Children watching TV
Photo: © 2009 Jupiterimages Corporation
How much television is your child watching a day? Before school? After? During meals? With her older sibling? When you add the numbers up, it might be shocking. In October 2009, the Nielsen Company released new statistics that showed American children, ages 2 to 5, are watching more than 32 hours of television every week—more than in recent years. But why?

"Unfortunately, one of the reasons I think we're seeing television viewing going up is the perception by a lot of parents that it's hard to send your kids out to play, that you can't just send them out the door and down the street," says David Kleeman, president of the American Center for Children and Media. "Television in a lot of neighborhoods represents safe time." He also says more children have television sets in their bedrooms, which also encourages more viewing time.

But Dr. Dimitri Christakis, pediatrician and leading expert in television and child development, says that perhaps the issue isn't just how much TV children are watching, but what they're watching and how they're watching it. "We know from decades of research that the content of TV viewing is extremely important in terms of the effect that it has on children," Dr. Christakis says. "And we also know that how children watch makes a big difference."

The good news is that for children ages 2 to 5, we're in what Kleeman calls " a real golden age of preschool television." "We're seeing some really well-designed, research-based preschool educational TV that we never had," he says. Children's shows are updating the successful research model that Sesame Street used and are creating interactive programming in which every segment is carefully tested to make sure that children are understanding what they are seeing and that it is conveying the message the producers want to convey, Kleeman says. Both Dora the Explorer and Blue's Clues are two examples of successful and well-researched children shows that both experts recommended for preschool-age children.

Although they're watching less television than 2- to 5-year-olds, children ages 6 to 11 are still watching 28 hours of TV per week. However, as children get older, quality television seems to be lacking, Kleeman says. "The sad media landscape is that kids at school age far too quickly transition to a diet of primetime programming that really is not intended for audiences that young," Dr. Christakis says.

This is why it's important that parents be mindful and make sure the show content is appropriate for their child, and if not, Dr. Christakis recommends using TV as a teaching opportunity. "At its worst, television provides ample examples of what not to do and how not to ask," he says. "It doesn't mean that kids will agree with you...but they will hear the message, and they need to hear the message because if you're not part of that conversation, then you're giving over your children to the media and allowing the media to essentially teach them without any voice of moderation."

Take control of what your child watches