Do TV Rules Look Different for Your Family in the Summer?
By Melissa Henson
Many households observe strict rules about screen time during the school year, when the immediate concerns of getting homework done, meeting project deadlines, participation in sports and other extracurricular activities homework and project deadlines necessarily limit the hours left in the day for just vegging out in front of the TV. When those demands on time suddenly evaporate at the end of the school year, rules about media use tend to slacken, and children may start to spend far more time staring at computer and TV screens.
While you may not need to worry as much about TV being a distraction from school work, there are still many reasons why we should continue to carefully control screen time:
- Studies have linked TV time with childhood obesity.
- An article in Psychology Today warns that screen time is making kids “moody, crazy, and lazy” because it desynchronizes the body clock and disrupts sleep, produces “light-at-night” which has been linked to depression, it desensitizes the brain’s reward system, induces stress reactions, and overloads the sensory system, fractures attention, and depletes mental reserves, among other things.
- Content concerns don’t go away just because it’s summer! In our most recent study, the PTC documented how, in the 20 years since the TV ratings system was introduced, there are fewer PG-rated programs, and G-rated programs have all but disappeared. What remains is often incorrectly labeled and under-rated, meaning that children who watch TV unsupervised (which is more likely to happen in summer months, especially as teenage children are left at home alone while mom and dad are at work) are getting stronger doses of sex and violence than they would have a generation ago.
Following are a few ideas for keeping media use under control during summer vacation:
- Establish and Agree Upon Screen Time Rules
Many parenting blogs have ideas about rewards systems that involve completing certain tasks in exchange for screen time. One system involves writing various household chores on popsicle sticks and how much screen time each chore is worth (dust living room/10 minutes, vacuum stairs/10 minutes). Children get to choose which chores to do in exchange for screen time. Another idea along the same lines stipulates *no* screen time until everything on a check list has been completed, that list might include things like time spent reading or writing a letter to a pen pal, friend or family member, making something or doing something creative, time spent outdoors, and so on. Figure out what works best for your family, what tasks are age-appropriate, and what incentives work best for your youngsters.
- Replace TV Time With Reading Aloud
Most parents know the importance of reading to their preschoolers, but many get out of the habit of reading aloud as soon as their children are old enough to read independently. There’s plenty of evidence to suggest that children continue to benefit from being read to, even when they are able to read for themselves. In addition to helping to foster a loving, nurturing home environment, reading aloud to children impacts their cognitive, language, and social-emotional development, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. Research has shown that “children from more stimulating home reading environments had greater activity in the parts of the brain that help with narrative comprehension and visual imagery. Their brains showed greater activity in those key areas while they listened to stories.” This article offers helpful suggestions on how to find time to read aloud every day, even when life gets busy.
- Add a Family Game Night, One Night a Week
Instead of sitting down to watch TV together in the evenings, institute a family game night one night a week. In addition to providing memories your child will cherish as he or she gets older, games can help children learn about fair play and good sportsmanship, teamwork. Games can also help children develop planning and strategic thinking, practice math or language skills, memorization, and other skills that will benefit them in school and in life.
- Allow for Unstructured Play
In an effort to avoid creating summertime couch potatoes, there is a danger in going too far to the other extreme — by cramming kids’ schedules with organized activities, day camps, swim team, baseball, summer school, you name it. But there is tremendous value in giving kids time to just be kids and play without adults hovering and directing their activities. They need the space to test their physical and imaginative limits; to learn how to resolve playground conflicts without an intercessor; to be comfortable with themselves, and yes, even to be bored.
- Encourage and Enforce Outdoor Time
A growing body of research points to the human need for connection to the great outdoors. One recent study by scientists at Exeter University found that the areas of the brain associated with calm, lit up when people were shown pictures of rural settings. Time spent outdoors is especially important for children. It can help to restore calm, foster imagination and creative learning, encourage discovery and a love of self-directed learning.
How do you manage screen time in your home during summer vacation? I’d love to hear your suggestions.
Melissa Henson is the program director for the Parents Television Council, a nonpartisan education organization advocating responsible entertainment. (www.parentstv.org)