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TV REVISITED

My readers know that I worry about the effect of TV and other screens on children. (See ParenTips, TV and TV AND THE DEVELOPING BRAIN.)

Screens are everywhere. Every time you charge your groceries or make a call or text on your mobile phone or use your GPS you interact with a screen. I just got back from New York City where it seems all the taxicabs have sprouted TV screens since my last visit. Mercifully you can turn them off but thankfully you can pay your bill (and tip) by credit card which is a great convenience that saves time and means you need carry less cash.

It will come as no surprise that the Council for Research Excellence released data that adults are exposed to one screen or another for the astounding total of 8.5 hours a day. After adding time needed for sleep and eating, that doesn’t leave much time for making eye contact or interacting with people. And a troubling side effect is that this much screen time means adults are exposed to 61 minutes of ads and TV promotion per day.

How much time do children spend in front of screens? They spend more time in front of the TV set than in any other activity except sleeping so by age 18 they will have spent more hours watching TV (15,000 to 18,000) than in the classroom (12,000). This adds up to 7 years of TV watching by age 70. And it has been shown that children are even more vulnerable to TV ads than adults as they do not distinguish between programming and commercials. It’s all fast-moving noisy entertainment to them.

My least favorite statistic is that in most households with young children the TV is on all the time even if no one is watching it. And when TV is on it seems to distract children from play which is the “work” of children.

Despite warnings from the American Academy of Pediatrics and individuals that TV can be harmful to young brains, everybody young and old seems to be exposed to lots of screen time.

We have known for a long time that watching violent media can increase aggression. A recent Dutch study shows that watching violent media increases fear and anxiety in children.

The study was designed to answer several questions. The first was to see if direct fright and worry could be distinguished by the way children responded to the TV violence. Direct fear is an immediate feeling of danger often is accompanied by physiological reactions and it occurs on an emotional level. Worry is a delayed response on a cognitive level where we think about threats to our safety. The second question was whether realistic violence engendered more fear than fantasy violence while the third was to explore whether group (age and gender) or individual (amount of time spent watching TV) factors made a difference.

Children reported age, gender, school grade and how often they watched TV. They were divided into light, moderate, and heavy TV viewers. They were given descriptions of threats frequently shown on fiction and news programs like murder, war, house fires, shootings, hungry people, plane crashes, fighting, and floods and asked how often they experienced fear or worry after watching, say, a murder in both news and fiction programs.

Children could easily distinguish between fear and worry. They also were more likely to report being frightened by violent news than violent fiction. Children worry whether something violent they see in the news could happen to them possibly because parents explain away scary fiction by saying that it is not real. News is on 24-7 and, if violent news seen over and over worries parents, kids will pick up on this. Younger children reported as much fright as worry while older children reported less fright than worry. Girls report more fear and worry perhaps related to social pressures on boys to conceal fears and other emotions. Less fear was reported in heavy TV viewers corroborating earlier data that indicate desensitization with repeated exposure but this does not indicate the authors advocate watching more violent TV.

Parents would never deliberately frighten their children but may be unaware of the extent to which CNN and The Disney Channel do so. Also parents may not realize how much news their children see. Older elementary school children watch the news several times a week and some watch it every day. Children also catch news stories when looking for other programs or when their parents are watching.

Dr. Heins’ advice: Limit how much TV your children can watch and monitor the content. Be wary about news programs especially when we are in the midst of a man-made or natural disaster. Even if your child is old enough to watch it helps if you watch too. Then you can be reassuring and talk about how you are there to protect your children and ways they can protect themselves.

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