Overlooked dangers of raising a generation of plugged-in couch potatoes. Parenting tips to help kids find healthier alternatives and discover “life beyond the remote” that I shared on the TODAY show
• Kids aged six months to six years spend three times as many hours watching TV as they do reading or being read to
• One-third of kids aged six and younger have a TV set in their room
• The average American kid watches four hours of TV a day
The majority of parents admit their kids are in front of that TV more than they’d like, but with summer almost here that could pose a special problem: How to get the kiddos off the couch so they experience something other than TV these next months.
Beware: it’s easy for kids (and us) to fall into the additive habit of spending too much time in front of the boob tube. But there are dangers to our children’s emotional, physical, cognitive, and social development that we should consider. The fact is the more kids watch TV, the more time is lost for nurturing creativity, learning sports or hobbies, reading and expanding their knowledge, playing in the great outdoors, practicing social skills, or just finding ways to entertain and enjoy themselves. Those key “Family connecting moments” are lost, as are other crucial life lessons and just experiencing those lazy, hazy crazy days of summer.
Ways to Help Kids Make the “Plugged-Out” Change
The TODAY Show producers asked me to discuss the topic and how to break kids from the remote. Here are the three steps and the solutions I shared on TODAY to curb your children’s viewing habits and help them find healthier and even educational entertainment options during the summer and without having to break the bank. You can also adapt these rules for the video or computer game overuse. Remember: these rules should apply to the whole family (aka that includes you!)
STEP 1: Breaking Kids’ of Unhealthy “Plugged-In” Habits
Take the Parenting Challenge!
Have you ever really stopped to track how much TV you and your kids do watch during the weekends (or weeknights)? If not, take the Parent Challenge: Keep a diary of your child’s TV habits starting this weekend. Anybody who turns that TV on must log in. Then add those minutes up (or have your kids do the adding – it’s a great math lesson). The number just may shock–or delight—you, and also fuel your commitment to help break your children’s TV addiction this summer. (Just make sure you add up your own viewing habits as well).
Set clear viewing boundaries
Don’t wait until the first day of summer to “chat” with your kids about your new rules. Set aside a time to sit down and spell out your family expectations for summer-time viewing.
Make bedroom TV-free
If you have a real addict, then don’t make the television so accessible. Pull it from his room. First, the television is found to be a huge sleep-disturber. Many kids go to sleep with the television on only to have the program wake them up in the night and have trouble getting back to sleep. Second, the television in a bedroom just adds more viewing hours and less reading, studying or just relaxing time.
Kids who have a TV in their bedroom watch 286 hours a year on the average.
It’s difficult to monitor what or how much time your kid is watching alone in their room. So take that TV out right away.
Set TV limits
Figure out the maximum viewing hours each day for your child and then stick to it. If in doubt, go back to the Parenting Challenge above. It may help you discover just how often your kids are plugged in.
Make kids accountable
You might begin the TV weaning process by making your kids track their actual viewing hours on a paper taped by the set.
Remember, the first step to change is awareness that there is a problem. It’s often a real eye opener for kids—or at least their parents–to recognize just how often they do watch TV.
You might encourage your kids to use an inexpensive electronic kitchen timer to punch in their TV time, which must be running while watching TV.
You could also set the timer from your TV’s remote for your kids to “hear” the total minutes of viewing allowed each day.
Pre-select the show
Make a new house rule that TV shows must be selected in advance and then submit a weekly schedule that must be approved (which cuts down viewing dramatically). Explain that from now on your children must make an appointment to watch TV so that viewing becomes more of a privilege. And do not allow channel surfing. I know this sounds severe, but you really only have to do this for a week or so until kids get the hint that they can’t just “veg out” in front of the TV. You could also have them circle their show in the daily TV guide (which is a great reading lesson).
Turn off when not watching
Instill a new viewing habit: Turn TV off when the show is over. Make sure parents (you!) adhere to the rule as well. No channel surfing!
Breaking old TV viewing habits
Breaking any habit takes time, consistency and commitment. You may feel like the Wicked Witch for a while, but if your child is a true Couch Potato you should expect resistance. Keep in mind that the average eight- to 17 year old is plugged into some kind of a digital device seven and a half hours a day ,so the weaning process may be a bit challenging. It may help you to track your weaning efforts on a calendar. You should see a gradual (note the word “gradual”) diminishment of the plugged-in habit. Real change is possible only if you substitute a healthier alternative. (Move onto Step Two for those tips).
STEP 2: Offer “Plugged-In” Alternatives
The truth is many kids rely on the television because they don’t know how to entertain themselves. Their lives may be so micromanaged or scheduled that it’s just plain easier to turn on the TV and “veg.” So substitute positive activities and find healthy alternatives. Here are ways:
Schedule low-cost or no cost activities
Put up a summer calendar in which you actually mark in red ink scheduled activities to the white board.
~ Start with no-cost items: Check your cities park and recreation program, the Boys and Girls Clubs, scouting, Day Camp, summer school.
~ Meet with parents and set up a “kid rotation” pool – for play dates or sleepovers – each parent can commit to one hour or one day a week.
~ Don’t go trying to fill in every hour of every day. Kids needs to learn how to manage their own times and entertain themselves. Summer may be the perfect time to do it. Explain to your child there will be holes in that calendar – unscheduled activities during the summer. Those are times when she is expected to entertain herself without the television.
Set up mini “unplugged and no cost entertainment centers”
Start by gathering what you already have around the house (and do get your kids involved). Then whenever your kids get that urge to go for the remote, you can suggest something else instead (and have it accessible!). In separate shoeboxes or plastic bins put unplugged “things.”
When your child tires of the items, consider rotating the centers with another parents.
Dollar stores, thrift stores or garage sales are great places to pick up craft items. And don’t overlook recyclable items! Just categorize by topic and label boxes such as these:
~ Picasso box: Popsicle sticks, glue, toilet paper tubes (recyclables)
~ A little Darwin: Bug book, magnifying glass, notebook and pencil
~ Your Van Gogh: Paper, crayons, paint, etc.
Teach “do-alone” games!
Solitaire, Soduko, puzzles or crossword puzzles! Alleviate that parental guilt – you don’t have to plan your kid’s every waking hour in fact you’re doing him a favor if you don’t play social director. Learning to handle unscheduled “unplugged” time is the one lesson most of our kids are flunking.
Just recognize that one big reason some of our kids rely so much on viewing television is they don’t know how to occupy their own time. So start by thinking about age-appropriate activities that your child could “do alone.”
Teach kids how to do that task — or any task — alone using the “Baby Step Model.”
1. Show your child how to do the puzzle together.
2. Watch and guide – but wean your child from expecting that you help or do the task together
3. Step back and let your child play alone–solo style
Get a library card
The absolute greatest solo activity is reading (my bias anyway). Encourage it!
Enroll your kid in the summer library program.
Check out books on tape or download onto your tween’s I-pod.
Beware: there is a three-month “Summer Slide” when reading scores go down during the summer months. So keep your child reading!!!!
Start a hobby
Anything that supports your child’s interest or passion. The trick is that the hobby is also something your child enjoys! Playing a guitar. Learning harmonica. Knitting. Drawing. Photography. Cooking. Gardening. Coin or Stamp collecting. Anything goes!
Hobbies not only nurture a child’s talent, but also become a wonderful relaxer, and can last a lifetime! You might try to find another parent who has the skill to offer “teaching” the hobby to a group of kids!
Get kids away from the television with exercise! Learn yoga (put the DVD to use by plopping in a yoga or exercise tape, put up a basketball hoop, pick up bikes or weights at a garage sale and turn your garage into a gym, or enroll your kid in a swim program or sports club. Or just open up the door and expose them to the great outdoors: hula hoops, jump ropes, kick the can, kickball, skipping, hopping, playing, running (sigh!) The trick is to match kids’ interests to activity alternatives so get them involved in the process, then don’t give in. Our kids are play-deprived! Let’s get them moving!
Step 3: Know When to Worry
Here are a few indicators that something else may be amiss and you should get professional help for your child:
Signs That It’s Time to Worry
TV viewing monopolizes your child’s life
You notice withdrawals or behavior flare-ups if he can’t watch
TV becomes a substitute for friends, hobbies and all other aspects of his life
Your instinct says there is a deeper problem then it’s time to get help.
I am an educational psychologist, parenting expert, TODAY show contributor and author of 22 books.
You can also refer to my daily blog, Dr. Borba’s Reality Check for ongoing parenting solutions and late-breaking news about child development
Resources for this blog:
Chicago Tribune, “Kids, Parents and ‘Screen Time,” 2003.
US kid watches four hours of TV per day: K. Horsch, “Breaking the TV Habit, Parents, April 2006, pp 153-154.
Kids with TV in bedroom watch 286 more hours of TV a year and do worse in school than those who don’t: K. Horsch, “Breaking the TV Habit, Parents, April 2006, pp 153-154.