The television screens in America’s living rooms are getting bigger, and the picture is getting clearer than ever with high-definition. Are we letting a giant monster move into our houses and take over? Are we becoming lethargic and overweight by sitting around watching our favorite series week after week? Are our children becoming immune to the violence that many television shows depict in detail? Or, do we feel guilty and just need to add healthy activities to our dose of television?

Pros and Cons of Children Watching Television

A study showed that 50 children between the ages of one and three were in a room with no television for half an hour. Then, they switched to a room with a television for 30 minutes. The result, as you can imagine, is that television interferes with the quantity and quality of conversations between the children and their parents.

While little is known about effects of television on young children, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) wants parents to be cautious. The brain, unlike other major organs, is embryonic at birth and develops over the first two years in response to stimuli in the environment, said Michael Rich, MD, who helped formulate the stringent policy of the AAP. He said that young children who have a lot of playtime and interaction with parents generally do better than kids who are deprived of those chances. He added that television takes children away from activities that are essential to their emotional, intellectual and physical development.

How Much TV is too Much, Really?

It is necessary for young children to spend most of their awake time in activities and exploring their surroundings. Playing with toys, going to the park, interacting with adults and reading books with their parents are all excellent ways to do this. However, watching television does not help them achieve what they do during creative play. Play helps their problem-solving, attention and social skills.

A study of one-year-old children monitored what happened when they watched a hand puppet that wore a mitten with a bell tucked inside. When they were shown that they could remove the mitten and shake it, the bell would ring, the children were able to do it on their own. However, when children were shown the same demonstration on television, they were not able to repeat the behavior in as many cases. According to Rachel Barr, PhD, an assistant professor at Georgetown University, there is something about a two-dimensional context—a television screen—that makes it difficult for children to transfer the information into three-dimensional reality.

Some critics of television say that when children repeat what they hear on television, it may be less meaningful that parents think. For a child to learn to speak, he needs to actually talk with other people and not by watching other people do so on television.

Research showed that children who watch educational programs do better in school than those who watch violent programs.

A study found that kids who watched television prior to taking a test did better than children who worked on a crossword puzzle, played with a toy or listened to classical music.

Children who watch television shows like the Simpsons turned out to understand political issues better.

Pros and Cons of Adults Watching Television

Did you know the average American watches nearly 34 hours of television each week? While it used to be that older people watched more television, it seems like people under 35 years old are spending more time on computers and mobile devices watching their favorite television programs. People between 18 and 34 years old, view more than two hours of Internet or mobile video per week, as well as 23 more hours in front of the television screen.

  • Research shows that all the time spent watching television (on the screen and via other devices) is negatively affecting people’s health. One study determined that for every hour a person watched television, his life expectancy decreased by 22 minutes. This could be, in part, because television viewing seems to go hand-in-hand with unhealthy habits—not enough exercise and poor eating. On the other hand, children who watch television and see advertisements about unhealthy snacks crave that type of food because of the commercials—not the television programs.
  • A study that researched more than three decades of data showed that people who watched less television were happier than others. Children and adults who do not watch much television are also more apt to get out and network with others instead of stay home. However, is the television what causes unhappiness–or is it unhappy people who choose to engage in more passive activities and get away from daily life (such as viewing television)?
  • The problem may not be television at all. It is more likely the habits people are engaging in while they are in front of the screen. Instead of watching mindless programs, people can opt to watch educational programs, such as documentaries about events in history.
  • To get in some exercise when watching television, use the commercial breaks as a way to do some jumping jacks or sit-ups.
  • To ensure you get a good amount of physical activity and still watch television, do not turn on the television to “surf” for something to watch. By doing this, many hours are wasted. Sit down to watch a certain show, and set a timer that will go off when you need to get up, turn the television off and go on to something else.
  • Have a plan for watching television by going through the viewing guide and choosing the shows you want to see during the week. Stay tuned for only those shows, and then turn the television off.
  • If you feel you want to get some other activity in, but the television is eating away at your time, you can make a deal with yourself. Make a rule that you have to read a certain amount of pages of a book, exercise for 40 minutes or work in your garden for an hour before you can turn on the television. That way, you will be able to get any chores you would like to accomplish done plus get to watch television.

The Average American’s TV Habits

It’s 6 a.m. and your alarm starts blaring. You wipe away the sleep from your eyes and stand up, stretching your arms to the ceiling. Without another action or thought, you grab the remote on your bedside table and press the red power button. The morning news anchor begins chattering away.

You beat traffic and get home from work a little early today. Great—you have time to watch the next episode in your newest Netflix series. You power up your laptop and with the click of a couple buttons, your favorite characters appear on screen.

It’s been a long day and you’re more than ready to unravel before bed. You grab a blanket and a snack, recline your chair, and turn on the TV. You flip through channels of screaming reality TV stars, informative newscasts, and intriguing documentaries before finally settling on a program.

The average American watches about five hours of television every single day. This is equal to 35 hours a week. We watch it while we’re getting ready for work, while we’re cooking dinner, while we’re relaxing at night, while we’re exercising, while we’re spending time with our friends—we watch TV everywhere and we watch it all of the time. Everything’s okay in moderation, but too much TV—like most other things—may be damaging.

The Harmful Effects of TV

Excessive TV-watching can be harmful for multiple reasons:

  • It can hinder relationships. Studies show that individuals may be less committed to their real-life relationships if they spend a significant amount of time investing in romance or friendships portrayed on television.
  • It can lead to weight gain. Many people spend the bulk of their TV time sitting on the couch or laying in bed. They also probably have their hand deep in a bag of chips or bag of popcorn. Long periods of inactivity and mindless eating can both lead to a significant increase in weight.
  • It could increase aggression and negativity. We are often exposed to violent scenes in dramatic TV shows and movies. This is especially harmful in children, as they internalize these cues and are likely to become aggressive in their daily lives because of it.
  • It can be isolating. Spending an excessive amount watching television is proven to lead to to loneliness and depression. Therefore, binge-watching is not a completely innocent addiction.

How Can I Improve My Unhealthy TV Habits?

There are a few adjustments that can be made to make TV-watching a healthier intrinsic part of your life. This doesn’t have to mean cutting down significantly, but may instead mean changing the types of programs you’re tuning into. Although studies show cutting down to two hours of TV time a day can lead you to living a longer, fuller life, many find that very difficult or even impossible. So, if you’re going to turn the TV on, here’s what you should spend the bulk of time watching:

  • Educational programs: This is surely no surprise. If you’re going to spend time watching TV, try to watch something that will teach you something new. This might mean watching the Discovery Channel or tuning into Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Cosmos, depending on what your interests are. Popular educational programs for kids include Sesame Street, The Magic School Bus, Bill Nye the Science Guy, and Reading Rainbow.
  • Documentaries: Documentaries also serve the purpose of teaching you something new. They explore certain phenomena, controversial topics and practices, and provide you with an inside look you probably wouldn’t get otherwise. Popular documentaries include Super Size Me, Food Inc., and Blackfish.
  • Game shows: Gameshows can put your brain to work, as many involve the host asking contestants questions that you try to answer quickly too. Jeopardy!, The Price Is Right, Family Feud, and Who Wants to Be a Millionaire are all classics.
  • Crime dramas: Crime dramas can be a great genre to tune into. They build suspense over time and require the viewer to keep up with complicated storylines. They also provide great stimulation for the brain which equals a healthier one.
  • Inspirational series: Some TV shows and movies have a way of tapping right into our emotions. They cause us to become happy and sad, scared and excited; they drive us to chase after our dreams. It’s good to feel and it’s even better to be inspired.

It’s important to watch out for the warning signs we discussed that might be trying to tell you your TV habits are harmful. If you notice these, or simply decide you want to lead a healthier lifestyle, then a combination of cutting down on your TV time and incorporating some brain-stimulating shows into your routine can successfully help you change your habits for the better.