While winging it from Charlotte, N.C., to Des Moines last month, I passed the time by reading, cover to cover, American Airlines' most excellent in-flight magazine, American Way (September 15, 2006). Contained therein were compelling stories about various South American destinations, including Robinson Crusoe Island off the coast of Chile, but what I found most interesting were current stats on family television habits.
Did you know? Fifty percent of American households have three or more television sets. In the average U.S. home, the television is on nearly eight hours a day. The average American watches more than four hours of television a day.
On average, children in the U.S. will spend more time this year in front of the TV (1,023 hours) than they will in school (900 hours). Six out of 10 Americans can name the Three Stooges, but fewer than two in 10 can name three sitting U.S. Supreme Court justices.
My take: It's only a matter of time before an invading force will be able to put ashore on either coast and take us over before anyone notices ... if anyone even cares. After all, the invasion will make for excellent reality television.
But my purpose in writing this column is not to predict the Apocalypse. In 1978, I began raising a voice of alarm concerning the number of hours American children were allowed to spend watching television. Since then, the after-school activity mania has served to reduce children's average weekly TV-time, but not appreciably. I speculated that excessive television-watching (more than 5 hours per week), especially during the preschool and early elementary years, could actually rewire a child's brain in ways that would interfere with the establishment of critical learning abilities, including long attention span.
Subsequent research by psychologist Jane Healey ("The Endangered Mind") and others has confirmed that excessive television watching puts brain development at risk, increasing the likelihood of learning disabilities and behavior disorders. Confirming my initial speculation, the rapid-fire barrage of images that assault the brain of a young child who is staring at the boob tube can actually prevent the brain from wiring properly. Healey's most recent research reveals that video games and computers are having similar, if not even more damaging effects on children's brains.
Former investigative journalist Marie Winn has spent the majority of her adult life studying the effect of television on child learning and behavior. The latest edition of Winn's well-written and meticulously documented book, "The Plug-In Drug," is a must-read for parents. Unfortunately, my experience tells me that no amount of proof of television's potential harm to kids will move parents to make significant changes in their children's viewing habits. There are exceptions, of course. I've talked with a relatively small number of parents across the nation who have either eliminated or considerably reduced (below 5 hours per week) television, video games and computers from their children's lives. None have reported anything but positive outcomes, not only to their kids but to the overall quality of life in their families as well. But reliable conclusions cannot be based on a self-appointed sample of that size, which is my reason for writing this column.
I'm looking for reports, whether positive or negative, from parents who have completely eliminated television and video games from their kids' lives as well as parents who never allowed them from day one. Tell me about your children's behavior: Are you experiencing significant problems in the area of discipline? Have any of your children been diagnosed with a learning disability or learning disorder, including attention deficit disorder? Are they having problems in school and if so, of what sort? Do your kids play independently and creatively or do they rely heavily upon you to structure their free time.
Anything else you want to add is fine with me. E-mail your answers to parentingstoriesaol.com. And thanks for taking the time to help me with this project. I will devote a future column to a summary of the information I collect.
Family psychologist John Rosemond answers parents' questions on his Web site at www.rosemond.com.