My children are TV addicts, how can I stop it?

Q. My two sons (aged five and seven years) would watch TV all day if I let them. This has been particularly the case over Christmas. This leads to battles as I try to get them to switch it off and do something else more healthy. My seven year old in particular seems to be addicted and he gets into a real strop when I turn it off. Do you think TV is addictive? And how much TV should I let them watch or should I get rid of it altogether?

A. Managing television viewing and deciding just how much is okay are common dilemmas for parents. It is a confusing issue as there are benefits as well as negatives to watching TV, and a lot depends on what is watched as well as how much time is spent watching it.

Many research studies list the negative effects of excessive TV viewing especially for young children, showing that it is linked to poor school performance and childhood obesity, as well as disrupted sleep patterns (especially when there is a TV in their bedroom). In addition, TV does have an addictive quality to it. It is easy to become “hooked” into watching TV and to find it hard to stop once you get started, and many parents report children being irritable or cranky when they interrupt their TV viewing.

However, there are also some benefits from small amounts of TV watching, in particular when you choose carefully selected educational programmes and these are in the context of a shared learning experience, for example, when parents join their children watching a favourite programme and chat together about the content. In addition, some TV can be a legitimate downtime activity for children and/or a reward for behaving well in the day.

In terms of what is the maximum amount of TV that can be watched, different experts make different recommendations. The American Association of Paediatrics recommends no TV for the under twos and no more than two hours for older children, and Dr Aric Sigman, (author of Remotely Controlled on the subject of TV viewing) recommends a maximum of half an hour for three-five year olds and one and a half hours after that. It is interesting to place these figures in the context of the actual amount of TV being watched by Irish children, with a survey by the Broadcasting Commission of Ireland putting the average figure at two and a half hours daily for children of all ages.

As a parent it is your judgment to weigh up the pros and cons of TV and for you to decide the rules for TV watching in your house. While some parents choose to have no TV in their homes, these parents are in a minority and most try to manage TV watching in a way that minimises the dangers and maximises the benefits. There are a number of helpful principles for doing this.

Firstly, it really helps to establish clear rules and a routine about TV viewing in the house with your children. This can include a maximum amount of TV viewing a day (with less on school nights and slightly more on the weekends), and specific rules such as no TV during meal times or after 6.30pm or until homework is done and so on. Given that some children become agitated rather than relaxed watching TV, it also can be useful to have a rule that TV is turned off a good hour before bedtime, so as to make sure that you have a wind-down time.

Once the routine is established, you need to make sure you are in control of it and that there are consequences for it not being kept. For example, if a child watches TV when he is not meant to, then he loses some of his TV time the next day. You want to give them the message that TV privileges are not a right but rather earned by behaving well and keeping the rules.

Secondly, rather than just letting children passively watch TV by themselves, it is important to get involved and to inform yourself about what they are viewing. Help them plan what they are going to watch by selecting a few good programmes that they enjoy and maybe some that have a educational benefit (such as quizzes or documentaries). Take an interest in what they are watching, ask questions about the programme and occasionally watch TV with them.

In my own clinical practice, I am often surprised at how watching TV together (such as a favourite soap opera or entertainment show) is often a source of connection between parents and children and one of the few times they chat freely together.

Sometimes it is when they are watching TV together that parents chat to their children about important issues such as friendship (for example, what do you think of how they treated that boy?) or problem solving (what would you say if that happened to you?).

At a minimum, it is important to monitor your children’s TV viewing and to make sure you know what they are watching. This is a good argument for no TV in bedrooms or if you have one you are clearly in control of turning it off an hour before bedtime.

Thirdly, rather than just focusing on managing TV viewing, it is important to help your children develop other healthy learning and leisure opportunities. Rather than just having a routine that specifies TV watching, make sure it is full of interesting activities such as sports, classes, social visits to friends, as well as those in the home such as preparing dinner, helping in the garden, family games and so on. Making sure you have a stock of simple leisure alternatives at home for your children such as books, puzzles, games and music can help also.

Finally, it is really useful to involve your children in the discussion about TV as a strategy to help them take responsibility. Have a family meeting where you inform them about the benefits and risks of TV watching and invite them to contribute to the decisions and rules. This is the best way to establish a routine that they agree with and to foster healthy TV viewing in the long term.

Dr. John Sharry, Irish Times, January 2011. John writes in The Irish Times Health+ every Tuesday.