SpongeBob Is Stressing Your Child

Study: TV and other types of screen-based entertainment add psychological distress to kids’ lives.

May 1, 2009

Mean screen: Kids who watch lots of TV show signs of psychological distress.

RODALE NEWS, EMMAUS, PA—As much as kids enjoy the antics of SpongeBob and other television characters, recent research suggests that too much TV time can bring stress into their lives. A new study published in the journal Pediatrics suggests that kids who spend more time watching television or other screen-based forms of entertainment are more likely to show signs of psychological distress.

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THE DETAILS: Researchers from the University College of London interviewed the parents of 1,486 kids between the ages of 4 and 12, asking them questions about the amount of time their kids spent in front of screens (including TV, movie player, and video game screens), the amount of time they spent outside, and their diets. The interviewers also questioned parents using a standardized Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaire to gauge each child’s emotional situation, any attention deficit problems, interactions with peers, and other psychological stressors; higher scores equaled more stressed-out kids.

The average time kids spent in front of a screen was 2.4 hours per day, with roughly 25 percent of the families reporting 3 hours or more. The more time kids spent in front of a TV or other screen, the less time they spent outside and the higher their scores on the questionnaire—which meant the higher their stress. In fact, the kids who spent the most time in front of screens had scores that were 20 percent higher than kids who devoted the least amount of time to screen-based entertainment.

WHAT IT MEANS: It’s hard to pinpoint exactly how watching television stresses kids, says Don Shifrin, MD, an American Academy of Pediatrics spokesman on the media’s impact on infants, children, and young adults. Even something as simple as interfering with a toddler watching her favorite program can cause her stress. “Kids are young and impulsive and don’t want to stop what they’re doing. When you stop the TV, you stop the flow of visual stimulation. That’s a stressor right there,” he says. Even if experts aren’t sure what’s behind this phenomenon, there’s no real downside of limiting your child’s screen time. “Nothing bad can happen from your youngsters not watching a lot of TV,” Dr. Schifrin notes.

Here are some ways to limit screen time and give your kids more time to decompress:

• ID your child’s stress signs. “Not all children respond to situations the same way,” says Dr. Shifrin. Know your child’s behavioral style and be alert for inappropriate reactions to a situation. “If you see a child responding with an overabundance or under abundance of emotion, that should be a clue to parents to look beyond the actions of a child to see what’s driving these behaviors.”

• Pay attention to your own screen time. Whether it’s handheld computers, cell phones, TVs, laptops, or DVD players in minivans, it’s hard to keep kids away from screens nowadays. Unfortunately, often parents serve as enablers or bad examples. “We parents need to take a look at our own role modeling,” Dr. Shifrin says. “Are we constantly looking at screens, giving our children handheld video games to keep them quiet?” The more you limit your own screen time, the less of a priority your children’s screen time becomes for them.

• Get the TV out of the bedroom. “Doctors and pediatricians don’t like to wave a finger at parents,” says Shifrin. “But TV in the bedroom is one absolute no-no.” If you install it “as a shrine in a child’s bedroom,” he notes, it quickly can start to affect the child’s behavior. In contrast, placing TVs in communal areas allows you to watch what your kids watch and to limit violent programming that may be stressful. Consider taking the tube out of your own bedroom, too. Not having one there not only can make you a good role model—it also can help make you healthier. Studies have linked bedroom television watching to weight gain and sleeping problems.

• Limit screen time to 1 to 2 hours per day. And that means all screens (TVs, handheld devices, video games), says Dr. Shifrin. They all keep kids from going outdoors, exercising and enjoying nature, which studies have shown are natural stress relievers.

Tags: parenting