TV and computer games are blamed for everything from turning our children into a generation of couch potatoes to increased antisocial behavior. If you're worried about how long your child spends in front of a screen, it may be time to review family viewing habits.
Most of us are guilty of putting on the TV or a DVD for our children so we can get on with other things - cooking a meal, sorting out the washing or making a phone call.
What are the effects?Research firm BMRB estimates young people in the UK aged between 11 and 15 spend, on average, 52 hours a week in front of a screen.
Dr Aric Sigman, an associate fellow of the British Psychological Society, believes watching TV puts children at increased risk of health problems, including attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and obesity.
In April 2007, he told MPs children under three shouldn't be exposed to TV at all.
He recommended children aged between three and seven should watch no more than 30 minutes to an hour of TV a day, seven to 12-year-olds should be limited to one hour, and 12 to 15-year-olds should watch a maximum of one and a half hours.
Dr Sigman wants the Government to publish recommended daily guidelines for TV watching, as it does for salt intake.
Feeling guilty?Before rushing to throw out your TV set or computer, it's worth remembering much of the current research focuses on excessive TV watching and that some TV programmes and computer games are educational, fun and help children learn.
Watching TV as a family can be a shared social event and, if you plan your viewing rather than having the TV on all the time, something to look forward to together. It's all about striking the right balance.
Getting into a habit of using the TV as an electronic childminder means it's harder to keep a handle on how much time your children are spending in front of the TV or online.
"Time slips away and ten minutes becomes an hour," says Louise O'Flynn, a media consultant and joint author, with psychologist Teresa Orange, of The Media Diet for Kids.
Give up TV for a week - Following Is TV Bad for My Kids?, Panorama is challenging families to go without TV and computer games for a week and record the results. If you're interested, you can sign up online.
They advocate balancing TV viewing with other activities. "Start by keeping a diary of your children's viewing habits," she says. "You might be pretty flabbergasted by the results. Once you're aware of how much time your children spend in front of a screen, you can set some rules."
Get off the sofaBoth women, who have five children between them, acknowledge that cutting down screen time can be tough. "It needs a bit of effort, but small steps can make a difference so everyone in the family is happier," says Laura O'Flynn.
Steps to modify your family's screen habits:
- Keep TVs and computers out of children's bedrooms. Watching TV before going to sleep doesn't help children settle. Instead, read a bedtime story or encourage them to read for themselves. Having the TV and computer in a family room also means you can monitor what they're watching and who they're talking to online.
- Good viewing habits start young. It's difficult to impose rules on teenagers who already watch excessive TV or play computer games for hours on end.
- Help children plan their viewing with a TV guide. This will cut down screen time and help them to become more selective about what they watch.
- Don't put on the TV as background noise.
- Set viewing limits. Decide with your children how much time they can spend watching TV or playing computer games. Think in 30-minute units - shorter periods make it easier to switch off and cut down on screen consumption.
- Lead by example. Don't have a TV in your own bedroom and don't spend hours watching TV or online.
- Do something different, such as playing board games or going out on a bike ride. Laura O'Flynn says: "We went into lots of schools and the children told us they wished their parents would take them to the park and play with them."
- Make sure DVDs are age appropriate. The British Board of Film Classification has handy explanations of what different film classifications mean.