The Three R's: Reading, 'Riting, and Restricted TV?
By Linda Reynolds

If your family is like mine, your kids spent a lot of their summer vacation watching television. Now that they're back in school, busier schedules naturally mean children have less time to watch TV. But do we need to put additional limits on how much TV our children watch during their free time? According to TV-Turnoff Network, the answer is "yes."

TV-Turnoff Network is a national nonprofit organization whose mission is to encourage families to watch significantly less TV. They believe that's the key to healthier lives and communities, and especially to improved literacy and academic achievement. The Network cites recent figures from the U.S. Census Bureau1 as evidence that their decade-long campaign is succeeding.

  • More than 70 percent of children ages three to five have limits on their television viewing, up from 59 percent in 1994.
  • More than 73 percent of children ages six to eleven have similar limits, up from 65 percent in 1994.
  • Nearly 50 percent of twelve- to seventeen-year-olds have TV rules, up from 46 percent in 1994.

The Census Bureau study identified three types of television rules: the type of program watched, the time of day when television is allowed, and the total number of hours watched.

TV-Turnoff Network Executive Director Frank Vespe said in the organization's press release2, "These statistics demonstrate that the movement to turn off TV and turn on life is gaining steam. They demonstrate conclusively that parents are beginning to take significant steps to help their children to break free of TV. It's clear that TV-Turnoff Week, now entering its 10th year, and our other programs are having a real impact on America's families. In a nutshell, millions more children have limits on how much television they can watch today than did in 1994. And that's good news for American kids -- for their health, their education, and their families."

How does less television translate to good news for children's education? There are a number of ways.

Reading, like any other important skill, takes time to develop, and children who watch three hours of TV a day simply don't have time to read.3 Also, good readers need a good vocabulary, which television doesn't provide. Most prime-time TV shows have a smaller vocabulary set than the average children's book.4 In addition, the Census Bureau report links television viewing limits to increased family reading time. Among children ages three to five, 53 percent of those with all three TV rules were read to seven or more times a week, compared to only 31 percent of those with no restrictions on television viewing.

If you carefully monitor what your children watch, allowing them to view only educational/informational (E/I) programming, you may think you're okay. However, studies show that 20 to 25 percent of the programs that label themselves as E/I have little or no educational value.5 On the other hand, high-quality, nonviolent children's shows help children score better on reading and math tests than children who don't watch such programs.6 Clearly, both the amount and the quality of television your children watch affects their academic performance.

According to 1996 figures, only one in twelve parents required their children to do their homework before they could watch television.7 Perhaps that's why teenagers participating in the National Constitution Center survey in 1998 were three times more likely to know that 90210 is the ZIP Code for Beverly Hills than they were to know that the U.S. Constitution was written in Philadelphia. Academic performance may also suffer because more than 50 percent of young adults participating in a study in 2000 admitted they stay up longer to watch TV or surf the Internet.8

So if you're convinced you need to make some changes in your family's TV habits, how do you start? The following guidelines are adapted from The American Academy of Pediatrics9 and The Movie Mom's Guide to Family Movies.10

  • Children younger than two should not watch any television because positive interaction with other children and adults is essential to early brain development.
  • Children older than two should watch no more than one or two hours of educational, nonviolent programming.
  • Children should not watch TV while they're doing homework. Ideally, homework, chores, other kinds of play, and family time take priority over television.
  • Turn the TV off during meals. This is "prime time" for family conversations.
  • Children should not have televisions or VCRs in their bedrooms. This situation isolates them from the rest of the family and makes it impossible for parents to monitor and limit viewing.
  • Move away from the idea that we "watch TV." If you don't know what you'll watch and for how long, leave the set off. Instead, watch specific shows you choose after looking through a program guide with your children. When the show you wanted to watch is over, turn the set off.
  • Become media literate and teach media literacy skills to your children. The National PTA, in association with the National Cable & Telecommunications Association and Cable in the Classroom, provides media literacy materials online at http://www.ciconline.org/Enrichment.....

1. "A Child's Day: 2000 (Selected Indicators of Child Well-Being)," http://www.census.gov/prod/2003pubs/p70-89.pdf, August 2003.
2. "Census Numbers Show More Families Breaking Free of TV: TV-Turnoff Network Programs Spurring Behavior Change," http://www.tvturnoff.org/08-03censuspr.htm, August 2003.
3. "Kids and the Media @ the New Millennium," Kaiser Family Foundation, 1999.
4. "A Smarter Summer: Less TV" by Carol H. Rasco, Northwest News, http://www.nwnews.com/editions/2000/
20000710/ed1.html, 2000.
5. Annenberg Public Policy Center, 2000.
6. "Television and the Family," American Academy of Pediatrics, http://www.aap.org/family/tv1.htm.
7. Harper's "Index." September 1996.
8. National Sleep Foundation, Press Release http://www.sleepfoundation.org/pressarchives/gen_y.html, March 28, 2000 .
9. "Television and the Family," American Academy of Pediatrics, http://www.aap.org/family/tv1.htm.
10. The Movie Mom's Guide to Family Movies by Nell Minow, copyright 1999, published by Avon Books, pgs. 663-665.

Linda Reynolds is the owner/editor of Edifying Entertainment

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