Me and watching it together. "Kids are more likely to pay attention when they've learned something themselves rather than being lectured about it, " says Wiecha.
Copyright © 2007. Used with permission from the December 2007 issue of Family Circle magazine.