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Here's the real way to curb kids' TV watching -- but it might hurt a bit!

By Kelly Wallace, CNN
updated 2:51 PM EDT, Thu July 25, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Study: The top predictor of how much TV a child watches is how much parents watch
  • Parental viewing habits had a greater impact on kids' TV use than screen rules
  • Study involved more than 1,500 parents with kids 17 or younger
  • Moms have different opinions about whether their TV viewing affects their kids

Editor's note: Kelly Wallace is CNN's digital correspondent and editor-at-large covering family, career and life. She's a mom of two girls and lives in Manhattan. Read her other columns and follow her reports at CNN Parents and on Twitter.

(CNN) -- Recently, my 5-year-old turned the tables on me. Shortly after I told her she and her sister couldn't play any games on my iPhone, I picked up the device to check e-mail.

"Mom, how come you can be on the phone and we can't?" she asked.

I came to a halt, said she was exactly right and put the phone down. E-mail would wait!

I was reminded of that moment when I read about a recent study, published in the journal Pediatrics, that found that the best predictor of how much time a child spends watching television was not whether they had a TV in their bedroom or screen rules or the demographics of the household. It had to do with something else: how much television we, as parents, are watching ourselves!

"Kids observe what you do, so when they see you turning on the TV if you have free time ... then they are going to learn to do that themselves in their free time," said Amy Bleakley, senior research scientist with the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania and one of the authors of the study.

The online survey involved a national sample of 1,550 parents who have kids 17 and younger and included reports from 629 adolescents whose parents were in the sample. For every hour a parent spent watching television, their children were in front of the tube for 23 minutes, according to Bleakley.

"I think that parents who are concerned with the amount of time their children spend watching television and other media should really be aware of their own use," Bleakley said.

It makes sense if you think about it, said Lori Garcia, a mom of two boys, ages 5 and 10, and a blogger for Babble.com. "Anyone who has been a parent for any length of time knows that your children mimic your behavior far more than they listen to you across the board, so it actually doesn't surprise me to know how much TV a parent watches directly influences a child's attitude toward television."

Toddlers and technology: Good or bad?

Garcia generated quite a buzz a few years ago when she wrote a post about how she let her boys, including her then-toddler, have a television in their bedrooms. She said she and her husband have rules about how much television their boys can watch and are very careful about how they use it themselves.

Parenting advice from a non-parent

"We're doers," she said. "We're like, 'TV off. We have free time. Let's paint the kitchen. Let's organize the garage.' "

She found that even when her kids are allowed to watch television, especially when she and her husband are working on a home improvement project and they'd prefer the kids not be involved, the boys want to join them versus spend time watching a show.

"They are so much more interested in what we're doing," she said. "So it's really true (about) how you spend your free time. Your kids are going to be directly influenced."

READ: More children injured by toppling TVs

Well, maybe not in every household. Listen to Amy Oztan, mother of two and host of the hilarious blog Selfish Mom. She loves television and has it on most of the day while she works from home. Her son, who's about to turn 12, shares her passion for television viewing, while her daughter doesn't watch much at all.

"This really speaks to the whole nature versus nurture thing," she said, noting that both kids were raised in the same house pretty much the same way.

"It's the way they came out. I feel like they come out a certain way, and you've got some room to move them in one direction or another, but you are not going to totally change who they are, no matter whether it's a good habit or a bad habit."

Oztan doesn't enforce any screen rules as long as the kids are "behaving" but also doesn't believe in having televisions in her kids' bedrooms. To her, the whole issue of television and kids should be based on each individual family's experience.

"I think that the key is, you have to do what works for you. I know plenty of kids who, if you did give them unlimited screen time, they would take unlimited screen time, and their grades would suffer, and they would be brats, and then obviously (you would) have to do something," she said.

My kids seem to be a lot like Amy's: One loves television; the other likes it, just not as much. But I'm really making a mental note about the study's findings. We tend not to have the TV on when the kids are awake, but they know that we often turn it on right after we kiss them good night.

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This study, like so many others, is probably another good reminder that our actions don't always affect our kids, but they certainly can.

"It's what we eat, they're watching. It's what we watch. It's what we listen to. It's the messages that we're listening to on the radio and the music, and what we're reading, and just how we're choosing to spend our time and what we value," Garcia said. "So I think that it's important for us to not only to look at this in terms of television but really look at this in terms of anything we bring into our house."

Agreed. Now I'm heading home to finish writing this article in front of them. If I write in my free time, maybe they'll be even more turned on to writing, too?

Follow Kelly Wallace on Twitter and on Google+, and like CNN Living on Facebook.

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