If you’ve ever sat your toddler down in front of the television to give yourself a few minutes of much-needed rest, you’re certainly not alone.
But for many parents, those few minutes of bliss that come with quiet kids can turn into hours.
The Longitudinal Study of Australian Children found kids as young as three years could turn on the television themselves and were watching more than nine hours a week.
Television can be fun, educational and relaxing for kids. But numerous viewing hours have significant implications for the child’s weight, their learnt social norms and the prevalence of learning difficulties.
So, how much is television is too much for kids?
The American Academy of Paediatrics recommends children watch no more than an hour or two of television a day. And children under two years shouldn’t watch any at all.
This might come as a shock to some parents and seem like overkill, so let’s consider the reasoning behind these guidelines.
Unhealthy weight gain
One of the obvious problems with television is that it’s incredibly sedentary. Almost any other activity, even reading, burns more calories.
There’s a direct correlation between hours of children’s TV viewing and weight – the more television, the greater the child’s weight.
If a large television viewing habit continues into adulthood, it can increase the risk of chronic disease and death.
One study found that compared with people who watch less than two hours of television a day, people who watch more than four hours a day have a 46% higher risk of death from any cause, and an 80% increased risk of cardiovascular disease.
Clinical studies show children who are heavily exposed to junk food advertising consume, on average, 40% more calories than children who watch ad-free television.
Learning social norms
Children indirectly learn social norms by watching the way actors interact on television. These norms cover every aspect of human behaviour life from sex and violence to alcohol, nutrition and many other areas.
Studies have shown that children who view violent acts are more likely to demonstrate aggressive behaviour.
These children may also believe the world is a dangerous place and fear something bad will happen to them.
The scale of exposure to violence is significant, with the average American child watching 8,000 murders on television before they finish primary school.
By age 18, they’ve seen 200,000 acts of violence on television, including 40,000 murders.
Programs where characters regularly depict risky behaviours, such as constant snacking, smoking and excessive drinking, subtly communicate to children that these behaviours are acceptable, even “normal”.
The good news is that watching television and playing video games don’t, by themselves, damage a child’s eyesight.
But children who are susceptible to, or who have existing but undetected vision problems, may show symptoms of eye strain after prolonged periods of screen time.
Televisions in children’s bedrooms are problematic because they tend to increase viewing time, and if unregulated, can impact on the development of social skills.
If television viewing interferes with sleep time, this can also lead to attention difficulties.
Possibly the biggest effect of many hours of television viewing is reduced attention span.
Constantly changing visual images can train children to expect this level of movement, and they can find it hard to concentrate on one thing for any length of time.
Everything in moderation
Like anything in life, watching television is something that’s fine in moderation.
Televsion can entertain and educate children but this needs to be balanced with time for outdoor activities, socialising with other children and time spent with good role models.