Originally created 09/26/96

Playing TV censor is tough role



CHICAGO - For many parents, it sits like a beast in the living room, asking for a fight or waiting to devour the minds of impressionable members of the household.

It's the TV, of course; and as almost all parents know from traumatic experience, getting kids away from it isn't as simple as quietly exercising parental responsibility.

If it were, there would be many more scenes of happy families gathered around the coffee table playing Parcheesi instead of having shouting matches over whether Junior can watch Power Rangers after preschool or Sis can see her favorite rock stars gyrate on MTV.

So it might have seemed like something of a godsend that the venerable American Medical Association put its full weight behind a set of guidelines it issued Sept. 9 about kids and TV, titled, "Media Use Suggestions for Parents," designed "to help parents reduce exposure to media violence."

Yet a pass through the AMA guidelines - from No. 1, "Be alert to the shows your children see," through No. 3, "Limit the use of media ... no television before school" and on to No. 6, "Decide in advance if a program is worth viewing," - might leave more than a few parents scratching their heads over whether the AMA has actually been in a household with a TV lately.

As kids would say: "Duhhhh!"

While the guidelines might strike most as blatantly obvious, that doesn't mean they won't have an impact, said Marjorie J. Hogan, a Minneapolis pediatrician who reviewed the recommendations for the AMA.

"Even though they're obvious, children are watching an average of 28 hours a week," Dr. Hogan said. "Something needs to be done."

For most parents, the issue is not believing that children should watch less TV and better shows. The question is, "How on Earth can you accomplish this in the face of young wills that make Winston Churchill look like a wimp?"

"In a lot of families, having a reasonable discussion with children about limiting TV watching is not going to work because the children, even those as young as 3 or 4, have control over TV watching," said Leonard Jason, professor of psychology at DePaul University and author of an upcoming book about children and TV.

In the parlance of contemporary psychology, TV watching has become a "power issue and the kids have the power," Mr. Jason said.

Indeed, the struggle parents have over the TV - short of getting rid of it altogether - is figuring out how to have one in the house without feeling like the Battle of the Bulge is always on the horizon.

Experts say limiting TV viewing is a complicated strategy that can test the most responsible parents - even those who disdain TV themselves.

Betti Goldberg, a mother of three children, said when she attempted to curtail her 12-year-old son's TV watching, he began replacing it with something that was equally undesirable in her opinion - playing hand-held video games.

"My son is absolutely hooked on (TV)," Ms. Goldberg said. "They fall asleep with it on and they wake up with it. It's their best friend next to their mom."

The AMA guidelines came out in conjunction with a survey indicating that the majority of parents are fed up with the violence and effluent they see on TV and would like ratings systems and other measures to tone it down.

But in most cases, Mr. Jason warned, simply boxing up the television without preparation could lead to even more tension and fighting than did earlier efforts to control viewing.

Rather, parents can experiment with blocking the TV at certain times with locks that prevent the plug from going into the socket. And they can strike deals with their children, requiring them to exercise, do homework or read before watching TV, Jason said.

Another problem with curtailing kids' TV watching, as many parents have found, is the AMA's No. 12 guideline: "Limit your own television viewing."

Tricia Palleja said she hasn't had to worry about her 2-year-old daughter's television habits nearly as much as her own.

"I've been the one who had to make the adjustment," said Ms. Palleja, who used to watch talk shows. "I had bad viewing habits. I was watching too much TV and didn't want her to watch as much as I do."

Even parents with toddlers barely old enough to repeat "Barney" say they are trying to lay down the law on television limits now - before it's too late. Jeanne Hirth, a homemaker, says she restricts her 2-year-old's viewing to PBS and videos such as "Winnie the Pooh."

Most parents wouldn't argue with the AMA's No. 2 guideline, "Avoid using television, videos or video games as a baby-sitter ... plan some other fun activity with the family."

But reality can intrude. To a parent who needs a few minutes respite from the rigors of raising a child, the television can beckon like the land of Oz.

"I have to admit I do use a video to take a shower," Ms. Hirth said, sheepishly. "I pop in a video, leave the door open and take a 15- to 20-minute shower."

The American Medical Association's "Media Use Suggestions for Parents"

1. Be alert to the shows your children see.

2. Avoid using TV, videos or video games as a baby-sitter.

3. Limit TV use to no more than one or two quality hours per day.

4. Keep TV and video players out of your children's bedrooms.

5. Turn the TV off at mealtimes.

6. Decide in advance if a TV program is worth viewing. Don't turn the TV on "to see if there's something on."

7. Don't make the TV the focal point of the house. Avoid placing the television in the most prominent location in your home.

8. Watch what your children are watching. This will give you an opportunity to discuss it with them.

9. Be especially careful about viewing just before bedtime.

10. Learn about movies that are playing and videos available for rent or purchase and be explicit with children about your guidelines of what is appropriate.

11. Learn how to critically evaluate media offerings, such as advertising.

12. Limit your own TV viewing. Set a good example.

13. Let your voice be heard: Insist on better programming for children.

Chicago Tribune