Children in the United States watch an average of three to four hours of television a day, according to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry.
That's nearly 1,500 hours a year -- 600 hours more than kids spend in school. In addition to the quantity of television, there also are issues of quality and appropriateness. You've heard the horror stories: "By the time children complete elementary school," reports the Center for Media Education, "the average child will witness more than 100,000 acts of violence on TV, including 8,000 murders."
Parents, however, are not helpless.
To begin with, you can monitor and participate in your child's TV viewing. Whenever possible, watch TV with your children and engage them in conversation about what they're watching.
If you have a relatively new TV, you can use technology built into the set -- called a V chip -- to filter out inappropriate content. All TV sets 13 inches or larger sold since 2000 must have technology that allows parents to block programming based on ratings. The same ratings that flash on the screen during the first 15 seconds of each program are embedded in a signal that can be read by the V chip and used to keep your kids from watching.
Some TVs also allow you to block specific channels or even individual programs. The instructions should be in your TV user manual. For more on the V chip and the TV rating systems, visit the V-Chip Education Project (www.vchipeducation.org).
Another option, especially for young children, is to keep them away from live TV and only let them watch programs you have recorded for them. When our kids were little, my wife and I would videotape their favorite shows so that they could watch them at convenient times. But VCRs are a hassle. You have to remember to program them, make sure you have a blank tape inserted, label and keep track of the recorded tapes, and insert them for the kids when they're ready to watch. As parents, we weren't always up to date with the latest programs. There are only so many times a kid will enjoy sitting through the same episode of "Barney."
A much better, albeit more expensive, tool is a digital video recorder (DVR), such as a TiVo, ReplayTV, UltimateTV or DishPVR. These devices have internal disk drives that record TV programs. Instead of programming in the times, as you do with a VCR, you select the programs from an onscreen menu. You can record a specific broadcast or every episode of a show, and you can play them back at an appropriate time. On playback, you can use the DVR's remote to skip over commercials or parts of the show you don't want your kids to see.
The number of hours of program storage depends on which DVR you get. TiVo offers models starting at $399 that record for 60 hours. DirecTV subscribers can buy a special 35-hour TiVo for $99. SONICblue has ReplayTV systems ranging from $450 for a 40-hour unit to a very expensive $1,750 unit that stores a whopping 320 hours of programming.
With most brands of DVRs, all the programs are lumped together, so "Sesame Street" shows up on the same menu as "Sex and the City." Some units, such as SONICblue's ReplayTV 4500 systems, have what the company calls a "ShowOrganizer" feature that lets you create categories, or folders, to organize the programs. You can store "Barney," "Sesame Street" or other kid-appropriate shows in a special kids' category and put Mom and Dad's programs in their own folders.
This feature not only allows you to segregate shows by family member or age group, but makes it a lot easier to organize your programs -- which can come in mighty handy if you actually get a high-capacity system that stores hundreds of hours of programming.
The DVR at my house is directly connected to a DishNetwork satellite dish that gives us access to a variety of shows ranging from children's programming to racy adult entertainment. Without filtering or supervision, kids could certainly use such a system to watch or record programs that may not be appropriate. But the DVR has its own filtering system that parents can use to block entire channels or specific programs based on their ratings.
Parents can also take steps that don't involve technology.
LimiTV (http://www.limitv.org) has television viewing tips: "Don't put a TV in a child's room; don't allow unsupervised access to TV; make agreements with your child on acceptable programs and specific times for viewing; and use logical consequences when kids violate TV rules: take away all TV for a specified period of time."
I know parents who have "solved" the TV problem by simply not having a TV in their home.
I respect their decision, but I don't think that's the right approach for all families. TV viewing -- like eating -- can be healthy or gluttonous. As part of a balanced media diet, TV can not only be entertaining but can also help instill values and provide information. It can also reduce isolation, teach kids about other cultures and keep them informed.
Besides, with some parental guidance and interaction, kids can use TV to learn to make better choices and critical judgments not only about the shows they watch but about the messages they see.
A syndicated technology columnist for nearly two decades, Larry Magid serves as on air Technology Analyst for CBS Radio News. His technology reports can be heard several times a week on the CBS Radio Network. Magid is the author of several books including "The Little PC Book."
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