Limited TV time can be made interactive

March 10, 2003|by LISA TEDRICK PREJEAN

"Mommy, may I watch a cartoon?" my 4-year-old asks, gazing up with a sweet smile and pleading eyes.

My mind instantly goes into justification mode as I consider how she has spent her day so far.

We worked on letters and sounds. We counted. We read a story. We sang together. We took a walk.

Now I need to make dinner. She needs to chill.

So I pop in a half-hour video to give us both a break.

Still, I feel a little guilty whenever my preschooler is watching a video or TV instead of interacting with me or other family members.

And rightly so.

I don't want her to fall into a "stupor" state very often.

If you're a parent, you know what I'm talking about. You try to talk to your child but get no response until you put your face between the TV and theirs.


Researchers have found that children actually burn fewer calories in the TV-induced stupor state than they do when they're sleeping. Sleeping requires more energy!

Children can become mesmerized by the movement on the screen but have no cognitive ability to benefit from content, says Tina Pieraccini, professor of communication studies at State University of New York, Oswego.

That becomes a real problem, considering the average American household has the TV on for seven hours a day, and the average preschooler watches TV five hours a day. (The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends limiting that amount to two hours per day.)

The American Academy of Pediatrics also recommends no TV at meal times.

Sitting in front of the TV and eating in front of the TV seem to go hand-in-hand. It expands from cereal at age 3 on Saturday mornings to a bag of potato chips at age 30.

Children who watch TV excessively at a young age are not getting physical exercise or fresh air, and they are not interacting with others.

Pieraccini, who teaches a course on women, children and minorities in the media, has seen a lot of changes in the last 25 years.

"When I first started teaching the course, there was no cable TV," Pieraccini says.

When cable was introduced, "that was huge. It changed the variety and diversity in children's programming," Pieraccini says.

It also increased the number of hours preschoolers began spending in front of the TV.

Most preschoolers watch TV without parental monitoring or discussions on what they're viewing, Pieraccini says. Many have TVs in their rooms.

"In those hours, what are they watching?" Pieraccini asks. "How is that affecting them?"

The answers to those questions can lead to the right balance of alternative activities and smart TV-viewing habits.

Providing alternative activities takes time, planning and creativity, but doesn't anything that's worthwhile? Keep these simple.

Play dates with friends or craft activities can be satisfying for parent and child. Taking walks together will be good for the entire family.

While cooking dinner, open the dishwasher to provide a "shelf-like" play area for your child. Give her a few kitchen items so she can pretend to make dinner, too. She can have her own little surface on the door. This will keep her occupied, out of the way but close enough to feel connected to you.

While watching TV, be interactive. Play a guessing game. When a commercial comes on, have each family member guess what's going to happen when the show starts again.

Don't just turn on the TV and flip through channels. Sit down together and look at the TV listings and decide what you're going to watch.

This turns the experience into "Let's watch a show," rather than just turning on the TV.

"So, it's not just filling up time," Pieraccini says.

Educational videos are good but should be used as stepping stones to or complements of real-life experiences, Pieraccini says. For example, if your child is interested in ballet and you buy her a ballet video, you should sign her up for ballet class, if possible.

Ask your child which TV character he would most want to be like. Then ask him to pretend that he is that character. Perhaps your family could come up with a topic and write your own script.

"All of those things turn TV into something more than a mindless activity where you're just sitting in front of the set," Pieraccini says.

Lisa Tedrick Prejean writes a weekly column for The Herald-Mail's Family page. Send e-mail to her at

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