What parents can do to get the best out of kids' TV By Monica Ginsburg
If you’re concerned about the impact of television on your children, stay tuned. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) plans to review media ownership rules, which could affect the variety and quality of children’s programming. Existing ownership rules prevent a media conglomerate from owning two television networks and a newspaper from owning a television station in the same city, among other restrictions. But speculation is rife the FCC will announce in May it is abolishing that rule. The changes are seen as a step backward from the 1990s laws put in place to help regulate children’s TV and encourage the development of more quality kid’s programming.
Advocacy groups want the FCC to consider how the deregulation would affect children’s television before any rules change. They fear it will lead to less diversity, less original programming and more commercialism.
“Cable and broadcast partners already share much of the same children’s programming, and that trend is likely to continue in a deregulated industry,” says Christy Glaubke, senior associate at the research group, Children Now. “We want more and better original programming for kids, with shows that represent different images of race, class and gender. The commission appears to be moving in the opposite direction.”
The Children’s Television Act, passed in 1990, established strict rules on advertising during children’s programming. The law was strengthened in 1996 requiring networks to broadcast weekly at least three hours of “educational/informational” programs and put someone in charge of children’s programming at each station. It also set up a rating system to guide parents.
Although the act and the rules are not up for review in the current round of changes, consolidation is unlikely to be good for children’s television. More than ever, parents need to be the ones who keep their kids safe from harmful television.
So, here are 10 ways to help you take control of TV and help your children become smart about what they watch:
Make your voice heard. Send a letter to the FCC and your congressional representatives urging them to address the impact of the proposed deregulation on children’s television. You can send an instant letter at www.childrennow.org. More than 5,000 letters already have been sent from this site. “Letters are powerful,” says Glaubke. “They let the FCC know we’re paying attention.”
Turn off your TV. Too drastic a step? Try a seven-day break from television during TV-Turnoff Week, April 21-27. “After just one TV-free week, people tell us they begin to watch less television and watch more selectively,” says Frank Vespi, TV Turnoff Network’s executive director. “TV stops being a default setting for free time. Instead it becomes one choice among many.”
Learn how TV impacts children. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) cautions parents about the potential for television to promote aggressive behavior and obesity in children. The AAP also stresses the influence of television on early sexual activity, drug and alcohol use and abuse, school performance and the perpetuation of ethnic stereotypes.
Set time limits. AAP does not recommend television for children aged 2 or younger. For older children, the academy recommends no more than two hours per day of educational, nonviolent programs. Turn off the TV after the program ends, and make mealtimes, homework and play activities TV-free times.
Look for E/I icons. Check your television guide for the icon indicating shows are educational/informational. The law requires stations to identify E/I programs on air and in TV listings. If you don’t find the icons, ask the publisher and/or station manager to include them. Create your own guide of E/I programs for your family to watch.
Call or write your local station. Ask to speak to the children’s programming liaison. If there isn’t one, ask the station manager why. Invite the liaison to speak at a PTA meeting about the station’s programming for children. Write to your local station about a children’s program you like or dislike. The letter can make a difference when the station’s FCC license comes up for renewal.
Use the ratings system. Instead of flipping through channels, use the TV Parental Guidelines ratings system to select programs with your children: TV-Y identifies programs appropriate for all ages; TV-Y7 identifies programs appropriate for children 7 and older; and TV-Y7-FV identifies programs that contain fantasy violence, which is more intense and combative than TV-Y7 programs. Channels that have agreed to use the ratings show them for 15 seconds at the start of a show. See your local TV listings for a complete description of ratings.
Combat fantasy violence. Explain how producers use special effects, stunts, editing and other production techniques to make the violence look real. Discuss the consequences of the violence—the punishment of the aggressor and the pain of the victim and the family. Help your children think of nonviolent solutions to TV stories and talk about how violence is not an acceptable solution to problems. “Watching with children and talking about the violence they see helps put it into perspective,” says Kathryn Montgomery, president of the Center for Media Education.
Educate kids about commercial messages. Explain how advertisers get you to want a product with “super sayings” and phrases that don’t tell the whole truth. Compare the products you buy with their TV image. Check out food ads for cereals, snacks and candy to see how “good” they really are for you. “Kids are mimics. What they see on TV is what they want to have and what they want to be,” says Gary Ruskin, executive director of Commercial Alert.
Be a role model. Watch programs with your children. Watch programs that support your family’s values. Monitor how much TV you watch and what you watch when the children are around.
Monica Ginsburg is the mother of two daughters and a freelance writer based in Chicago.