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Dr. Joni Bhutra: A healthy lifestyle includes limited TV

Healthy Family

Posted: January 13, 2011 10:33 p.m.
Updated: January 13, 2011 10:33 p.m.

Now that 2011 is here, I sincerely hope we can all adopt a healthier lifestyle.

Every healthy lifestyle has three main components — eating healthy, increased activity and less time spent in front of the television.

Time in front of the television is associated with unhealthy eating, decreased activity, obesity, anxiety, insomnia, poor attention span, poor vision and violent behavior.

Every time we look for it, more information surfaces about the negative effects of television, and no group is affected more than our children.

Since the 1980s, we’ve known that children who watch television regularly are more violent, more aggressive and more anxious.

In fact, immediately after watching a violent program, children are more likely to strike out at playmates, argue and disobey authority than children who watch a nonviolent program.

These same children also are less patient and more worried about “something bad” happening to them.

More recently, we have found that children who spend more than four hours a day in front of the tube are more likely to have a higher body-mass index (higher weight-to-height ratio).

These children are not only eating more as they sit in front of a screen, but their food choices are more likely to be unhealthy, and they are sedentary.

These hours of television are inversely related to hours of activity.

Moreover, recent studies out of Oregon and the United Kingdom have shown that children under age 2 who watch more than two hours of television a day are more likely to have impaired childhood development, abnormal sleep schedules and psychiatric diagnoses.

A majority of the psychiatric diagnoses are depressive disorders, but attention deficit disorder is on the rise.

The prefrontal cortex destroyed by mindless television is the main site of breakdown in children with ADD. This is the part of the brain involved in planning, organizing and sequencing behavior for self-control, moral judgment and attention.

Still, parents knowingly subject their children to the dangers of television.

In the United States, the average child spends four hours a day in front of the television, and more than 50 percent of children have a television in their bedroom.

Parents usually cite three main reasons for allowing their child to watch television: educational value, enjoyment and the need to get things done around the house. However, these benefits are not compounded by hours of watching television.

In fact, they are diluted with each passing hour.

One of the main reasons for a child’s particular sensitivity to television is that physiologically, 8-year-olds are not uniformly able to discriminate between real life and fantasy or entertainment.

They often are unable to tell the difference between the actual programming and the commercials. They see the items in the commercials as truly the perfect dinner, the must-have doll or the ideal snack. Therefore even “family-friendly” programming is not safe.

Saturday morning cartoons, when studied, aired commercials for high-sugar, high- sodium, high-fat and low-nutrient food products 50 percent of the time. The majority of the remaining commercials were for other “must-have items” that did not add to a child’s development by any standards.

The American Academy of Pediatricians recommends no television viewing for all children under age 2 and to limit screen time (time in front of the television, surfing the Internet on the computer and playing video games) to less than two hours a day for children over age 2.

Five ways to help meet this goal are to:
n Take the television or computer out of your child’s bedroom.

n Turn off the television during meals.

n Take your child on outings at least four times per week, whether to museums, parks, the library, dance or karate class and other events or locations.

Maybe you can get some household chores done while your child is at sports practice.

n Make sure that “family time” is not just movie night or Thursday night television, but also includes board games, exercise, reading or talking to each other.

n Treat television as a privilege or reward, not as a right. Only after homework or chores are completed should it be allowed.

And remember, when the television is on, we can still protect our children.

Screening shows manually or with a V-chip, buying DVDs or movies without commercials, taping shows without commercials or only watching public television channels are all ways to improve the quality of television time.

Joni Bhutra is a pediatrician at Santa Clarita Pediatrics. She is a native Californian and completed her training in pediatrics at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles.  Within pediatrics, Bhutra is especially interested in genetics and learning disorders.


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