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Children and TV often go hand in hand. Understand the effects of too much screen time - and how to enforce reasonable limits

Let's face it - sometimes it's easier to get something done if you sit kids down in front of a TV screen to watch a show or a movie. But moderation of "screen time" (which includes TV, video games, computers and mobile devices) is essential for healthy development and staying active. Consider this guide to children and TV, including what you can do to keep your child's screen time in check.

The effects of too much screen time

Most child psychiatrists recommend limiting a child's use of TV, video games and computers to no more than one or two hours a day. Too much screen time has been linked to:

  • Obesity. Children who watch more than two hours of TV a day are more likely to be overweight.
  • Irregular sleep. The more TV children watch, the more likely they are to resist going to bed and to have trouble falling asleep.
  • Behavioral problems. Elementary students who spend more than two hours a day watching TV or using a computer are more likely to have emotional, social and attention problems. Exposure to video games also increases the risk of attention problems in children. Children who watch excessive amounts of TV are more likely to bully than children who don't.
  • Impaired academic performance. Elementary students who have TVs in their bedrooms tend to perform worse on tests than those who don't.
  • Violence. Too much exposure to violence on TV and in movies, music videos, and video and computer games can desensitize children to violence. As a result, children may learn to accept violent behavior as a normal part of life and a way to solve problems.
  • Less time for play. Excessive screen time leaves less time for active, creative play.

How to limit screen time

Your child's total daily screen time may be greater than you realize. Start monitoring it. In the meantime, you can take simple steps to reduce the amount of time your child spends watching TV, movies and videos or playing video or computer games:

  • Eliminate background TV. If the TV is turned on - even if it's just in the background - it's likely to draw your child's attention. If you're not actively watching a show, turn off the TV.
  • Keep TVs and computers out of the bedroom. Children who have TVs in their bedrooms watch more TV than children who don't. Monitor your child's screen time and the websites he or she is visiting by keeping computers in a common area in your house.
  • Don't eat in front of the TV. Allowing your child to eat or snack in front of the TV increases his or her screen time. The habit also encourages mindless munching, which can lead to weight gain. Plus, zoning out at the table doesn't give children the opportunity to interact with their peers and learn valuable social skills and table manners.
  • Set school day rules. Most children have limited free time during school days. Don't let your child spend all of it in front of a screen. A rough guide would be one hour of screen time on school days, and two or three hours on holidays and during vacations.
  • Make it contingent: Screen time is a privilege, not a right. Let your child earn it, say by first finishing homework. With older children, a more nuanced approach, wherein screen time is tied to good academic performance or good behavior, can be tried.
  • Talk to your child's caregivers. Encourage other adults in your child's life (grand parents, for example) to limit your child's screen time, too. Make sure this is - and is seen to be - a family decision.
  • Suggest other activities. Rather than relying on screen time for entertainment, help your child find other things to do. Consider classic activities, such as reading, playing a sport or trying a new board game.
  • Set a good example. Be a good role model by limiting your own screen time.
  • Unplug it. If screen time is becoming a source of tension in your family, unplug the TV, turn off the computer or put away the video games for a while. You might designate one day a week a screen-free day. To prevent unauthorized TV viewing, put a lock on your TV's electrical plug.

Become an active participant

When your child has screen time, make it as engaging as possible:

  • Make viewing an event. Rather than keeping the TV on all of the time, treat watching TV as though you were planning to see a movie in a theater. Choose a show and pick a specific time to watch it.
  • Plan what your child views. Instead of flipping through channels, seek quality videos or use a program guide to select appropriate shows. Pay attention to TV Parental Guidelines - a system that rates programs based on suitability for children. Make a list of the programs your child can watch for the week and post it in a visible spot, such as near the TV or on the refrigerator. Use parental control settings on your TV and home computer. Preview video games before allowing your child to play them.
  • Record programs and watch them later. This will allow you to skip or fast-forward through commercials selling toys, junk food and other products, as well as pause a program when you want to discuss something you've watched - such as a depiction of family values, violence or drug abuse. When watching live programs, use the mute button during commercials.
  • Watch with your child. Whenever possible, watch programs together - and talk about what you see.
  • Choose video games that encourage physical activity. Better yet, make the games a family experience.

It can be difficult to start limiting your child's screen time, especially if your child already has a TV in his or her bedroom or your family eats dinner in front of the TV. It's worth the effort, however. By creating new household rules and steadily making small changes in your child's routine, you can curb screen time and its effects.

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