Warning to parents: Too much TV takes toll on kids

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They watch it as they eat their breakfast. They watch it again when they get home from school. There's a movie on at dinnertime, and then they beg to stay up an extra half-hour to watch one more show.

You may not even realize it, but your kids are watching too much TV. Sometimes it's convenient — it keeps them busy while you rush around packing lunches or fixing dinner.

Sometimes they're tired and it helps them regroup. Sometimes it's a convenient family activity. So what's wrong with it?

Plenty, according to some studies. It seems that TV violence — even "innocent" violence such as cartoon fights — makes kids more violent. Small children may be frightened by television violence, while older children may feel encouraged to engage in violence themselves or become hardened to the consequences of the real thing.

On a more day-to-day level, watching too much TV can keep kids from playing and reading as much as they should. It can make kids irritable and prevent them from sleeping as much or as well as they should. Yet many people rely on the tube as an electronic babysitter.

Investing the time — for the average child, three to five hours a day — in a more worthwhile pursuit can have big payoffs.

How to control the amount of TV your child watches? Try the following:

*Watch TV in half-hour or hour bites. An hour a day should be enough for any child, but if the weather's bad or your child's sick or you decide that a bit more than an hour a day is OK, try to schedule breaks after every hour of TV watching.

It forces your child to do something else, and he may get so involved in the alternate activity he forgets to ask for more TV.

*Decide what to watch before you turn the TV on. It's too easy to get used to having the TV on all the time, so your child watches programs he is not even interested in. Better to decide beforehand which special show or shows he will watch each day, so that watching television becomes a real event rather than something that is done automatically. Inform caregivers, too, to turn the TV on only for special programs.

When your child chooses a show, you might want to select one you can watch together, which can give you and your child an opportunity for closeness and give you something to discuss together.

*Plan alternate activities. A kid who's used to watching lots of TV may have a difficult time at first thinking of other things to do. Turning off the TV will probably involve extra work for you, too, in helping your child get interested in toys, projects or chores rather than TV shows.

This does not mean that you have to "entertain" your child in the same way the TV does, while he watches passively. Rather, you may have to guide your child toward interesting books or involved games — as well as teach by example by reading more and engaging in new projects rather than watching TV yourself.

*Don't allow a television in your child's bedroom. It removes your child's television watching from your control and defeats any efforts you may make to limit or influence your child's TV habits.

*Reorder your priorities. Make sure your child does homework or chores before she watches TV. If the weather is nice, make television off-limits until after dark. Insist that, no matter what, the television is turned off during mealtimes and that, instead of eating in front of the television, the family eat together at the table. Institute one no-TV day per week.