Smart Ways to Manage Kids’ TV, Music, and Web Time

Overall, media use may be bad for kids, but the key is sorting the good stuff from the bad.

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Children on sofa looking at a laptop computer

The news that television, the Internet, video games, movies, and other media are bad for kids' health shouldn't come as a huge surprise to any parent who has ever heard the phrase "couch potato." But with no less of an authority than the National Institutes of Health weighing in and saying that 80 percent of the studies it reviewed have linked media use to negative health effects, is it time to take drastic action? Torch the remote? Trash Guitar Hero: World Tour? Not so fast.

First, the evidence doesn't find that media use is all bad. I've reported on more than a few of the 173 studies reviewed by this report, and quite a few find just correlations: One, for instance, found that children with ADHD had watched more TV as toddlers. But that doesn't mean that TV-watching caused the ADHD. It could be that children with ADHD are more attracted to the fast editing and visual imagery of video, so watch more than would a child who is happy to spend hours alone with blocks.

Second, the NIH report lumps together television, movies, magazines, music, the Internet, cellphones, and video games. Magazines? Like reading National Geographic for a geography report? Or, heaven forfend, U.S. News, a perennial favorite of high school debate teams? This study doesn't control for how the media is used, which is critical to evaluating its effects.

In lumping together old media and new, the report also glosses over the fact that research on the impact of newer forms of media, such as instant messaging (IM) and Facebook, is still in its infancy. The researchers themselves say they were surprised at how little research has been done on new media impacts. John Cacioppo, a researcher at the University of Chicago whom I interviewed last month about his new book, Loneliness, says that relying on virtual networks for social interaction can be healthful (or not), depending on whether it displaces face-to-face connections and real-world experiences.

The strongest evidence in the new study linked the amount of screen time and obesity, with 73 studies reporting that more media time was linked to greater weight. No surprise there, couch spuds. The simplest solution to that problem is for parents to set limits on screen time: One hour a day for all media is a good place to start—or to aim for.

Media time also correlated strongly with earlier tobacco use—and not, interestingly enough, just when the media showed people smoking. Fourteen articles evaluated sexual behavior, with 93 percent of those finding an association between media exposure and initiating intercourse or other sexual behavior. Diane Levin, coauthor of the new book, So Sexy So Soon , says parents can reduce that impact on their children first by screening content, and also by watching with children and explaining why the parent finds the sexual imagery disturbing or inappropriate. (My interview with Levin is available here.)

Some of the most practical advice for parents I've seen comes from Lisa Guernsey, author of the 2007 book, Into the Minds of Babes. She investigated the data on effects of screen time on preschoolers, and reduced the need-to-know to a "Three C's" test for parents: Content, Context, and your Child. Content is obvious; no Saw V, please. Context refers to the fact that leaving the TV on all day interferes with children's play and with parent-child interaction. Your child? That refers to the truest advice of all: You know best what's appropriate for your offspring.

Here's the link for the new report, The Impact of Media on Child and Adolescent Health, which was sponsored by Common Sense Media, a nonprofit advocacy group.