Limit Setting

My House, My Rules: Parents should control kids' media exposure

by Regina M. Milteer, M.D., FAAP




Children are growing up with personal "electronic gardens" concentratedin their bedrooms. Often nestled in their rooms are a landline telephone,cellular phone, computer, television (usually with cable), VCR, DVD/CDplayers, MP3 players, video games with handheld devices, and radios.

Information is emerging about the exposure of children youngerthan 2 years to this electronic bounty. The 2003 Kaiser FamilyFoundation ( studyZero to Six: Electronic Mediain the Lives of Infants, Toddlers and Preschoolersfound that26% of children 2 years and under had televisions in their rooms.

In the 2004 surveyParents, Media and Public Policyby the Kaiser FamilyFoundation, only 6% of parents of children under 2 years wereaware of the AAP recommendation that children under 2 yearsshould not watch television and that all other age groups shouldbe limited to one to two hours of educational screen media perday.

The 2003 study also found that children 2 years and under spendtwo hours and five minutes in front of a screen daily (59% watchingtelevision, 42% watching videos, 5% using a computer and 3%playing a video game). The same report cited that 70% of children4 to 6 years have used a computer, with 56% having used onewithout the help of a parent.

This information is alarming as it is well-recognized that screentime in this age group subtracts from time playing, learningsocial skills, reading and being read to.

Research shows that as children get older, their exposure toelectronic media increases as do the associated consequencesof prolonged exposure: decreased academic performance, sleepdeprivation, obesity, increased sexuality and violence.

Children learn from media. When used in a supervised environment,it can be a source of useful information. For example, mediasources can complement school systems' educational programs.In some school systems, students can check and submit assignmentsonline. In addition, assignments may be given to view educationaltelevision programs to enhance class discussions.

Parents, however, must remain vigilant and exercise guidanceover their children's electronic use even when it is associatedwith an academic assignment.

Effects of media

School systems across the United States are re-evaluating theirmorning "start times" for middle, junior high and high schools.Students and parents are complaining that adolescents with earlymorning classes are being deprived of sleep because extracurricularactivities, sports, jobs and homework keep them up late at night.

A Sept. 4 Washington Post article titled "Kids Wired for the Night,"written by a 30-year veteran high school teacher, tells a differentstory. A guidance counselor stated that high school students "stayup until one or two o'clock in the morning instant messaging, talkingon their cell phones or surfing the Web" long after their parentshave retired for the night. The counselor went on to say thatwhen students are late for or miss early morning classes, parentsclaim their child has a sleep disorder. Parents then requestprescription sleep aids from their pediatrician instead of limitingaccess to cell phones, video games and computers.

Kids with access to a plethora ofmedia such as cell phones, computers and televisions in theirbedrooms often suffer sleep deprivation, leading to poor academicperformance.

Children do not perform well academically or socially when theyare sleep deprived. The National Center on Sleep Disorders Researchat the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute has developeda campaign to educate parents about the importance of sleep ( Itrecommends at least nine hours of sleep each night for childrento perform their best.

The prevalence of childhood obesity in the United States alsois increasing. As cited in the 2003 AAP policy statementPediatricOverweight and Obesity, the causes of childhood obesity aremultifactorial. However, research reveals that many childrenspend more time watching television and engaging in a less activelifestyle.

The 2004 Kaiser Family Foundation study,Generation M: Mediain the Lives of 8- to 18-Year-Olds, reports that children inthis age group average six and one half hours daily exposureto recreational media compared to one hour and 25 minutes exercisingor participating in sports.

Childhood obesity is associated with hypertension, type 2 diabetes,sleep apnea, asthma, low self-esteem and depression. There alsois a statistically significant association between childhoodobesity and adult obesity. Thus, early learned behavior of inactivitycan lead to future medical problems.

Broadcast and cable television, Internet sites, video gamesand music lyrics inundate children daily with inappropriatesexuality, and violent and aggressive behavior. Studies haveassociated continued exposure to media violence and sexualitywith increased acceptance. This is troublesome, as young childrencannot differentiate fantasy from reality (Pediatrics2001;107:423-426).

Additionally, unsupervised Internet use can be dangerous aschildren accidentally or intentionally explore online solicitationsites that have resulted in abduction by someone met online,pornographic sites and gambling sites. A recent study showedthat 25% of children found unwanted pornography, and about one-quarterof them found it quite distressing (Finkelhor D, et al.OnlineVictimization: A Report on the Nation's Youth. Alexandria, Va.,National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, June 2000,page ix.)

Helping parents help children

There is no foolproof method to prevent the "wrong" media exposure.Access to electronic media is everywhere — television, computers,cell phones, MP3 players, video games and PDAs. Pediatricians shoulddiscuss media exposure with parents beginning with the first-year well-childvisits and continue the dialogue at regularly scheduled intervals. Thediscussions should include the children as soon as they areable to vocalize their electronic media habits.

Parents should be encouraged to provide their children withpositive entertainment choices, to teach them to discriminatebetween good and poor media exposure, and to play video games,view television and listen to music with their children. Parentsshould not only encourage physical activity but should participatein such activities with their children regularly.

Finally, pediatricians must help parents overcome feelings ofhelplessness in weeding out their children's electronic gardensby empowering them to use old-fashioned parental authority tosay "No —my house, my rules."

Dr. Milteer is a member of the AAP Committee on Communications.

Article from AAP News, December 2005.