Should I limit TV-watching, video games, and computer time?

Kids enjoy watching TV, playing video and computer games, and going on the Internet. Parents often are ambivalent and worried about these occupations. They want their child to be happy, they welcome the peace that comes when he’s occupied, and yet they consider many of his programs, games, and websites a waste of time or even dangerous. How can they balance their feelings and their child’s desires?

They can begin by considering the appeal of TV, games, and the computer. Children relax in front of TV, just as many adults do. Appropriate programs are entertaining or at least diverting. Even commercials are interesting to a child. The toys look inviting, although six- to nine-year-olds may no longer be convinced by a sales pitch: “That truck doesn’t really climb mountains.”

Video and computer games are popular for a number of reasons. They’re exciting, challenging, and action-filled. A child works on the skills that help him win, such as visual-motor and small muscle coordination. Games offer immediate feedback in the form of points and new action, and a child always has the option to start over if he loses or doesn’t like the way a game’s going.

Game-playing is also appealing because it leads to social contacts. Children share games, and playing tips, developing an information network that excludes adults. Six- to nine-year-olds enjoy playing video and computer games together, taking turns, watching and encouraging each other.

When a child plays these games, he feels powerful. He’s controlling characters that fight and capture each other, win sports contests, or go on mysterious quests. It’s easy to see how attractive this is to a child who spends most of his day being controlled by others. In the classroom the teacher tells him when he can talk, how long he has to eat lunch, when to go outside, and what to do. At home, parents are in charge. But while playing a video or computer game, a child has power over a made-up world.

The appeal of the computer is obvious to adults. Kids, especially eight- and nine-year-olds, can visit interesting sites, do research and homework, enter chat rooms, send emails and instant messages, use word processing and arts software, do puzzles, and otherwise be exposed to new and intriguing things.

But there are problems with TV, video games, and computers. Their content is often violent, sexual, or otherwise inappropriate for elementary-aged children. Parents have to put strong limits on the kinds of shows, video games, and computer sites their child is exposed to. Parental controls, ratings, reviews, and mechanical devices can help parents protect their child from questionable material. And while parents can’t necessarily control what he watches at friends’ houses, they can discuss their wishes with other parents.

Even without content problems, video and computer games can be very frustrating for children these ages. A child may work on a game for hours or days, only to lose and have to start all over. Parents sometimes hear screams of anger from a child who can’t take the pressure or frustration. When he has trouble dealing with this aspect of game-playing, he may take his feelings out on whoever’s closest: “Get out of my room!” “Leave me alone!” When kids are upset about their games they don’t often get sympathy from their parents: “If you’re this upset, why do you play?”

Watching TV has its own negative effects. Children may be confused and upset because they’re not always sure what’s real or made up, and they accept as fact much of what they hear about disasters, sickness, violence, drug abuse, war, and crime, as well as what they see about relationships and how people treat each other. The evening news can frighten a child.

After a disturbing program or misleading show, a child needs explanations, reassurance, and answers to his questions. Unfortunately, parents are often not watching with him and may not be available to help. Even when they are there, he may still may be exposed to disturbing or uncomfortable sights that remain with him. One child worried continuously after seeing news clips of an earthquake. An eight-year-old saw passionate kissing on TV and said, “Is that their real lips touching? Oooh. That’s so gross.” And certainly all children and their parents are upset after seeing clips of terrorists, school violence, and shootings.

There’s another problem related to this issue: children who spend too much time watching TV, playing video games, and being on the computer have less time for reading, playing outside, sports, crafts, homework, socializing, and being with the family. Some kids spend time watching and playing video games because they can’t think of anything else to do. In such cases, parents should offer alternatives such as a parent-child board game, time with a friend, reading aloud, or going to a playground. Also, they should consider enrolling him in organized activities, lessons, or sports.

Parents take many different approaches to controlling TV, time spent on the computer, and video games. Some forbid their use on weekdays, some allow them after homework is done, and some set a precise time limit: “You can have the TV on for an hour a day.” “I’ll only let you play video games for half an hour when you come home from school.”

Some parents set no limits, instead using TV, video games, and the computer to occupy their child. As long as he’s quiet and out of the way, they don’t regulate this time at all. While all parents occasionally resort to these activities to keep kids busy, it’s harmful to give children total control over how they occupy their time.

When deciding how best to manage your child’s watching and playing, evaluate the impact TV and the computer are having on him. Is he falling behind in his schoolwork? Is he getting his homework done? Does he play outside? read? get involved with hobbies, crafts, and extracurricular activities? Is he tense or preoccupied with thoughts about TV programs? Is he playing too aggressively? Does he focus too much on playing and winning video games? Are his fears increasing?

You can limit your child’s viewing and playing time without setting up a strict, schedule. Take a flexible approach, letting him spend more time on video games when friends are over since he’s socializing as he plays. Allow longer playing time when he has a new game or is almost finished solving an old one. Extend TV viewing hours during weekends and holidays or when a special show is on. Cut back when you want him involved in other activities. If he has trouble tearing himself away, give him fair warning: “You have fifteen more minutes on the Internet, and then you’ll have to find something else to do.”

Factors such as the weather and sickness will help determine how much viewing, computer time, and game playing you’ll allow. Your goal is to strike a balance between his wish to spend time on games and shows (ones you’ve OK’d), and your desire to see him use his time more productively.

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