TV limits that keep everyone happy

Cutting down screen time ...
Cutting down screen time ... Photo: Getty Images

TV is the free baby sitter that's available anytime you desperately need to take a breather or get things done. But the peak body for Australian paediatricians warns parents to avoid letting children under two watch TV. How can you limit your toddler's screen time, while also living in the real world where TVs are sometimes on?  

How much TV is too much is a question often discussed in the Essential Kids forums and one member, Housewifeinheels, revealed she deliberately uses TV to save her sanity. "I have used it to distract grizzly, sick children; when getting ready to leave for somewhere in a frenzy; when I’m feeling overwhelmed with the demands of parenting. Yes I feel guilty for this, but the alternative is for me to be grumpy, stressed, and late.” Similarly, Kateateight is desperate for the distraction TV provides her family. "The time I get when my kids are transfixed and quiet is SO valuable to me."

Many mums feel TV can actually be educational when their children watch shows like Playschool or documentaries. However, health authorities tell us that babies and toddlers are merely attracted to the light and movement of TV without knowing what it means or understanding simple stories, and it's of no benefit to them. The worry is that too much TV, regardless of the content, interferes with kids' development of normal attention, sleep and eating habits. Even background television reduces the time children spend on creative play and how focused their attention is. Many mums are as wary of excessive TV time as doctors are, like forum member SpunkyMonkey88, who was dismayed by a family friend's approach to TV. "She quite proudly announced that at age 2, her daughter was sitting and watching a full movie. I was mortified." 

Short of listing the TV for sale on gumtree, there are some family-tested ways to limit TV time while maintaining peace at home. 

Set limits and reward good behaviour

Explain to your kids why you're concerned about them watching too much TV, and involve them in setting the limits and rewards. One primary-school teacher and mum tried this with her three young boys when their TV time started to get out of hand, and was surprised when they nominated a lower time limit than she had in mind. Doctors advise that while children under 2-years should watch as little TV as possible, older children can watch up to 1 or 2 hours a day. 

For very young children, 10 minutes is enough to get through a few of the Wiggles' hits as a treat for helping to pack away the blocks, or staying seated at dinner. As well as reinforcing good behaviour, you can take away TV to discourage poor behaviour. For example, harassing the dog or throwing the remote means a child loses the allocated 10 minutes they were soon to enjoy.

The "right" time limit differs among families. While some Essential Kids families allow older children to watch up to 4 hours a day, others allow only an hour a week. Discomonkey encourages other mums to make rules that suit their family. "People can be so judgmental but I think each parent has to use their own common sense about things like this. What fits into one family's lifestyle doesn't necessarily fit with another's." You might choose to allow TV only on weekends, only in the afternoons or only on Saturday mornings while you get a sleep-in. Whatever the rules at your place, be clear about them and be consistent. At the end of the agreed time, VickieAnne's kids happily go outside. She says, "They know the rules and accept them."

When the TV's on, make the best of it

Don't let TV time go to waste - only turn it on when you most need it. For example, when you have to keep the kids somewhere safe (for example, while you go out to hang up the washing), or when your mental health is at stake (imagine you're nauseous and your kids are going feral at witching hour). 

When you do turn the TV on, stick to music and educational programs you've pre-recorded or bought on DVD to avoid commercial ads and programs you haven't pre-screened. Try to sit with your kids for at least part of the show and talk with them about what they're watching. If you need to keep working you can still be with them by folding a load of washing or doing simple tasks from your laptop.

Offer fun, stimulating alternatives

Forum member Pocahontas has seen the benefits of setting limits, and found, "limiting TV like this for our kids has helped our kids developmentally as they are forced to do other more creative or active things with the rest of their time." To make it easy, have a number of alternative activities ready to go. Once you've set a few things up, you can pull them out with a sigh of relief when needed.

  • Stock a special box with toys and interesting household objects that you only pull out when you'd otherwise turn on the TV. 
  • Ask family members to pick up colouring-in books and puzzles as presents. 
  • Fill one of your kitchen cupboards with only child-friendly things like plastic containers and utensils, pots and pans, and keep this particular cupboard locked at other times so it's always exciting when you most need it to be.
  • Break up solo play time by inviting them outside to play with you. Have a box of "outdoor" fun you can dip into with things like a ball, bubble blower, insect catcher and paving chalk.
  • Fence the backyard or verandah and put dangerous items away so you can happily let kids outside with one eye on them while you get things done around the house. 
  • Burn off their extra energy with an indoor or outdoor obstacle course made from furniture, sturdy boxes, sheets etc. 
  • Make regular library trips to pick out new and exciting books they can look through by themselves.

Reading is a favourite distraction for another mum on the Essential Kids forums, who says, "whenever my son is tired, sick or cranky, reading books to him is a surefire way of calming him down, so I don't really agree with those who say they need the TV to do that." Natureschild sometimes puts on DVDs but agrees they're a poor substitute for kids playing and interacting. "I would rather they exercised their grey matter with activities or read a book. We talk in our house too ... I like it!"

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