How TV affects your kids

Long Island experts weigh in on how television

Long Island experts weigh in on how television affects kids' development. (Credit: iStock)

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Monica Mahar's children love to act out stories and would rather play than watch TV. "They have amazing imaginations and prefer to play with their dolls and toys," said Mahar, of East Rockaway, who has three children under the age of 7. By today's standards, Mahar's children watch a small amount of television, an hour here or there and some days, none at all. "They're probably not the norm because I've always limited their choices," she said. "My oldest reads several levels above her current grade, and I'm sure this is why."

On the other hand, Emily Sigerson, of Center Moriches, who has three young daughters, believes that appropriate television viewing may be beneficial. "My two older girls have a basic understanding of the Spanish language from watching shows such as 'Dora the Explorer' and 'Go Diego Go'," Sigerson said. "In addition, they're able to recognize letters and words from watching 'Sesame Street' and 'Super Why'."

You may be wondering if TV really does affect your child's development. Well, new research suggests you may want to grab the remote. A recent study from the Journal of Pediatrics found viewing just nine minutes of a fast-paced television program, such as "SpongeBob SquarePants," can cause short-term attention and learning problems in 4-year-olds.

According to The AP, the problems were seen in a study of 60 children randomly assigned to either watch "SpongeBob" or the slower-paced PBS cartoon "Caillou" or assigned to draw pictures. Immediately after these nine-minute assignments, the kids took mental-function tests. Those who had watched "SpongeBob" did measurably worse than the others.

According to AP, previous research has linked TV-watching with long-term attention problems in children, but the new study suggests more immediate problems can occur after very little exposure — results that parents of young kids should be aware of. Kids' cartoon shows typically feature about 22 minutes of action, so watching a full program "could be more detrimental," the study researchers speculated, but more evidence is needed to confirm that.

Experts weigh in

The "SpongeBob" study is an interesting new development in the field of how television affects children, said Jill Creighton, assistant professor of clinical pediatrics at Stony Brook University Hospital. "Although the study is limited due to its choice of a non-diverse population, no pre-testing of its subjects and a small sample size (60), it certainly raises red flags that parents need to be very diligent as to what their children are watching and when," Creighton said.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no TV for children under the age of 2 and less than two hours per day of total media time (which includes computers, handheld games, video games and movies) for children older than 2, Creighton said. "These recommendations seem reasonable, but very hard to enforce in a multiple-child household."

Cristine Zawatson, principal at the Blackheath Road Pre-Kindergarten Center in Long Beach, agrees television shows such as "SpongeBob" are not age-appropriate for pre-K children. "Children look at the characters on TV as role models, and we have to make sure we monitor what they're watching," Zawatson said. Before you let your child watch something, watch it first, she suggests. "Peruse a program and make sure it's age-appropriate for your child," Zawatson said.

"This study is a wake-up call for all parents, including myself,"  Creighton said. "As a parent of four kids under 8 years old, I know that 'downtime' in most households does include some television watching. Unfortunately even though it's 'downtime' it still must be monitored by the parents. It's very easy to think that shows running on popular kids channels are age-appropriate and will not harm the children who are exposed to them."

Tips for parents

As long as TV is not a replacement for intellectual development, it's used in moderation for short stints, and it's previewed by a guardian or parent, a little is OK, Zawatson said.

"Television shouldn't take the place of human contact, even if it claims to be educational," she said. "But I like to make sure we're addressing the needs of our children when we have the ability to engage with them. For example, it's very important to have family time together, whether it's doing arts and crafts, reading, playing board games, going to the park or even doing chores."

Kristen Mucha of Lake Ronkonkoma, a children's librarian at Half Hollow Hills Community Library in Dix Hills and Middle Country Library in Centereach, as well as a mother to a 2-year-old, believes TV can limit a child's creativity.

"When children begin to watch too much TV at one time, their brains then focus solely on what they're watching," Mucha said. "Rather than spending time in front of the television, children should be inspired to think, create, and play." Talk to them, play games that allow them to use their imagination, go for a walk, and be active rather than putting on the TV, Mucha suggests.

These days, many families have full-time working parents, and TV is an easy distraction for your kids when you need to cook dinner, fold laundry, even take a shower. Zawatson suggests using the time you do have together more effectively.

"When you're in the car or at the grocery store, use this time to interact with your kids," she said. At the store, ask your child to find the green vegetable, or while in the car, ask him or her to point out the blue cars. "Make family mealtime very important whether it's breakfast or dinner," Zawatson said. "It's a great time to further social and emotional development by telling stories at the family table, singing songs, or even encourage your kids help you cook."

What are your kids' favorite TV shows? Answer this week's question of the week in the comments section below or follow me on Twitter @JenBergerKids.

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