WASHINGTON (CNS) — It’s bad enough that parents realize it’s not good to let their kids have so much screen time in front of the television, the computer, the tablet or video games. What’s worse is that parents themselves feel powerless to do much about it.

That was one conclusion of a study led by Dr. Catherine S. Birken, a pediatrician at the Hospital for Sick Children and assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of Toronto, and published in the journal Pediatrics.

Birken’s research team gathered the parents of 160 3-year-olds from the Toronto area. The kids were divided. The parents of half of the kids got a 10-minute intervention on how to reduce screen time; the parents of the other half got no intervention at all.

The study lasted a year. In all, 132 children, or 82.5 percent, went through the entire year. When the study started, children in both groups were watching, on average, less than two hours of TV a day, although some individual kids were watching far more than that.

The group whose parents had received counseling started out watching 94 minutes a day and cut their time to 85 minutes, a drop of close to 10 percent. But the group whose parents had no counseling had an even bigger drop, starting at 104 minutes a day and ending at 89 minutes a day, a decrease of 15 percent.

One bright spot in the study with regard to the effect of counseling, however, was that the group of kids whose parents had received that intervention did cut down the number of meals they ate each day in front of the tube. They had started at 1.9 meals a day and ended at 1.6 meals a day, a reduction of close to 16 percent. The other group stuck with 1.9 meals a day.

The Birken research team found that there was not a cause-and-effect relationship between watching TV and childhood obesity, but discovered it was the kind of food kids ate when parked in front of the TV — the high-fat and high-salt stuff — that led to bad eating habits and the propensity for being overweight.

In a separate study, researchers found that the kind of TV shows children watch can modify their behavior for the better.

Operating under the assumption that children imitate the behaviors they see on TV, researchers from the Seattle Children’s Research Institute and the University of Washington took 565 children ages 3-5 and split them into two groups. Children in one group watched whatever they wanted, with their parents being given only dietary advice for their kids.

The parents of children from the other group, though, were sent program guides highlighting positive shows for young children, and newsletters encouraging parents to watch TV with their children and to ask questions during the shows about the best ways to deal with conflict. The parents also received monthly phone calls from the researchers, who helped them set television-watching goals for their children, according to the study, which was likewise published in Pediatrics.

The total viewing time did not differ between the two groups, but the group of children steered toward programs that showed more empathy and more pro-social behavior — and fewer shows geared to adults — showed a modest reduction in hostile behaviors.

“Modest” may not be the best word. While the change was small, it was statistically significant — and significant enough to warrant inclusion in a prestigious peer-reviewed journal.

The biggest improvements in behavior, although the researchers could not say why, was among low-income boys.

If you’re looking for shows to plunk kids in front of — no snacks, please! — then look for “My Friend Rabbit,” an NBC show based on the charming children’s picture book that displays loyalty and friendship, and Nickelodeon’s “Wonder Pets!” — which features cooperative team players.

Still, you can’t depend on kids repeatedly watching just two shows and expect that they will behave the way we want them to behave. In the absence of an outright ban on TV, tailoring time, along with monitoring and preapproving content, works best as long as parents and elders ask questions about what kids learned from TV that day as much as they ask about what kids learned at school.


Pattison is media editor for Catholic News Service.