The small screen: Setting rules for TV, computers and video games

One of parents' greatest concerns has been how to keep TV from having harmful effects on their children. Today, children's use of computers, the Internet, and video games are added to the list of parents' concerns.

Overall, there's no substitute for your direct involvement, observation, and supervision in determining what children are watching on the "small screen." Watch TV with them. Monitor what they do on the computer. Play the new video game with your child to see for yourself that it's appropriate.

Here are some specific hints.

TV:  Keep it under control

  • Establish limits on TV time and programming. Plan with children what shows they can watch - whether or not you are home. When selecting programs, remember that public television and some cable networks provide programming specifically for children, but don't assume all kids' programs are appropriate without watching them.
  • Use the TV Parental Guidelines for selecting programming. The guidelines were developed by the television industry and leading children's advocacy and education organizations, including the National Education Association.  The appropriate rating symbol appears at the top left of the screen at the beginning of every TV program (except news and sports programming).
  • Discuss what's "real" and what's "unreal" on TV and in life. Be sensitive if your child watches the news - explain that news events may be "real," but are not necessarily common.
  • Talk about how violence can be harmful. Be sure children understand that real people get hurt when injured.
  • Discuss shows you've seen - ask your child how problems could have been solved differently than the way they were handled in the TV story.
  • Watch for tiredness, listlessness, glassy eyes, or a trance-like state in your child - all signs of poor health or too much TV.
  • Avoid eating meals in front of the TV. Meal times may be the best opportunities for you to talk with children - don't let TV intrude on this family time.

Is TV harmful to children?

Look at the facts...

  • The average child sees 11,000 TV murders by age 14.
  • Violent behavior on TV may cause aggression in children.
  • Children imitate what they see and hear.  Some have been injured, or injured others, when trying to imitate TV characters.
  • Children eat too much junk food, often while watching TV, and don't get enough exercise.

Other issues to consider

  • Children who watch TV or play on the computer until late at night often don't do their homework, are sleepy in school the next day, and have shorter attention spans  -  all leading to a cycle of low achievement.
  • Reading skills do not develop when a child watches excessive TV rather than reading.
  • Children who substitute TV viewing or computer use for playing with friends don't learn the social skills needed for interaction in the classroom and elsewhere.
  • Multiple TV sets split families, as each individual is in a different room watching a different program - and no one is talking with one another.
  • Children, like adults, need time away from TV and other media - a quiet time to think  - for better mental health.

TV Parental Guidelines

The following categories apply to programs solely for children:

  • TVY All Children. This program is designed to be appropriate for all children. Whether animated or live-action, the themes and elements in this program are specifically designed for a very young audience, including children from ages 2-6. This program is not expected to frighten younger children.
  • TVY7 Directed to Older Children. This program is designed for children age 7 and above. It may be more appropriate for children who have acquired the developmental skills needed to distinguish between make-believe and reality. Themes and elements in this program may include mild fantasy violence or comedic violence, or may frighten children under the age of 7. Therefore, parents may wish to consider the suitability of this program for their very young children. Note: For those programs where fantasy violence may be more intense or more combative than other programs in this category, such programs will be designated TV-Y7-FV.

The following categories apply to programs designed for the entire audience.

TVG General Audience. Most parents would find this program suitable for all ages. Although this rating does not signify a program designed specifically for children, most parents may let younger children watch this program unattended. It contains little or no violence, no strong language and little or no sexual dialogue or situations.

TVPG Parental Guidance Suggested. This program contains material that parents may find unsuitable for younger children. Many parents may want to watch it with their younger children. The theme itself may call for parental guidance and/or the program contains one or more of the following: moderate violence (V), some sexual situations (S), infrequent coarse language (L), or some suggestive dialogue (D).

TV14 Parents Strongly Cautioned. This program contains some material that many parents would find unsuitable for children under 14 years of age. Parents are strongly urged to exercise greater care in monitoring this program and are cautioned against letting children under the age of 14 watch unattended. This program contains one or more of the following: intense violence (V), intense sexual situations (S).

TVMA Mature Audience Only. This program is specifically designed to be viewed by adults and therefore may be unsuitable for children under 17. This program contains one or more of the following: graphic violence (V), explicit sexual activity (S), or crude indecent language (L).

Computers: The other small screen

Working or playing games on a computer can be a great way to enhance your child's learning, but the computer can also be one more substitute for physical activity - and one more avenue to inappropriate material.    

As with TV, establish rules on computer use  - be sure home-work comes first and encourage your child to pursue other interests such as sports, music, and activities with friends.   

If you have access to the internet, set limitations on what your child can see and do:

  • Create a list of "favorite" web sites that you have looked at and deemed appropriate. Check periodically to be sure the web addresses for these sites have not expired and become something else that may not be appropriate.
  • Monitor the "history" folder that shows you which web sites have been accessed by your child.
  • Establish an e-mail address list for your child and restrict his or her e-mail to those on the list. You wouldn't want your child to talk with strangers on the street  - don't allow your child to "talk" with strangers on the internet. Tell your child that he or she should never agree to meet anyone who contacts them on the internet; instruct your child to notify you right away if he or she is invited to meet someone via the internet.
  • Consult your internet service provider to learn about other ways to ensure your child is not exposed to inappropriate material on the internet.

Games

Some computer or video games contain violent content or adult humor which may not be appropriate for young children.  Preview the games before allowing your child to play them.  While games may not be rated like TV programs, you can use the descriptions in the TV Parental Guidelines above to help determine if a game is appropriate for your children.  For example, a game may contain "fantasy" or comedic violence, which is not recommended for children below  the age of 7.

Healthy alternatives

TV and computers can take time away from other activities that are very important to a child's development  - homework, physical recreation, creative expression, and learning individual skills.

Here are a few alternatives to the "small screen":

  • Read to or with your children. Encourage them to read for the same amount of time they watch TV.
  • Set a rule that homework must be done before the TV goes on.
  • Plan fun activities that provide physical and mental outlets for your children.
  • Avoid using TV and videos as a babysitter.  Help your children learn to entertain themselves.

Finally, remember that every TV and computer comes with an OFF switch - don't be afraid to use it.

School staff and families...the more we work together, the more we'll help our children.

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