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Television and Children

What do I need to know about children and TV?
Television (TV) has its good side.  It can be entertaining and educational, and can open up new worlds for kids, giving them a chance to travel the globe, learn about different cultures, and gain exposure to ideas they may never encounter in their own community.  Shows with a prosocial message can have a positive effect on kids' behavior; programs with positive role models can influence viewers to make positive lifestyle changes.  However, the reverse can also be true:  Kids are likely to learn things from TV that parents don't want them to learn.  TV can affect kids' health, behavior and family life in negative ways. 

It's worthwhile for parents to think about what role they want TV to play in their family.   Consider:

How big a presence is TV in kids' lives?

As you can see, if your child is typical, TV is playing a very big role in their life.  Here are some key research findings to keep in mind as you decide what kind of role you want TV to play in your family:

Does TV affect children's brain development?
With television programs—and even a cable channel—designed and marketed specifically for babies, whether kids under two years of age should be watching becomes an important question.  While we are learning more all the time about early brain development, we do not yet have a clear idea how television may affect it.  Some studies link early TV viewing with later attention problems, such as ADHD.  However, other experts disagree with these results.  One study found that TV viewing before age three slightly hurt several measures of later cognitive development, but that between ages three and five it slightly helped reading scores [11]

The American Academy of Pediatrics takes a "better-safe-than-sorry" stance on TV for young children [12].

"It may be tempting to put your infant or toddler in front of the television, especially to watch shows created just for children under age two.

But the American Academy of Pediatrics says: Don't do it!

These early years are crucial in a child's development. The Academy is concerned about the impact of television programming intended for children younger than age two and how it could affect your child's development. Pediatricians strongly oppose targeted programming, especially when it's used to market toys, games, dolls, unhealthy food and other products to toddlers.

Any positive effect of television on infants and toddlers is still open to question, but the benefits of parent-child interactions are proven. Under age two, talking, singing, reading, listening to music or playing are far more important to a child's development than any TV show."

In addition, TV can discourage and replace reading.  Reading requires much more thinking than television, and we know that reading fosters young people's healthy brain development.  Kids from families that have the TV on a lot spend less time reading and being read to, and are less likely to be able to read [13].

What about TV and aggressive or violent behavior?
Literally thousands of studies since the 1950s have asked whether there is a link between exposure to media violence and violent behavior.  All but 18 have answered, "Yes."   The evidence from the research is overwhelming.  According to the AAP, "Extensive research evidence indicates that media violence can contribute to aggressive behavior, desensitization to violence, nightmares, and fear of being harmed." [14]  Watching violent shows is also linked with having less empathy toward others [14a].

What parents can do:

For more on TV violence and kids:

Can TV scare or traumatize kids?scared girl watching tv
Children can come to view the world as a mean and scary place when they take violence and other disturbing themes on TV to be accurate in real life. 

How does watching television affect performance in school?

Can TV influence children's attitudes toward themselves and others?
Let's take a look at what kids see on TV, and how it can affect their beliefs about race and gender:

How are children portrayed on TV?
A study by a group called Children NOW of how children are shown on local TV news, found that [35]:

Can TV affect my child's health?
Yes, TV is a public health issue in several different ways.  First of all, kids get lots of information about health from TV, much of it from ads. Ads do not generally give true or balanced information about healthy lifestyles and food choices.  The majority of children who watch health-related commercials believe what the ads say.  Second, watching lots of television can lead to childhood obesity and overweight.  Finally, TV can promote risky behavior, such as trying dangerous stunts, substance use and abuse, and irresponsible sexual behavior.

Children who watch more TV are more likely to be overweight

Childhood TV habits are a risk factor for many adult health problems girl eating and watching tv

Children may attempt to mimic stunts seen on TV

Watching TV can cause sleep problems

TV viewing may promote alcohol use

Kids who watch TV are more likely to smoke

Kids get lots of information about sexuality from television

How can I find out more about kids and TV?

Here are some websites with helpful information:

Visit these related topics on YourChild:

What are some organizations that work on issues around kids and TV?


Written and compiled by Kyla Boyse, RN.  Reviewed by Brad Bushman, PhD.

Updated August 2010


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U-M Health System Related Sites:
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