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Breaking the Bad TV Habit

By Laura Fries

Watching bad TV (read brainless but harmless) is often considered a stress buster, so frequently engaging in an evening of goofy home video shows or foolish sitcoms doesn't always seem like a big deal. The problem is, a little bit of de-stressing can quickly turn into a lot of time in front of the TV. Let's face it, there really isn't anything in this world that you can consume in unlimited quantity without consequence. TV isn't any different.

Like any other bad habit, it's important to think about the messages unintentionally passed on to the kids. Unlike other vices, breaking the bad TV habit doesn't have to be painful or even that extreme. With a little gumption and imagination, you can make family TV a quality, not quantity, experience.

Although it seems like TV viewing routines develop overnight, in actuality, we've probably been building the behavior for years. Studies estimate that it takes 30 days to really break a habit, but establishing a new pattern in your life requires just a couple of days. The first key is to honestly evaluate the amount of "junk food" TV being watched. How many times have you or your child flipped through the channels over and over just to settle on an episode that you've seen a million times? The law of diminishing returns tells us that there is a limit to the amount of enjoyment anyone gets from repeated experience. So why do we settle? More important, why do we let our kids settle?

By taking just a few simple steps and establishing ground rules will help avoid potentially unhealthy TV viewing habits:

Limiting Television On School Nights

If you don't have a TV curfew or viewing limit, especially on school nights, you should. Between homework, sports, extracurricular activities and well, just life, the TV shouldn't be on for more than an hour on weekdays. Teachers and experienced parents know that although kids would be loath to tell anyone, they respect and even appreciate defined parameters. Very few people—adults included—work well with too many choices and not enough guidance. It's unrealistic to expect our kids to make wise viewing decisions alone. Make sure you and your children understand the TV rating system and enforce age-appropriate viewing practices.

Limiting Television On the Weekends

Rationing weekend TV time can be a little trickier. To keep a handle on weekend TV viewing, why not set a designated movie night or a Saturday morning pj party? Or, consider offering "extra credit" or some sort of reward for unused TV time throughout the week. Build upon these good habits and soon you'll have a solid foundation where TV viewing is an enriching and thoughtful experience and not just an automated response.

Appointment TV is fine, just remember, a little goes a long way. Set a few rules; for example, if it's an episode you've seen three times, it's no longer eligible for viewing. Use TV schedules to help plan viewing time. Let the kids go crazy with a highlighter or pen and circle the shows they would like to see, then edit their list with time and content restraints in mind. Use different colors for each family member, or maybe let each person have their own viewing day and pick one short show. The caveat is that it has to be appropriate for everyone and everyone has to give it a try. When you give kids a taste of quality TV time together, soon that's all they're going to want.

Breaking Out of the Comfort Zone

Breaking out of the viewing comfort zone will undoubtedly be met with some resistance, but what good is the ever-expanding TV universe if we always stick to the same few channels? Try venturing beyond the usual favorites and check out new offerings on the Smithsonian Channel and National Geographic Channel. Rediscover PBS or the Discovery Networks, which keep up with the competition by offering new and exciting shows. Parents need to take the initiative and follow through with any new viewing suggestions. Like the picky eater, however, it may take several tries before a youngster latches onto a show.  Try to think outside the box and remember that their tastes and interests are constantly changing. There will undoubtedly be a few duds. Don't oversell the show or establish unrealistic expectations. Make sure the show meets your child's interests. Even the best show is merely a launching pad to learning. If something on a show piques a child's interest, encourage them to explore the topic further through books, websites and even toys. Laughing together is great, but learning together is even better. And that's a habit you won't have to break.


About the Author
A freelance writer and TV Critic for Daily Variety, Laura Fries has been writing about TV and film entertainment for more than eighteen years. She lives with her husband, daughter and a small menagerie of pets in Alexandria, Virginia.


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