What tactics truly work to reduce how much time young children spend in front of a TV or computer screen? Researchers seem ready to throw up their hands on this one, especially after a new study show that even in-depth counseling for parents couldn't curb screen time.
According to Reuters Health, the latest defeat in the war against too much TV took place in Canada, where researchers assigned 160 3-year-olds and their parents to one of two groups: one that received counseling on screen time habits and another that received minimal feedback.
In the counseling group, researchers talked to parents about the health impact of excessive screen time—which includes everything from childhood obesity to delays in speech development—and made suggestions about removing the TV from the child's bedroom, turning TV off during meals, and ideas about how to budget screen time. The comparison group only received basic information about safe media use and television rating systems.
What happened when researchers checked back in with these families one year later? It was like watching a rerun. Kids in both groups spent almost the exact same amount of time in front of the tube as they had before—between 60 and 65 minutes of screen time on weekdays, and between 80 and 90 minutes on weekends.
There was one small victory—children whose parents received counseling started to spend less time eating in front of the TV. But other than this one glimmer of hope, counseling didn't really seem to make much of a difference.
So, if researchers can't figure out how get kids to shut off the screens, who can? Turns out, there are plenty of moms out there who are ready, willing, and able to share strategies that work for their kids.
What do moms know that researchers don't? Here are some highlights:
- Give screen time an end time. "Always make sure there is a 'next thing to do' after screen time," says Amanda Crosby, a TV-savvy mom from Manalapan, New Jersey. "Instead of allowing the kids to watch TV after dinner, which usually turns into hours of screen time, I let them watch TV or use the iPad before dinner. When it's time to eat, that's it."
- Movies are not TV shows. Sitting down to "watch a show" shouldn't mean popping in a 90-minute movie, say moms in the know. "Reserve a special night for 'family movie night.' But on most days when you allow TV, stick with 30-minute shows for easier scheduling," says Jenny Bryant, a mom of three from Wells, Maine.
- No screen time is for everyone. "Shutting all screens off—even your own!—after 6 or 7 pm on weeknights, or all weekend long, send kids the message that spending time screen-free is valuable," says Crosby. But the trick is that you really need to power down your laptop and put away that smart phone. As Crosby points out, "When kids see parents still using the iPad, but they are expected to be going cold-turkey, even very young children can pick up on the double standard. As pathetic as this sounds, my 2-year-old now knows how to say, 'shut your 'puter, mama!' But guess what? It works!"