My 9 year old wants a TV in the bedroom

Q. Are there any circumstances where it is a good idea for children to have a TV in their bedroom as my nine- year-old son is pushing for one? I know the general advice is that it is not a good idea and normally I would be against it. However, a friend of mine says she finds it useful for her son as it allows him to retreat into his room for 30 minutes or so of downtime and she sees no harm in this. Our household is really busy and he is the eldest of four (three younger sisters) so it might be fair to do this and give him some privacy and a chance to watch his own programmes. As it is, he always has to compromise and watch programmes the girls want. He is pushing for us to get him one and I am wondering what is the best way forward.

A. To judge whether television viewing is harmful or beneficial for children, you have to understand the context they view it in. Children watching some television is not always bad, and indeed it can have some benefits.

For example, educational programmes can provide a learning experience and TV viewing can sometimes have social benefits – groups of friends often watch the same show and this is a source of conversation the next day in school. Or indeed, many parents connect with their children by watching a favourite sport, game show or soap opera together. In many families I have worked with, it is when watching TV programmes together that many parents are able to chat with and connect with their children. These are often the times when important issues are raised.

This is of course not to underestimate the many dangers of TV and it is harmful if it is used to the exclusion of other more active social learning and healthy pursuits or if it is exclusively a solitary or isolating experience for your child.

In addition, there are many unsuitable TV programmes for children that can be harmful for them to watch and vigilance is needed by parents. There is a huge difference between a child watching a planned educational programme with their parent, and a child watching hours of unsupervised TV alone in their room.

For this reason, it is important that parents set boundaries around TV viewing in the household. The key is to make sure it is limited, planned and not to the exclusion of other healthy, active and social activities.

A small amount of TV each day after homework or another activity is perfectly appropriate for most children. In the recent Growing up in Ireland report, watching TV among nine year olds was an almost universal activity with only 2 per cent not watching any TV during a typical week in term time. Two-thirds of these reported that they watched one to three hours each evening, ( which is alarming given that three hours seems excessive.

In your question, you raise the important dilemma of allowing your child to have a TV in their bedroom. In the Growing up in Ireland study, a total of 45 per cent of nine year olds had a TV in their bedroom and 35 per cent had a video/DVD player.

However, there are particular dangers of TV viewing in the bedroom in that it can be more solitary than TV viewing in the living room and, thereby, unsupervised. In addition, watching TV before bedtime can interrupt a good night’s sleep, when more relaxing or “wind down” activities such as reading are more appropriate. There is also a greater chance that a child might watch it late at night (when their parents are asleep) and view inappropriate programmes.

As a result, I would caution against agreeing to the TV in your son’s bedroom. As a safer alternative, you could agree to a second TV in another downstairs room where viewing is easier to supervise. Or even better, you could work out a fair TV schedule with him and his sisters or record his programmes so he can watch them at an appointed time. The process of negotiating and working out this schedule is an opportunity to encourage healthy TV viewing habits for the whole family. Take time to sit down and discuss the dilemma with your son. Explore with him the benefits and dangers and what he can do to ensure his TV viewing is healthy and beneficial.

In such a conversation you may be able to help him set some of his own limits. Make sure to also explore with him the range of other healthy and educational activities he can pursue such as reading, art, sports, music, etc and make these more central in the weekly routine. Finally, you could encourage him to have downtime in his bedroom, but instead invite him to read or play music, etc when he is there.

If you do decide to allow your child to have a TV in their room, it is important to address the dangers and to have clear rules about when it can be used. For example, it must not be used during study time, or just before bedtime and your child must always ask permission to use the TV.

As a parent you should also regularly check in with your child when they are watching TV in their room, bearing in mind that supervising TV viewing is much harder when it is in the bedroom than the living room.

One parent I worked with placed a padlock on the TV plug so he could always be in charge of when and what his children watched.

Dr. John Sharry, Irish Times Newspaper, July 2012.  John writes in The Irish Times Health Plus every Tuesday.