FRIDAY, April 3, 2009 (HealthDay News) -- Parking the kids in front of the TV might seem like an easy way to grab a couple of minutes to relax after work or make dinner, but too much TV time is definitely not a good thing.
Researchers have found that, along with significantly increasing the risk of childhood obesity, the likelihood of behavioral problems also goes up when kids watch more than two hours a day of TV.
"Sustained TV watching has a negative effect on behavior and social skills," said Carla Weidman, a psychologist in the child development unit at Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh.
When children are watching TV, she explained, they're not engaging in other important activities, such as imaginative play. They're also not interacting with others to learn social skills and appropriate ways to resolve conflicts."
"When TV is used as a babysitter or passive entertainment, that's when it's a problem," said Dr. Christopher Lucas, director of the early childhood service at the New York University Child Study Center in New York City. "But, the reality is that parents can't interact with their children all the time, and they have a need for a temporary babysitter."
Some parents might take comfort in the idea that television offerings include educational programming.
"There's a belief that if children are put in front of some educational medium, that it's somehow a good thing," Lucas said. "But, there's evidence that the positive effect of educational programming in the absence of parental interaction is modest."
The average child today spends 45 hours a week with some form of media, compared with just 30 hours in school, according to a report from Common Sense Media. Prepared by researchers from Yale, the U.S. National Institutes of Health and California Pacific Medical Center, the report compiled data from 173 studies on children and media and found that media exposure can contribute to childhood obesity, tobacco use, drug use, alcohol use, poor school achievement, sexual behavior and attention problems.
Problems from media exposure can start at a young age. Johns Hopkins researchers found that by the time a child is 5½, those who've regularly watched more than two hours of TV daily are much more likely to exhibit behavior problems. In fact, aggressive behavior was more than doubled in youngsters who regularly watched more than two hours of television daily.
And, the Hopkins study, which was published in the journal Pediatrics, found that 20 percent of kids from the 2,702 families studied watched more than two hours of TV a day. More than 40 percent of the youngsters had their own TVs in their bedrooms.
"I recommend removing the TV from the bedroom," Weidman said. Along with creating sleep problems, she said, parents simply have no control over what children are watching in their bedrooms, and they're not monitoring the programming.
"There are positives, such as educational TV, but you have to use it judiciously and monitor what the child is watching," she said. "Remember, you are the parent, and you make the decisions. Don't allow TV-watching decisions to be driven by the child."
Lucas agreed. "Try to involve yourself in your kids' media consumption," he said. "You should be aware of what they're watching, and don't have the TV on during meals or in the bedrooms."
But, he said, "don't beat yourself up too much if you plop your kids in front of a DVD sometimes." It's the constant, repeated exposure that seems to increase the risk of behavioral problems, he said.
And one more thing, Lucas suggested: Don't use the TV as background noise. Even young children, who don't understand the news, can pick up on the worry it might cause you, he said.
The Nemours Foundation has more on how TV affects children.