MONDAY, Feb. 2, 2004 (HealthDayNews) -- A family-based intervention program reduced television viewing for preschool children substantially, and it's something most parents can do on their own, researchers report.
More accurately, it's something parents can do in cooperation with their children, says program leader Dr. Barbara A. Dennison, since the key element is finding things that children prefer to television.
"We weren't just negative," says Dennison, an associate professor of clinical pediatrics at Columbia University in New York City. "We encouraged parents and day schools to promote the things that children would like to do."
Those things include having a parent read to them, having children set the table for TV-free meals, making "No TV" stickers to put on television sets, and having a weekend party to celebrate a TV-free week, says Dennison, who works at Bassett Healthcare in Oneonta, N.Y., an upstate Columbia teaching facility.
Mealtimes are important, she says: "It's better to have a lot of people sitting around a table eating and talking, rather than lined up in front of a television set."
The program included children aged 2.5 to 5.5 years old attending 16 preschool or day-care centers in the Oneonta area. Some of the children were given seven sessions of teaching that emphasized alternatives to television watching, while others were left on their own. Parents, whose permission for the study was obtained in advance, kept logs of their children's viewing hours.
At the start, children who got the lessons were watching television an average of 11.9 hours a week, compared to 14 hours a week for those who got no lessons. Two years later, the children in the intervention program reduced their TV watching by an average of 3.1 hours per week, while those left alone increased their TV time an average of one hour a week, says a report in the February issue of the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine.
It's not always easy for parents to keep children away from the television set, Dennison acknowledges. When a tired parent comes home from work, the temptation is to use television as a babysitter.
"The biggest challenge is to get parents to buy into it," says Theresa J. Russo, an assistant professor of child and family studies at the State University of New York at Oneonta.
Part of the parent recruiting effort is to inform them about the possible ill effects on children of too much television watching, says Russo, who prepared the study materials. Research has shown that kids who spend many hours staring at the screen are more likely to be obese, and that they can pick up violent behavior from many shows, even cartoons.
The American Academy of Pediatrics has long recommended active efforts by parents to limit children's viewing time, Russo notes.
It's not certain the reduction in television viewing will last, she says, because "we didn't follow families long-term."
"But hopefully, if you make that lifestyle change, they won't go back to it," Russo says.