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TV is All in the Family

How television can be a valuable resource for parents and their children

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January 3, 2013

This article originally appeared in the Huffington Post on November 20, 2012.

By Miriam Sherin

American holiday traditions begin on Thanksgiving Day with millions enjoying a family gathering and retiring to the living room, basement or den to watch television. In 2011, 5.8 million people watched the classic A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving. And when it airs on ABC-TV this Wednesday and Thursday nights, my children will probably be among those watching once again. And that's just fine with me. In fact, watching TV can be good for the family.

According to a report out last week from the Nielsen Company, in the second quarter of 2012, Americans spent an average of 34 hours per week watching television. Children 2-11 years old watched 23 hours and 34 minutes per week. That is about 3 hours and 20 minutes a day. Teenagers watched more than 21 hours per week. And adults ages 35-49 spend 32 hours per week in front of a television.

If so much time is spent watching television, why not watch together?

Undoubtedly, decades of evidence document that excessive TV watching can put children at risk. A 2012 report from the University of Liverpoollinked television viewing with increased calorie intake, while an August 2012 study reported that excessive viewing can lead to behavior problems among toddlers. In addition, a University of Iowa study last month revealed the negative effects of children exposed to several hours of TV "background" noise.

I agree. What I am advocating is deliberate participation in appropriate programming. As parents, we need to pay attention to what, when, and why our children watch TV. And as we make decisions about what we think are appropriate TV watching habits, it's important to keep in mind that TV can be a valuable resource for parents and their children.

Now that Big Bird has been saved from the chopping block by averting Mitt Romney's campaign-promised demise of Sesame Street, we can survey the benefits of generations of children watching educational programming. Children's literacy development has been linked to watching television both in terms of increased early literacy skills as well as sustained interest in independent reading. Also, many TV shows popular with children today have tie-ins with books. Want to get my son reading? Just give him the latest Phineas and Ferb book adapted from the Disney Channel characters.

Watching TV together can also support family time. Find a show that you and your children can enjoy together. Especially with teens, who are often more difficult for parents to connect with -- watching a show that appeals to them can be an easy way to spend time together. I wasn't planning to watch ABC's Revenge, but when my daughter starting watching Season 2 this fall, I joined her. And now, even when we're not watching the show we have something to talk about. (What revenge will Emily plan next?)

Civic engagement is promoted on television. Election coverage was ubiquitous this fall, from advertisements to poll results, to debates and all-night coverage of the results. What a powerful way to see our democracy in action and to feel the impact that individuals can have on our society. TV can introduce our children to not only local issues, but national and world-wide issues as well. From documentaries, to nature shows, to shows that portray various cultures and peoples, TV can open up the world for our children far beyond the doors of their own communities. In doing so, TV promotes our children's growth and maturation as caring and engaged members of society.

In moderation, watching television can also be an important tool for relaxation. In today's busy world, just as adults are encouraged to slow down and take a breather, our children need opportunities to unwind as well. A November 2012 study conducted in South Korea found that watching a favorite cartoon helped children to relax.

It's true that TV watching is not without risks for children. Yet, while maintaining reasonable limits on your child's TV time, be clear that TV watching can have its benefits for children as well.

Besides, Dancing With the Stars All Stars is coming up on its season finale and it's time for the family to tune in.

- Miriam Sherin is a Professor of Education and Social Policy at Northwestern University. 

Topics: Opinion