Children and Watching TV: A Guide for Parents

Television viewing is a major activity and influence on most children and adolescents. Children in the United States watch an average of three to four hours of television a day. By the time of high school graduation, they will have spent more time watching television than they have in the classroom.

While television can entertain, inform, and keep our children company, it may also influence them in undesirable ways.

Impact of TV

Time spent watching television takes away from important activities such as reading, school work, playing, exercise, family interaction, and social development. Children also learn information from television that may be inappropriate or incorrect. They often cannot tell the difference between the fantasy presented on television and reality.

They are influenced by the thousands of commercials seen each year, many of which are for alcohol, junk food, fast foods, and toys. Children who watch a lot of television are likely to have lower grades in school, read fewer books, exercise less, and be overweight.

Violence, sexuality, race and gender stereotypes, drug and alcohol abuse are common themes of television programs. Young children are impressionable and may assume that what they see on television is typical, safe, and acceptable. As a result, television also exposes children to behaviors and attitudes that may be overwhelming and difficult to understand. 

What about the news?

Seeing and hearing about local and world events, such as natural disasters, catastrophic events, and crime reports, may cause children to experience stress, anxiety, and fears. There have also been several changes in how news is reported that have given rise to the increased potential for children to experience negative effects.

These changes include television channels and Internet services and sites which report the news 24 hours a day; television channels broadcasting live events as they are unfolding, in “real time”; increased reporting of the details of the private lives of public figures and role models; pressure to get news to the public as part of the competitive nature of the entertainment industry; and detailed and repetitive visual coverage of natural disasters and violent acts.

While there has been great public debate about providing television ratings to warn parents about violence and sex in regular programming, news shows have only recently been added to these discussions.

What can you do?

Children and Screen Time

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Active parenting can ensure that children have a positive experience with television. Parents can help by:

  • Viewing programs with your children, including news programs.
  • Asking the child what he/she has heard and what questions he/she may have.
  • Providing reassurance regarding his/her own safety in simple words emphasizing that you are going to be there to keep him/her safe.
  • Selecting developmentally appropriate shows.
  • Placing limits on the amount of television viewing (per day and per week).
  • Turning off the TV during family meals and study time.
  • Turning off shows you don’t feel are appropriate for your child.
  • Looking for signs that the program may have triggered fears or anxieties such as sleeplessness, fears, bedwetting, crying, or talking about being afraid.

In addition, parents can help by doing the following:

  • Don’t allow children to watch long blocks of TV, but help them select individual programs.
  • Choose shows that meet the developmental needs of your child. Children’s shows on public TV are appropriate, but soap operas, adult sitcoms, and adult talk shows are not.
  • Set certain periods when the television will be off. Study times are for learning, not for sitting in front of the TV doing homework. Meal times are a good time for family members to talk with each other, not for watching television.
  • Encourage discussions with your children about what they are seeing as you watch shows with them. Point out positive behavior, such as cooperation, friendship, and concern for others.
  • While watching, make connections to history, books, places of interest, and personal events.
  • Talk about your personal and family values as they relate to the show. Ask children to compare what they are watching with real events.
  • Talk about the realistic consequences of violence.
  • Discuss the role of advertising and its influence on buying.
  • Encourage your child to be involved in hobbies, sports, and peers.

With proper guidance, your child can learn to use television in a healthy and positive way.

This article first appeared in the Brown University Child and Adolescent Behavior Letter Supplement.