How to Tune In to TV

SARA ENGRAM

August 01, 1993|By SARA ENGRAM

Warning: This device is addictive.

Television sets come with no such cautionary words. But we all know it's true. The patterns are easily formed: flipping on the tube first thing in the morning or as soon as you get home from work -- just to get the news, of course. But once it's on, it often stays on.

There's plenty of reason to be alarmed about television addiction among children, especially considering the miserable quality of most of the programming. But as Charlene Hughins Uhl, director the Maryland Campaign for Kids' TV, has found, when parents begin to look for ways to guide their children's television habits, they often discover that they need to reform their own habits as well.

A Howard County parent quoted in the campaign's useful guide for parents says: "I worry that I won't be able to control what my children watch long enough to teach critical viewing skills and my values. If I can't, I'm prepared to throw out the TV."

Brave words. But many parents find that eliminating television altogether is neither easy nor necessarily desirable. A few years ago, a Baltimore County father offered his children cash if they were able to stay away from television for a full year.

They did, and claimed their reward. But it wasn't easy when all their friends were discussing something they had seen the night before. These children watch television now, but the year of abstinence did have some good effects. For one, it broke the easy habit of coming home from school and turning on the tube for a couple of hours. That's exactly what many other families need to do: break the pattern of addictive television behavior, a pattern that affects far more households than we'd like to admit.

There is a lot wrong with television, especially where children are concerned. There is too little quality programming, particularly for elementary and middle-school kids. Sometimes stations do air good shows, but at times like 5:30 a.m. when few people of any age are likely to be watching.

Children see too much violence, especially in the cartoons that have been a Saturday morning staple. And, while violence on prime-time shows has declined recently, there has been an increase of violent incidents depicted on children's shows. Not surprisingly, this exposure seems to produce more aggressive behavior among children.

Researchers have also found a link between heavy television watching and child and adolescent obesity.

None of this will surprise parents. But what can they do?

The answer isn't as cut-and-dried as throwing out the TV set, or perhaps as difficult as policing a total ban on television watching.

In a world permeated by television, the best way to help children form healthy TV habits is to teach them how to watch. One purpose of the Campaign for Kids' TV is to gather suggestions from parents on ways to deal with television.

One intriguing idea came from a family with several children. They were told they could watch a certain number of hours each week and that they could choose what and when they watched. The children soon became adept at negotiation and compromise, and the parents began to suspect that the process of deciding what they would watch was as engaging for the children as the viewing itself.

"When Pulling the Plug Isn't Enough," the booklet prepared by the campaign, stresses the importance of helping children learn to be critical viewers.

One example: In teaching young children the difference between advertising and regular programming, parents can make the process more interesting by helping them figure out who the advertisers think are watching.

For instance, toy ads show that they expect children to be tuned in. The kinds of toys advertised also give a clue as to how old the advertisers think the children are. Parents can also ask children to compare the advertising claims to the actual toys, or have them redo the commercial based on what they know about the product.

Parents also need to help children put the violence they see in perspective. They can point out that much of it is faked or that the drama on television is not typical of everyday life. Some even parents encourage their children to re-tell television plots, but to come up with a different, non-violent solution to a situation.

Improving the quality and quantity of television for children is important. But even if that goal is accomplished, parents will always need to monitor the set and help give children the critical sense that makes the difference between a couch potato and a viewer with a functioning brain.

Sara Engram is editorial-page director of The Evening Sun. Her column appears here each week.

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