Dear Mr. Dad: My 18-month old son is suddenly obsessed with TV. He watches at least 3-4 hours per day. My wife doesn’t see the problem since it allows her to get stuff done around the house, but I’m worried. How much TV is too much?

A: Great question—one you have every right to be concerned about. Watching too much TV is a growing problem in our society—especially for children. Studies are all over the place, but they generally show that American children watch two to six hours of television per day. Plus they spend a few more in front of other screens, watching DVDs or playing video games.

How much is too much? The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends that children under two don’t watch any screen media at all. Zero. Not even DVDs. After two, keep TV and screen time to 1-2 hours per day, max. “These early years are crucial in a child’s development,” says the AAP. And there’s no question that watching TV has a big impact. Children who are watching TV spend less time reading, playing outside, and doing homework, and are more likely to be overweight, afraid of others, and exhibit aggressive behavior. (And a horrifying study released early this year found that adults who watch a lot of TV have a greater chance of dying of a heart attack or other condition than those who watch less than two hours/day.)

Unfortunately there’s no shortage of TV and DVD programs aimed at infants and toddlers. Baby Einstein used to claim that their videos were educational, but researchers found the opposite: the more time young kids spend in front of “educational” DVDs like Baby Einstein, the smaller their vocabularies. In September 2009, Disney (the parent company) started offering refunds (or an exchange for a book or CD) on any Baby Einstein DVDs purchased within the last five years.

The big issue is that no matter what’s on TV, nothing can replace good, old-fashioned parent-child interaction. What ever happened to drawing, playing, dancing, reading, singing, and even just talking? All of those are far more important to kids’ development than TV. Bottom line: Even though your son is enjoying his TV time, the best thing for him is to cut it down as much as possible. That may not be easy for him or your wife, since TV has become an important part of their routines. Still, there are some ways to wean them from the tube.

  • Cut back to 15-minute chunks. Warn your son a few minutes before time is up and once the TV is off, immediately begin another activity that you know will grab his attention.
  • Never have the TV on during meals.
  • Record his favorite shows and use them as special treats for good behavior.
  • Once in a while we all have to park a child in front of a screen for a few minutes. When that happens, try to find programs that are interactive, that encourage kids to speak, sing, or move—anything but sit passively.
  • If you own any Baby Einstein DVDs, take advantage of Disney’s refund or exchange offer before the March 4, 2010 deadline.

Finally, encourage your wife to watch with him. Obviously this limits what she can get done around the house, but maybe she can sort laundry or check email on the laptop some of the time. The point is that when they’re watching together, she can explain what he’s seeing on the screen and help him make connections between that and real life.