Children enjoy watching TV and playing video and computer games. Parents are often ambivalent and worried about these occupations. They want their child to be happy, they welcome the peace that comes when he’s occupied, and yet they consider many programs, games, and websites a waste of time or ones that send a wrong message.
How can you balance your feelings and your child’s desires? You can begin by considering the appeal of TV, games, and the computer. Children relax in front of the TV, just as many adults do. Appropriate programs are entertaining or at least diverting. Even commercials are interesting to a child. The toys look inviting, and young children are easily convinced by a sales pitch: “That truck really climbs mountains.”
Video and computer games interest children for a number of reasons. They’re exciting, challenging, and action-filled. A child works on the skills that help him win, such as visual-motor and small-muscle coordination. Games offer immediate feedback in the form of points and new action, and a child always has the option to start over if he loses or doesn’t like the way a game’s going.
When a child plays these games, he feels powerful. He’s controlling characters that fight and capture each other, win sports contests, or go on mysterious quests. It’s easy to see how attractive this is to a child who spends most of his day being controlled by others. In school or day care the teacher tells him how long he has to eat lunch, when to go outside, and what to do. At home, parents are in charge. But while playing a video or computer game, a child has power.
The appeal of the computer is obvious to adults. Kids visit interesting and fun sites filled with characters they see in books and on TV. They can dress up dolls with fancy clothes, sing along with Barney, use arts software, do puzzles, and become exposed to new and intriguing things and activities.
But there are problems with TV, games, and computers. Their content is often violent or simply not nice, has sexual undertones, or is otherwise inappropriate for young children. Parents have to put limits on the kinds of shows, video games and websites their child is exposed to. When deciding what’s appropriate for your child, trust your judgment, and err on the side of caution, since children take in information differently than adults do. Parental controls can help parents protect their child.
Even without content problems, video and computer games can be very frustrating for children these ages. A child may work on a game for a long time, only to lose and have to start all over. Parents sometimes hear screams of anger from a child who can’t take the pressure or frustration. When he has trouble dealing with this aspect of game playing, he may take his feelings out on whoever’s closest. “Get out of here!” “Don’t talk!” When children are upset about their games, they don’t often get sympathy from their parents. “If you’re this upset, why do you play?”
Watching TV has its own negative effects. Children may be confused and upset because they’re not always sure what’s real or made up, and they accept as fact much of what they hear about disasters, sickness, and violence, as well as what they see about relationships and how people treat each other.
After a disturbing program or misleading show, a child needs reassurance and answers to his questions. Unfortunately, parents are often not watching with him and may not be available to help. Even when they are, he may still be exposed to disturbing or uncomfortable sights that remain with him. One child worried continuously after seeing news clips of an earthquake. A five-year-old saw passionate kissing on TV and said, “Is that their real lips touching? Ooh. That’s so gross.”
There’s another problem related to this issue: Children who spend too much time watching TV, playing video games, and being on the computer have less time for creative play and being with their families. Some children spend time watching and playing video games because they can’t think of anything else to do. In such cases, parents should offer alternatives such as time with a playmate, reading aloud, drawing, painting, using play dough, building a block structure, playing imaginative games, or going to a playground.
Parents take many different approaches to controlling TV, the computer, and video games. Some forbid their use on weekdays, and some set a precise time limit.
Some parents set no limits, instead using TV, games, and the computer to occupy their child. As long as he’s quiet and out of the way, they don’t regulate this time at all. While all parents occasionally resort to these activities to keep kids busy, it’s harmful to give children total control over how they occupy their time.
You can limit your child’s TV watching, computer use, and video-game playing without setting up a strict schedule. Take a flexible approach. Allow longer playing time when he has a new game. Extend TV viewing hours during weekends and holidays or when a special show is on. Cut back when you want him involved in other activities.
Try to avoid having him stop in the middle of a program he’s involved in watching. He’ll become frustrated, “It’s not over yet,” and won’t understand your line of reasoning, “You’re watching too much TV.” Instead tell him, “After Dora, I’m turning the TV off, and we’re going outside.”
Factors such as the weather and sickness will also help determine how much viewing, computer time, and game playing you’ll allow. Your goal is to strike a balance between his wish to spend time on games and shows (ones you’ve okayed), and your desire to see him use his time more productively.