Markkula Center of Applied Ethics

Setting Limits: TV-Watching Is Not a Constitutional Right

by Steve Johnson

When I talk with groups of parents, one of the great worries they express is about TV watching: How much is too much? How can I get my kids to watch less?

In a certain sense, these question aren't about TV at all; they're about setting and respecting limits, about living with moderation, about understanding that entertainment may be a pleasure of life but it is not the purpose of life.

Before I launch into some suggestions for how to accomplish these goals, I want to reframe the discussion to address all media, not just TV exposure. That would also include time spent on video games, movies, radio, maybe even communication like telephone and Instant Messenger. According to a Kaiser Family Foundation study conducted in 1999, American children spend an average of more than 38 hours a week consuming media outside of school.

We can take two approaches to this problem: 1) What are the important, growth-producing activities that your child should be engaged in that aren't entertainment or media consumption, and how can you encourage these? And 2) What is an appropriate limit on media consumption, and how can you enforce it?

The first approach reflects the old saw, "Sometimes, the best defense is a good offense." Media are often just the way kids fill in unstructured time when they're bored. You can usually cut down on media exposure just by keeping your kids busy with growth-producing, mutually beneficial activities that will bring them into adulthood as healthy, whole people.

Let me give some examples of these activities: homework, household chores, reading, service to the community, service to one's own family. Is enough time being spent on these important things? Often, TV time comes pretty directly out of the hours that could go to these other beneficial areas. Part of raising whole, healthy people means never letting one side of their lives—such as entertainment—so dominate that the others evaporate.

You need to help your children stop thinking of media and entertainment as constitutional rights, of which they will no doubt protest they are being deprived unjustly. Instead media may be thought of as a reward for diligently doing the other growth-producing activities.

On the enforcement side, a common-sense limit for media is probably something like two hours a day. Sometimes parents ask me, "How can I enforce that rule because I'm not there all the time?" One tack is to make this issue part of what you're teaching—that children follow the rules they've agreed to even when you're not there.

Another idea is to insist that media consumption can only take place when you're around. There's an added benefit to this approach. Media influences are tremendously powerful, and what is consumed really does need to be discussed. You can use TV watching, video gaming, and other media experiences as opportunities to challenge your children. How real is what they are seeing? How worthy are the characters of being copied? What would they do in the situations portrayed if they were to happen in the children's lives?

That way, instead of just being a battleground, media can be another tool for you to help your child build character.

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