MONDAY, Nov. 6, 2006 (HealthDay News) -- Two new studies spotlight both the difficulty parents often have in keeping children away from the TV and also the potential health rewards for kids in cutting down on adult media, such as R-rated movies.
For example, one study found that 9-to-12-year-olds who were barred from watching R-rated movies also had lower risks for smoking and drinking.
Those results show that "the media is a very important part of children's lives today, and parents need to take it seriously," said the lead author of the movies-and-health study, Madeline Dalton, director of the Hood Center for Children and Families at Dartmouth Medical School in Lebanon, N.H.
The findings are published in the November issue of Pediatrics.
In the first study, researchers at the University of Pennsylvania sought to determine whether or not new TV-watching guidelines from the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) were being implemented in real life.
Among other things, the AAP suggests that parents limit TV time to no more than two hours a day for children over 2 years of age, and that children shouldn't have TVs in their bedrooms.
The researchers interviewed 180 parents and children about their media use. The kids were between the ages of 6 and 13 years old.
They found that most children spend at least three hours per day watching TV.
"Getting parents to be aware of how much time children are spending in front of a screen is important," said the lead author of the first study, Amy Jordan, a senior research investigator at the Annenberg Public Policy Research Center at the University of Pennsylvania. "When parents started adding it up, then they started realizing, it was probably three, four or five hours a day."
The average home in the study had four television sets, and two-thirds of the youngsters had TVs in their bedrooms, the researchers found. About half of the households also had TVs in the dining room or kitchen area.
Most parents said they did have rules for TV viewing, but few reported restricting the amount of time TV was watched.
"I think to most American families, the media has become very integrated into the life of the family and child. To radically change that means giving a shock to the family system," said Jordan. "Children rely on TV for entertainment and distraction, while parents rely on it for cheap babysitting."
Many parents thought it would be better for kids to watch less TV, but weren't sure how to make the shift and they were concerned that their youngsters would be bored without TV or video games.
"But, developmentally, boredom is important," Jordan said. It's during those times when children aren't being passively distracted that they use their creativity and do some exploring. That's when they might throw a sheet over the dining room table and make a fort, or play hide and seek, or explore outside. It's better for their minds and bodies."
The second study concentrated specifically on children's R-rated movie viewing habits and restrictions.
Between 2002 and 2003, Dalton and her team interviewed more than 2,600 parents and children. The children were between the ages of 9 and 12. Overall, 45 percent of kids weren't allowed by their parent to watch R-rated movies. From the group that could watch R movies, about one-third always watched with a parent, but two-thirds only sometimes watched with one of their parents.
"I was pretty surprised at how few parents set restrictions and monitored movie-viewing. Forty percent of 9 year olds watched R-rated movies at least occasionally and 70 percent of 12-year-olds did," said Dalton.
Children from households were R-rated movies were always restricted had about a 40 percent decreased risk of smoking or drinking than did kids who were allowed to watch R movies.
When parents watched R movies with their children, the risk of smoking was decreased, though the risk of drinking remained the same. Dalton said the researchers aren't sure why that was the case, but suspect it may be because many more parents drink than smoke, so parents may be giving more negative messages about smoking than drinking.
Interestingly, Dalton said that, in past research, they found that the children who seem to be most receptive to media portrayals of negative activities, such as smoking, are the ones who have non-smoking parents.
That means that "parents who model good behavior need to realize that it's probably not enough," said Dalton. She also believes that "kids under 13 should not be watching R-rated movies."
Theres more on children's media use at the American Academy of Pediatrics.