It's past your kid's bed time, and he's still watching that darn TV show. Blow your cool, turn off the set and send him to his room? Not a good idea, says Dr. Yitzhak Kadman, director of the National Council for the Child, who believes that setting firm but realistic limits on boob tube watching are paramount in parenting and fighting TV addiction.
"Parents need to set limits in all things, but the limits must be reasonable, and if the child says that the program's going to be over in two minutes, don't insist he turn it off. The limits have to be logical. Limit the number of hours, but in a smart way. There are parents who say; 'There's no TV in my house,' and then the kid goes to his friend's house to watch all day. Don't go overboard in either direction. Limit hours, give other options, don't always say no, but also yes, and encourage them to pursue other activities, particularly reading. But it won't work if the parent never opens a book in his life and tries to tell the kid what fun it is to read."
Watching shows together, especially with young children, is also important, says Dr. Yariv Tsfati, a lecturer in communications at the University of Haifa. "The parent should be actively involved while the child is watching the show," he says. "There are some shows whose content requires discussion with the parent, to explain things to them.
"It starts at a young age: being able to tell what's real and what isn't - Superman doesn't really exist and we can't fly. But at about age seven, children begin to understand morality, what is right or wrong or just. It's highly recommended to watch with them, and according to research, it reduces the negative impact of the harmful content. But co-viewing without explanation can be harmful - if the child sees you enjoying the violence, then he might assume that violence is legitimate. But intervention which says what's right and wrong and what's allowed and what's not, ethical and not ethical is intervention which reduces the negative impact."
Tsfati also suggests making sure that the child does not have a TV or computer in his or her room, but rather in a more public part of the house.
Kadman worries that kids are at risk for social isolation because of too much TV viewing, so he suggests "parents act so that the kids do something interactive together." Make play dates that don't involve TV. "We have to encourage children to get together with other children," he says.
As for what's on, Kadman says "there's a difference between what should be and what is. What should be is that anyone selling us something, no matter what it is, be responsible for its quality, particularly if it's for kids... But in actuality, this is not always the case. TV channels have a problem making a go of it, and like with adults, they sometimes aim at the lowest level. The people who make quality programs sometimes cry to me: 'So what, they'll put a gold marker on my grave? It's all a matter of ratings. When we do something good, we don't get anything in return.' That's why this is a major problem. But I say, however, there are good programs on television."
Tsfati agrees. "It's not all junk food. I still think there's innocence and beauty and magic on some of the shows. There's a different pace, and that's the main difference. The shows are shorter and the stimuli come faster. The kids expect more stimulation. And what was moving to us may be seen by them as boring. But there is still content that is innocent and educational."