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Proper TV Viewing Habits for Children

By Karen Hill-Scott, Ed.D.

(Originally published by Parents’ Action for Children at Reprinted with permission.)

Television is a fact of modern life. Most children watch some television, but many parents feel their kids would be better off watching less. The questions is, what can you realistically do about it? The answer is "what can you manage given the demands on your time?"

Most parents are preoccupied with multi-tasking throughout the day. Whether they like it or not, parents often rely on television to occupy their child while they do routine tasks. It takes an extra effort to restrict television viewing when there's competition between completing household and other tasks, and direct supervision of your children. Do you stand outside for an hour while your child rides a tricycle around a circle, or do you pay the bills while the laundry is in the dryer and your child watches "Finding Nemo" for the 400th time? 

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends NO television viewing before age two and never more than one to two hours a day after that. This sounds like a generous TV allowance, but when your preschool children have nine hours of waking time with nothing to do except what you plan, two hours of television may not seem sufficient.

The secret to managing your child's exposure to television lies not in obsessing over how many minutes and hours of the day the television is on. Instead, it requires having a consistent daily routine that is punctuated by predictable opportunities for media encounters. 

Here's a possible five-point plan that not only provides for controlling media exposure but may help with life management too.

1. When you examine your daily routine, make sure your child can expect regularity, consistency and predictability in the choices you make for the two of you. Your daily routine should balance the time spent in front of a screen with time spent doing other things. In other words, automatically limit television consumption by including your child in many other activities during the day. The activities could range from grocery store shopping to a fitness walk through your neighborhood. But segment your day and insert the television time at the moments you can use or participate in the break.

2. Create your own "television library" of preschool media content. You don't have to be frustrated by an overwhelming amount of bad programming. If you have digital recording or a VCR with your cable subscription, you have the ability to create your own "network" of top-notch preschool programming for your child.

3. Get some peer support from the parents of your child's friends to limit television and to avoid commercials. Make group decisions to not use television during play groups or birthday parties and to use your pre-recorded library whenever possible. Another bonus of creating your own library is limiting commercials that invariably infect your child with the desire for brand name products, services, and more media consumption. Every parent knows children are very susceptible to advertising messages.

4. Watch enough television with your child to know what's on the air. Use a television show as a taking-off point for conversations about what you might have learned from the story. If a show describes shapes and colors, discuss the colors of food at your next meal. Basically, extend the time spent sharing a television experience with your child into a conversation without television. Most importantly, with co-viewing you can see if what your child is watching is really inappropriate and eliminate that show from your television library.

5. Limit your own television viewing -- or at least the amount of television your children think you watch. Example is the most powerful teacher during the early years of life. When you cannot pay attention to your child because "your favorite shows" are on, don't expect your child to pay attention to you when it's his turn to watch TV. It's not intentional disrespect; your example has taught your child that part of television protocol is to ignore others and get irritated when viewing time is interrupted.

Television really does not have to take over your life, nor that of your child. With these simple steps, you don't have to struggle for control of the remote because you and your child have plenty of other things to do. Television can be just one of many activities in the course of a day. And it never needs to be the ONLY activity.


Parents’ Action for Children, a nonprofit organization founded by actor/director Rob Reiner, is mobilizing parents to advocate for issues of importance to children and families. For more information, visit