Ask the mediatrician

February 28, 2013
Michael Rich

Am I being too strict about my kids’ access to media?

Dr. Michael Rich is a paediatrician and director of the Center on Media and Child Health at Children's Hospital Boston, Harvard Medical School and Harvard School of Public Health.

Featured here is a recent Q&A published on Rich’s website (http://cmch.typepad.com/mediatrician/). The content is reprinted with permission of the author.

I have four boys (ages 7–11) and I’m strict about limiting their screen time. We don’t allow any during the school week. On the weekend we allow the boys one hour per day. I have also told my oldest son that when he is at someone else’s house, he is not allowed to play games like Halo and Call of Duty (COD)—he will be allowed to play them when he reaches the game’s recommended age. This puts him in an awkward position with his friends.

Question: Am I being too strict about my kids’ access to media? 

Answer: I am sure that your sons think you’re too strict, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing—children need parents to set boundaries, even when they don’t like those boundaries. Knowing how media can affect your children (both positively and negatively) can help you make informed decisions about what boundaries to set around media use.

Research supports the limits you’ve set: Studies show that children who watch television for extended periods of time are at greater risk for sleep disturbances and obesity. They show that children and youth who repeatedly play violent video games can become desensitized to both virtual and real-world violence and that they do less well in school.

To move beyond “strict-mom” dynamic and help your sons learn to manage their time and focus their media use, make your sons part of the rule-making process. Sit down with them and collaborate on budgeting their time, including media time. Then, talk about what kinds of media to use—or not use—during that time. That may be difficult for them, but challenge them to get creative. If your oldest keeps talking about COD and Halo, ask him what he likes about those games and why he thinks you might be concerned about him playing them. When your son is going to hang out with friends, brainstorm with him beforehand about what other fun things they could do. You may want to discuss alternative activities with the parents of your sons’ friends—while many parents hesitate to talk about media use, those who do often find that other parents are seeking strategies themselves and grateful for the dialogue.

Finally, instead of focusing on a game’s recommended age (a rating decided by the Entertainment Software Ratings Board, part of the video game industry), look at the game yourself and decide whether you want your sons to experience and learn from it. Understanding your sons’ personalities—and knowing that they will learn from and be changed by the media they use—can help you work with them to set developmentally appropriate expectations.