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Further Reading

DEPARTMENT: Home Front

What to Watch For

Children and Television

by Marcia Segelstein

Article originally appeared in
Salvo 30

According to figures from the A. C. Nielsen Company, 99 percent of U.S. households have at least one television. Most, in fact, have more than one. Thanks to virtually countless cable offerings, viewers can feast their eyes on everything from fine art to pure raunch, not to mention commercials for everything from erectile dysfunction remedies to products once euphemistically referred to as marital aids. That all adds up to a big problem for parents trying to protect their children from seeing inappropriate content.

The Parents Television Council (PTC) was started in 1995 to help families do just that. Its website, www.parentstv.org, offers viewing guides, reviews, program suggestions, and advice on exactly what kinds of safeguards are available.

While there is always the option of having a TV-free home, Melissa Henson, Director of Grassroots Activism and Education for the PTC, believes that's not a viable choice for most families. The problem isn't the television; it's figuring out how to manage it successfully. Here are her recommendations.

Common Sense

Whenever possible, parents should watch TV with their kids, especially younger children. Limit the amount of time children spend in front of the television set. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no screen time for children under the age of three. From age 3 to 7, they suggest no more than 20 to 30 minutes a day. Henson strongly advises against putting TVs in children's bedrooms, calling it a "recipe for disaster."

Online Resources

Parents can get detailed information about specific programs from the PTC website. It offers a "Family Guide to Prime Time TV," complete with its own ratings for programs, which may differ considerably from industry ratings. There are "Picks of the Week" suggestions for family-friendly viewing, along with information on sorting out fact from fiction when it comes to how media can affect children.

Tools & Blocking Technology

Using a digital video recorder (DVR) or TIVO allows parents to record programs and skip the commercials. It also allows them to preview programs in advance. Many cable companies offer DVRs as part of their service. There are also blocking technologies available. Cable companies typically offer set top boxes, which allow customers to block individual titles, entire networks, or programs based on ratings. In addition, if you have a newer television, it came with a V-chip installed, a good option especially for people who don't have cable. Like set top boxes, parents can use the V-chip to block programming based on show ratings.

Henson points out that mature content is often not accurately labeled. Parents may have different views about what constitutes a PG or TV-14 rating, so they should either preview the program in advance, or check the PTC website for details on content.

On Demand Services

Paid services, such as Amazon Prime and Netflix, offer children's programming with the advantage of being commercial-free and available at the customer's convenience.

Coping with Commercials

According to Henson, commercials are the biggest potential landmines for families watching television. A show suitable for children may contain commercials that aren't, including promos for other shows on the same network, trailers for R-rated movies, or ads for Victoria's Secret and similar vendors. Watching with children at least allows for a "teachable moment," and recording ahead of time allows for fast-forwarding. But if that's just not possible, Henson suggests looking for channels that can be trusted to have appropriate content even during commercials, such as the Hallmark Channel, Up TV, and INSP TV. For younger children, Nick Jr. TV and Disney Junior don't rely as much on advertisements as their counterparts for older children. And of course, public television has commercial-free educational programs, including documentaries, classical music concerts, and nature shows. 


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