On Psychology

Jewish World Review Oct.16, 1998 /26 Tishrei, 5759

Dr. Wade Horn

Television draws teens into vast wasteland

By Dr. Wade F. Horn

Q: The new school year is upon us and so is the new television season. Once again I find myself wondering, how much TV is too much TV for my two high school aged kids? What's your take on this?

A: The average American teenager spends 1500 hours each year sitting in front of a television set. In comparison, they will have spend only 900 hours sitting in a classroom.

This is not good news.

Studies show that excessive TV watching is associated with all sorts of bad things, like poor school performance, a diminished attention span, and an increase in aggressive behavior. Too much television watching also makes teens feel less secure and worry more that they will be a victim of crime. Teens who watch a lot of TV also evidence lower social trust and are less engaged with peers.

TV also makes kids fat. According to the federal government's Third National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, 8-16 year olds who watched four or more hours of TV a day were, on average, 17% heavier than those who watched less than two hours of TV a day. That's because kids who watch TV a lot are less likely to engage in physical exercise. Indeed, one study found that whereas only 37% of students in grades 9 through 12 engage in physical exercise at least three times per week, over 90% watch TV every day.

The negative effects of kids watching too much TV is not confined to childhood. In a 20-year study of more than 300 Chicago-area children, L. Rowell Huesmann, Ph.D., of the University of Michigan's Institute for Social Research found the more violent television a child watched at ages 6 through 8, the more aggressive behavior that child displayed 15 years later upon becoming an adult. For example, 16.7 percent of the young adult women who had watch a lot of television violence as girls, reported having punched, beat or choked another adult, compared to only 3.6 percent of young adult women who had not watched a lot of television violence as kids.

For young adult men, the rates were even higher. Thirty-seven percent of the young men who had watched a good deal of television violence as children reported having thrown something at a partner during an argument, compared to only 16 percent of low violence television viewers.

In addition to the violence, television also displays casual and frequent sex as the norm, coarse and lewd language as acceptable, kids being disrespectful to parents and other adults as being without consequence, and religion as silly, anachronistic, or destructive. In the 1960's, early television pioneer David Sarnoff described television as "a vast wasteland."

It's only gotten worse since then.

But its not just the content of television shows that is the problem.

Research suggests that the passive nature of TV watching may lead to diminished neural development and brain growth in children. So even if your teen is watching 4 hours of news, documentaries, and public television a day, that is still too much TV.

What's the answer? Turn off the TV. If you can't turn it off completely, severely limit the amount of time your teen can watch. One suggestion is trading off TV viewing for time spent doing other activities, like reading. Psychologist and author James Dobson suggests permitting a teen to watch one minute of TV for every minute spent reading.

Another suggestion is to restrict TV viewing to the weekends only. That way, TV won't interfere with more important things, like homework. And on weekends, your teen will be more interested in hanging out with friends than hanging out at home watching TV.

At the very least, use "Grandma's Rule," and insist on a "no TV" rule until after all homework is completed. And never allow the use of TV as "background noise." The TV should be turned on only for certain shows, and turned off immediately after the show is over.

The TV you do allow your teens to watch, should be television that teaches and reinforces the values you want them to learn. That means watching more of such things as American Movie Classics, Discovery, and The Learning Channel, and fewer network sitcoms, music videos, and made-for-cable TV movies. One good place you can go for information on the content of television shows is the website (www.parentstv.org) of the Parents' Television Council which provides ratings of network shows according to content. And employ "lock out" devices for channels you don't want your teens to see at all.

When you first restrict your teen's television time, expect a few arguments. Some are so used to endless hours of staring at a television screen, they will go through a sort of "withdrawal" when their TV viewing is restricted. But don't back down. Eventually, your teen will discover there is more to life than television.

Now, here's the bad news. Limiting TV watching for your teen means limiting TV watching for yourself as well. It's not going to work if you say to your teen, "No TV except on weekends," and then you watch 3-4 hours of TV yourself every evening.

What, you may ask, can you do instead? Here are just a few ideas:

Go for a walk
Plant a garden
Learn to dance
Have a conversation
Play a board game together
Write a letter
Go to the library
Listen to music
Ride a bike
Fix something around the house
Go fishing
Watch a sunset
Volunteer in your community

You get the idea. There really is more to life than TV. Unplug the beast, and discover what you've been missing.

JWR contributor Dr. Wade F. Horn is President of the National Fatherhood Initiative and co-author of The Better Homes and Gardens New Father Book. Send your question about dads, children or fatherhood to him C/O JWR


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© 1998, Dr. Wade F. Horn