Becoming A Screen Savvy Family – Knowing When To Disengage From Television And Electronic Devices

As our four children were growing up, instead of watching television, we popped popcorn, hung a sheet across the hallway as a backdrop, and put on plays. Sometimes we watched Friday night videos, but no TV. I worried: were my children missing out? According to the Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF) most kids ages 8 to 18 years spend nearly four hours a day in front of a TV screen and almost two more hours on the computer (not related to schoolwork) and playing video games!

Debbie Piece, founder of Mother Nurture in Chico, reminds us that the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends that kids under 2 years old not watch any TV. This is because the first two years of life are critical for brain development. Even after age two, television and other electronic media can get in the way of a child’s exploration, play and interaction with parents and others, all key components of learning and healthy development.

Vicki Lindeman, retired Chico elementary school teacher, remembers vividly when she asked her 4th grade students to imagine an evening with a broken TV: “The children looked stunned at the thought of an evening with no television, and seemed to have no alternatives for activities or entertainment. One student said, ‘No TV? I would kill myself.’ That lesson has stayed with me all these years.”

Television trains the brain and impacts neurological development. It seems harmless, and sometimes marvelous, but it is not a neutral force in your child’s life. AAP research shows that TV-watching can interfere with the development of thinking skills, intelligence and imagination.

Children interpret things literally. Many younger children cannot discriminate between what they see and what is real. Charlotte Rainwater, director of Chico Montessori Children’s House, says, “Children learn by their senses. Anything – from ‘cookie cutter’ toys inspired by TV cartoons, to the shows themselves – can dampen their imaginations. I’ve seen children so mesmerized by the fantasy of a video that they walked around singing songs from the virtual world to themselves, oblivious to the real children around them. Children need to be interacting with people and nature, and developing lifelong skills like cooking. They need to experience the magic of real life too.”

Dr. Joni Samples, longtime educator and current chief academic officer of Family Friendly Schools based in Chico, says, “Parents who tune into their TV might well be tuning out their children. There are other options. My children loved to play board games, cards and dominos. Sometimes a child would win the game, but their dad and I really won by talking, sharing and listening. Playing games together is one way parents can tune back into their kids.”

Of course, TV offers some benefits. Educational shows teach preschoolers the alphabet. Through media, kids can explore places, animals, or things they would not see otherwise, and parents keep up with current events. No doubt about it – TV can be an excellent educator and entertainer. However, multiple research studies conducted by KFF show that television viewing can be detrimental too.

Children who consistently spend more than four hours per day watching TV are more likely to be overweight. Kids who view violent acts are more likely to show aggressive behavior, and also view the world as scary and fear that something bad will happen to them. TV characters often depict risky behaviors, such as smoking and drinking, and can reinforce gender-role and racial stereotypes.

According to the AAP, kids in the U.S. see 40,000 commercials each year. The market for children’s products and foods is enormous, and ads are designed to make the products sound appealing … often better than they actually are. American Psychological Association research shows that children under age eight are unable to critically comprehend televised advertising messages and are prone to accept them as being truthful and unbiased.

It’s not just TV shows that impact children; there are other “screens,” such as cell phones, iPads, computers, video games, etc.  Sylvia Boone, retired elementary teacher in Redding, recommends reading chapter nine “TV, Audio, and Technology: Hurting or Helping Literacy?” of Jim Trelease’s highly recommended book, The Read-Aloud Handbook. Trelease calls TV the “plug in” drug, describing how the addictive nature of TV has been demonstrated in a variety of research studies.

The good news is that screen savvy families have some options for making healthier “screen” viewing choices. However, families have differing ideas about which options are the best. Supporters of public television propose more educational programming to offer more choices. Some parents prefer to control the use of TV so it’s used for occasional entertainment, not for constant escapism. Others assert that zero TV is best.

Very few parents actually get rid of the family TV. But parents CAN talk with their kids about show content and products advertised by asking thought-provoking questions like, “What do you like about that?” and “Do you think it’s really as good as it looks in that ad?” Parents can limit their kids’ exposure to TV commercials by watching public television stations, watching videos or DVDs, and by prerecording programs (minus commercials).

Parents can monitor TV viewing by using TV rating guides to choose shows appropriate for their children. “V-chip” technology (“V” for violence) is required to be built into most TVs manufactured from January 2000 on, as well as digital-to-analog converter boxes for older TVs. V-chips recognize the TV Parental Guidelines and its age-rating system (see, and can be programmed to block the display of programs that carry specified ratings (see

Some schools are supporting less “screen time” and more engaged family and playtime. Blue Oak School in Chico, for example, offers recommendations on its website for creating a home environment that promotes success at school by encouraging children to play imaginatively, and avoid reliance on television to passively teach or entertain. Laurie Kopping, Blue Oak’s assistant director, says, “Visual images on television and in films can interfere with a child’s imaginative capacities, and also may contribute to disruptive behavior. Limiting and eliminating television, on the other hand, has no adverse affects. And the bigger question might be: if your child is in front of a screen, what are they not doing?”

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 Healthy TV Choices Shared by Blue Oak School parents

  • Treat TV as a privilege to be earned, not as a right.
  • Plan for and monitor the number of TV-watching hours.
  • Establish and enforce family TV viewing rules, such as allowing TV only after chores and homework are completed.
  • Check TV listings and program reviews ahead of time.
  • Set a good example with your TV choices.
  • Watch TV together. Talk to your kids about what they see on TV.
  • Be prepared with fun alternatives to television. Provide plenty of non-screen entertainment (books, kids’ magazines, toys, puzzles, board games, etc.) to encourage kids to do something other than watch TV.
  • Keep TV and internet connections out of bedrooms.
  • Turn the TV off during meals.
  • Do not allow kids to watch TV while doing homework.
  • Talk to other parents, your doctor, and teachers for additional suggestions.


Christine Rowe
About Christine Rowe

Author Dr. Christine Rowe, development consultant for educational and service projects, believes it is the daily renewable wonder, joy, imagination and playfulness of the inner child within each of us that keeps us all "forever young."

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