These days the technology of media and entertainment appears to change ever faster before our very eyes, one influential bit of now ageing 20th century technology still sits happily in the corner of our living rooms.

When television was first broadcast, people crowded around sets and watched with wonder. Today television is simply part of the backdrop — something we take for granted. In some households it murmurs away in the background, morning and night, a comforting companion. For others it springs into life issuing graphic snippets of global news immediately when mom or dad arrives home from work.

While researchers remain divided about the exact effects of watching television on our growing children, there is no doubt that television has a major impact.

So is television good or bad for your kids?

I hate to sound trite, but the answer is that it can be both.

Children can learn a lot about their world from seeing people, animals, places, things and events they may never actually experience. Television can encourage fantasy and create an enjoyable learning process. It also helps children relax and wind down after school or a boisterous activity.

But not all children’s television programs are up to the benchmark of “Sesame Street,” and for older children we know as adults that the phrase “quality programming” doesn’t cover too much of today’s nightly TV fair.

Content aside, the very nature of television watching is passive and that means when children spend too much time watching television they miss out on opportunities for learning through doing — the nature of interactive activities. Homework, outdoor play, exercise, reading and time spent talking with parents and other family members must not be neglected.

As parents we can help make the effects of watching television more positive by influencing how much our children watch, what they watch, and whether we are around and available for children to talk to us about a confusing or upsetting program.

Of course, you need to decide for yourself how many hours of television you think your child should watch. It might be a good idea first to quietly note just how much television your child is viewing in a normal week. The figure for 7- to 11-year-olds could be at least 21 hours.

For children up to 12 years of age I recommend a maximum of only one hour per day during a school week and a little longer on the weekend.

If you want to set new television watching hours, make sure you tell your children about your plans and enlist their aid in seeing it through. Read the TV guide with your child and write down which programs they want to watch. When you agree on these, explain new ground rules such as “only watch selected programs.” “the television will be turned off at other times, or if there are any arguments,” and “no television before homework is finished.”

When setting television watching rules, it is important to include something to combat the common habit children have of turning on the television “just to see what’s on.” Any time this or any other ground rule is broken, cancel the child’s viewing for that night. If it happens again, be prepared to unplug the set and remove it from the room.

Parenting Tip

It is sometimes hard for younger parents to cope with reduced television hours for their children because of their own viewing habits. Try watching most of your television after the children are in bed. Of course, there is another alternative. Families who decide to cut down on their television watching report that they all start talking to each other more, getting involved in hobbies and other activities, and children start to show an interest in reading.

Dr. Matthew Sanders is a clinical psychologist at the University of Queensland in Australia and founder of the Triple P - Positive Parenting Program.