Are your kids spending too much time watching TV or playing computer games?

I have a confession: My children, ages seven and four, are screen addicts. Every day; they keep one eye on the clock, eagerly awaiting the moment when their designated hour of TV watching can begin. They also crave time with their video games and my computer.

Like a lot of morns, I worry that their brains are turning to mush. Just how much is too much?

How much time do kids spend in front of the TV, video games, or a computer?

An average of five hours and 42 minutes a day? And that doesn’t include time spent using a computer for homework, according to a study from the Kaiser Family Foundation. Kids younger than six spend about two hours each day in front of the screen, another Kaiser survey reports-nearly triple the time they spend reading or being read to.

Is there any proof that all this is bad for them?

Yes, and it’s very convincing. Heavy TV viewing and video game playing have been linked to obesity, attention-deficit problems, aggressive behavior, and poor performance in school. What’s more, these habits in children and adolescents can lead to poor fitness and raised cholesterol levels in adulthood, according to a study published last year in the medical journal Lancet.

Many educators are wary of using the computer as a teaching tool, particularly for young children, though the hazards have yet to be thoroughly studied. Educational software may help your school-age child with phonics or math, says Jane M. Healy, Ph.D., an educational psychologist and the author of Your Child’s Growing Mind: A Practical Guide to Brain Development and Learning. But it doesn’t encourage imagination or creative problem solving–skills that are the foundation of learning.

Online time also does nothing to enhance another key part of growing up: learning how to relate to others and build relationships, according to Michael Rich, M.D., M.P.H., a pediatrician and director of the Center on Media and Child Health at Children’s Hospital Boston.

So how much screen time is OK for young kids?

TVs and computers are not considered useful learning tools for kids under two, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP). Realistically, young kids will probably be in the room when others are watching but parents should try to limit their toddlers’ screen time as much as possible.

What about older kids?

The AAP recommends limiting recreational screen time to one to two hours per day for all kids over two. Of course, three-year-olds and 14-year-olds are entirely different. There will be days when your tween or teen will want to watch a two-hour DVD and still spend some time surfing the Net. That’s fine, says Donald Shifrin, M.D., a clinical professor of pediatrics at the University of Washington School of Medicine. What’s important is to keep these splurges from turning into a daily routine.

And what about doing homework on the computer? Does that count?

Time spent using the Internet to do research for assignments shouldn’t count toward recreational screen time. And if your child is pursuing a special interest on the Web, you should be flexible, say most experts.

How can I keep track of my kids’ screen time?

Put TV sets and computers (or at least those with an Internet connection) in common rooms, suggests Dr. Shifrin. That way, you can keep an eye on exactly what your youngster is up to. In addition, when an older child is watching or surfing with younger siblings, you can make sure the content is appropriate for all ages. If you have a baby-sitter, be sure she knows about any screen-time rules you’ve set so that she can enforce them too.

How can I get my kids to cut back on their own?

Try following these three steps:

  • Offer alternatives. Encourage your children to read, go outside, play board games, draw, bake, or do anything that cultivates creativity. TV and video games are almost addictive for kids; but fun, engaging substitutes can help them kick the habit.
  • Set up routines. Make sure after-school time and weekends are structured with lessons, sports, and chores, so kids don’t aimlessly reach for the remote. But do take into account what specifically works for your child, says Jeanne Brooks-Gunn, Ph.D., codirector of the National Center for Children and Families at Teachers College, Columbia University. If your ten-year-old son needs to decompress after school with a video game or two before he tackles homework, then let him. Or if your 12-year-old daughter likes to get her assignments out of the way and reward herself with a favorite TV show, that’s fine too.
  • Pick specific TV shows ahead of time.

Have your child look over the listings and mark the shows she wants to watch. You’ll be surprised how much extraneous viewing you’ll cut out this way.

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