Bored kids often turn to TV, studies show

August 09, 1991|By Drew Jubera | Drew Jubera,Cox News Service

The TV menu of Shijuana Bornes, 16, is virtually a case study in viewing endurance: 10 to 12 hours a day, Monday through Friday, week after week throughout the summer.

With her mother and grandmother at work, Shijuana's summer days begin each morning at 10 with "Donahue." That segues into "Geraldo," then melts into the news until 12:30, when she takes about an hour break to clean the house, practice her flute, read the paper, pick up a book.

But at 1:30 p.m., the tube is relit: "Silver Spoons," followed by "Webster," followed by "Oprah," followed by news from 5 until 7, followed by the game shows: "Wheel of Fortune," "Jeopardy!" or "Family Feud."

By then, Shijuana's mother and grandmother are back at their Adamsville, Ga., home, where each has her own TV to deal with programming conflicts. Shijuana keeps to a diet of dramas and sitcoms during prime time, watching them faithfully until 11. Then it's more news, followed by "Who's the Boss?" and capped by "The Arsenio Hall Show," which she watches until going to bed at 12:30.

Shijuana's 10-plus hours a day busts the 3 1/4 hours that Nielsen Media Research says the average teen-ager watches each day, a daily diet the medium's critics blame for violent behavior, obesity and lousy schoolwork. But it's not much more than the 50 hours a week Nielsen says the average Atlantan watches, a habit that ties the city with Detroit and Houston.

Is this kind of TV watching dangerous? Harmless?

TV or not TV, that's the question parents seemingly have asked forever, especially during summer. The question has gained importance in this age of latchkey kids and single-parent families, when many school's-out kids are left home by parents who prefer a TV baby sitter to their children's roaming outside alone.

The circumstance frightens many experts. The latest attack on TV came from the American Academy of Pediatrics, which issued a statement July 23 that warned of TV's effects on young people. It announced that TV viewing "may be linked with violent or aggressive behavior, obesity, poor academic performance, precocious sexuality and the use of drugs and alcohol."

Among its findings:

* By high school graduation, the average adolescent will have spent more time in front of the TV than in the classroom.

* Youths are exposed to nearly 14,000 sexual references and innuendoes yearly on TV, with only 150 of them focusing on responsible sex.

* The average child sees more than 20,000 commercials annually. More than 60 percent are for cereal, candy and toys, with the majority of food advertising for heavily sugared products. About 4 percent of food ads during "children's viewing time" are for meat, milk products, bread and juice.

Television "sells the wrong foods, bad toys, gives the wrong messages," says Peggy Charren, president of Action for Children's Television. "It's a shame the communications systems our country have given up on kids.

"How would you feel if a stranger came to your door with two big bags," she adds. "He says, 'You look tired. I have some product in this bag, some stories in this bag, I'll take care of the kids while you go lay down.' . . . TV is that stranger."

But TV is about as ubiquitous in the American home as running water. As a result, say some experts, the TV is not a stranger at all, but a kind of surrogate relative who has good and bad points that most people learn to recognize and deal with.

The notion that TV turns its young viewers into zombies unable to resist its messages or discriminate between TV and the real world is largely refuted by a 1989 study sponsored by the U.S. Department of Education. The exhaustive review of studies done on TV's effects on children's thinking concluded that:

* There is no evidence that TV has a mesmerizing effect on children's attention.

* There is little evidence that TV replaces other valuable activities. The clearest evidence is that it replaces movie attendance, radio listening, comic book reading and participation in organized sports.

* There is weak evidence that TV reduces reading achievement. If this effect actually occurs, it appears to occur during the early elementary school years and is probably temporary.

Dale Carter, psychologist for Gwinnett County, Ga., schools, says excessive TV watching is rarely the cause of a child's poor behavior or performance, but rather a symptom of other problems. Many experts agree. Even Charren says parents can take the upper hand with TV without removing or even severely limiting it, options many working parents find impossible during the summer.

Many parents agree that their relationship with their children is the best defense against their children developing an unhealthy relationship with the TV.

"If you don't have a good support system to filter that stuff, you can see how they can get caught up in what they see," says Shijuana's mother, Felicia Bornes, a postal clerk. "But I think if you've established that support system, you don't have to worry about the TV."

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