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UC Davis Medical Center

UC Davis Medical Center

Pediatricians urge reduced TV, screen exposure

Checkup on Health

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Studies show that TV watching is associated with obesity for both children and adults. Even reading a book burns more calories! Not only is it a sedentary activity, but many people eat extra calories while watching. Then when they’re at the store, they’re more likely to pick up the foods they saw advertised.

By Robert Byrd, M.D., M.P.H.

April 29-May 5, 2013 is Screen-Free Week (formerly TV Turnoff Week and Digital Detox Week)! Use this week to discover all the things you can do with a few hours of extra time each day. And take a couple of moments to think about the impact television, video and mobile games and other screens used for entertainment have on your family’s life. 

Dr. Byrd is a pediatrician at UC Davis Medical Center.

It’s a challenge to spend seven days “unplugged,” and to talk, play, read, think and daydream instead. (Remember those?)

So why participate in such an exercise? Consider some startling facts:

  • Children spend more than four hours per day with screens – an average of 32 hours a week for preschoolers, and even more for older children.  This is more time than some spend in school.
  • Over half of all children have a television set in their bedrooms,  which are associated with obesity risk in children of all ages.
  • The typical American child will view more than 200,000 acts of violence, including more than 16,000 murders before age 18. Television programs display 812 violent acts per hour; children's programming, particularly cartoons, displays up to 20 violent acts hourly.  Virtually all of the 3,500 research studies conducted over the past 40 years have shown a link between watching media violence and committing acts of real violence.
  • During four hours of weekend morning cartoons, a child may view 202 ads for junk food.

Healthier alternatives

Studies show that as TV time increases, academic performance goes down – especially reading scores.

Language – and other skills – are best learned by practice. Studies show that as TV time increases, academic performance goes down – especially reading scores. Parents should be reading to their children, and daily reading as little as 30 minutes a day adds up to 1,000 hours by six years.

In addition to reading to your child, it is good to talk to your child.  Parents can speed their child's growth in language just by talking more to their babies.  Over the first three years of life, there can be millions of words difference in the number of words that children in language-poor homes are exposed to compared to children in language-rich homes.  This early language difference makes real differences in school readiness.

I am most concerned with what kids aren’t learning while the TV set or video games are on. Time spent sitting passively is time away from reading, playing with friends, building with toys, creating art and playing imaginary games. Most importantly, interactions with caring adults in a child’s life are short-changed.

The physiology of screen-watching

Exposure to TV violence promotes aggression. A clear association has been shown with youngsters of all ages, both girls and boys, from all socio-economic levels and all levels of intelligence.

Perhaps most disturbing is that experts are finding increasing evidence that TV viewing may alter the physical structure of the brain. It may be that the visual nature of television blocks the development of left-hemisphere language circuitry.

Attention skills seem to be particularly affected. Images on TV change about every five to seven seconds and are often accompanied by exciting music. Children who become accustomed to this kind of stimulation often have trouble paying attention in school, where the teacher's face is the same all day long and there is no exciting music playing behind the teacher to keep a child's attention. Kids also often have trouble attending to the slower pace of natural conversation.

The “five-second mind” easily becomes impatient with any material requiring depth of processing. Some parents of children diagnosed with attention deficit disorder find marked improvement after TV viewing is eliminated.

There can be little doubt any more that exposure to TV violence promotes aggression. A clear association has been shown with youngsters of all ages, both girls and boys, from all socio-economic levels and all levels of intelligence. This effect is not limited to children who are already predisposed to aggressiveness.

Here’s one more reason to turn off the tube in your family. Studies show that TV watching is associated with obesity for both children and adults. Even reading a book burns more calories! Not only is it a sedentary activity, but many people eat extra calories while watching. Then when they’re at the store, they’re more likely to pick up the foods they saw advertised.

Medical guidelines

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children and teens engage with entertainment media for no more than one or two hours per day, and that should be high-quality content.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children and teens engage with entertainment media for no more than one or two hours per day, and that should be high-quality content. It is important for kids to spend time on outdoor play, reading, hobbies, and using their imaginations in free play. Children under two years of age should not watch any television or entertainment media, the AAP says.

Here are other recommended ways to reduce TV in your family’s life:

  • Get rid of all televisions in the house except one. Move it to a non-prominent location.
  • No child should be allowed a TV in the bedroom.
  • Keep the TV off during meals. Don’t allow eating in the room where the TV is.
  • Cancel your cable subscription. Use the money saved to buy something special.

Our children deserve the best. Explore new interests with your family. Offer activities that strengthen bodies, develop skills, build confidence, encourage creativity and better realize your children’s full potential.

More resources

Screen-free Week

American Academy of Pediatrics guidelines