Research Articles


Television in the Lives of Children By Cyndy Scheibe

The following suggestions are based on our experiences with children and our research on media literacy, and also include information from several published sources concerning the effects of television on children. A list of these and other excellent readings is given at the end of this handout, and if you are interested in reading more about this topic, we highly recommend them.

In general, the effects of television on viewers can be divided into two different types: 1) direct effects due to the content of what is seen (in the programs or commercials); and 2) indirect effects due to the activity of watching TV, regardless of what is being watched. This second type of effect is very important, because it usually means that the more time children spend watching TV, the less time they are spending doing other important activities (like reading, talking with others, getting exercise, playing games, being outdoors, etc.). A lot of the negative effects of TV, like lower reading scores, obesity, and poor physical fitness, seem to be due to these indirect effects. Because of that, it's probably important to set some limits on the amount of time your child spends watching TV, regardless of what shows you allow them to watch. Remember, four hours of Sesame Street is still four hours of television.

We've found that most parents are concerned about violence on TV and its effects on their children. Television does include a lot of violence, not only on adult crime dramas, but also on cartoons, on slapstick comedies, and on the nightly news. The psychological research that has been done in this area over the last 20 years has shown three general effects of watching TV violence: 1) children may become less sensitive to the pain and suffering of others, both on television and in real life; 2) children may be more fearful of the world around them; and 3) children may be more likely to behave in aggressive or harmful ways toward others. The impact of TV violence on aggression seems to be partly due to imitation of the aggressive actions that children see (particularly if they are done by the "good guys") and partly due to the messages that aggression works to get what you want and it's OK to use aggression if you are justified in doing so (a message we get a lot in adult crime shows). Because of these findings, you may want to set limits on the TV violence your child sees (see the specific guidelines below). While children can learn aggressive behavior from television, parents and other adults have tremendous power in moderating television's effect.

We would like to make it clear that our suggestions do not include specific programs or types of programs that are good or bad for children to watch, nor suggested time limits for viewing. We feel that those judgments should be made by parents and children together, reflecting your own beliefs, attitudes and values, as well as your lifestyle and the realities concerning how well you can enforce the guidelines that you want to make. The most important things, we feel, are talking with your children about what they see on TV and why you have made the guidelines that you did, letting your children take an active role in choosing what programs they watch, and making TV only one part of your children's leisure activities.

With all that in mind, here are some specific suggestions:

    1. Develop good viewing habits early in the child's life. Most children begin watching television regularly before the age of 2, and it is easier to become more flexible as the child gets older than it is to become more restrictive.
    2. Set some limits on how much television your child can watch per day or per week, with enough flexibility to change the limits under special circumstances. Keep in mind that the average child (or adult) watches about 4 hours a day, which is probably too much TV. Many parents set a limit of no more than 2 hours of TV a day, but you may feel more comfortable with a limit that is higher or lower. One parent we know gives each child a certain number of "TV chips" for the week, and the children turn in one chip for every half hour of TV they watch.
    3. Encourage planned viewing of specific programs rather than random viewing. If children have a limited number of hours that they can watch TV, with some choice over which programs they can watch, they will probably become more selective consumers of television.
    4. Make sure that television is not used as a substitute for participating in other activities. It's awfully tempting to use TV as a "babysitter" because it works so well as one, but try to do that only in emergencies and not as an ongoing practice.
    5. As much as possible, watch television with your child and discuss the things that you see. Encourage your child to think about the characters and the content of the programs and commercials viewed, and explain your own feelings and interpretations. If there are programs that you don't want your child to watch, explain your reasons to your child; you might want to watch the program once with your child, pointing out the things you feel object to and why. Even if you can't always watch TV with your child, talk with your child about things he/she might have seen without you, or about television in general. Explain your own beliefs and values concerning television, but allow your child to express his/her own opinions which might not be the same as yours. This is especially true for older children.
    6. Encourage your child to watch programs that demonstrate helping, caring, and cooperation. Studies show these types of programs can influence children to behave in more socially acceptable ways. But make sure that you still talk about those aspects of the program with your child; our studies have shown that children may not pay attention to or understand all of the prosocial messages they see, especially if they don't really like the program itself.
    7. Balance reading and television activities. Children can "follow up" interesting television programs by checking out the library book from which some programs are adapted and by pursuing additional stories by the authors of those books. They can also read about a topic before it is shown on television, which will make the TV viewing experience a more active one.
    8. Help children to develop a balanced viewing schedule of different types of TV programs (education, action, comedy, fine arts, fantasy, sports, and so on). Try to watch at least one episode of a new program that your child wants to watch; don't assume that if a program is non-violent or on PBS that it will necessarily be consistent with your values.
    9. Point out positive examples that show how various ethnic and cultural groups all contributing to making a better society. Also point out positive examples of females performing competently both in professions and at home, and elderly people who are active and intelligent. These three groups (females, elderly and people of color) are still often portrayed in negative and stereotypical ways.
    10. When violent actions occur in a program, discuss them with your child. Focus especially on what motivated the character's actions, whether your child thinks the action was right or wrong, and whether your child thinks the same thing would happen in the real world. Again, be sure to find out what your child understands first, before you make your own comments; children may not get the same things out of the television content they see as adults do. 11.Be a good role model yourself. If you don't want your children to watch more than a few hours of television, then it's not really fair for you to do so. If you don't like your children to watch violence, then you might want to limit the amount of violence you watch too. Your children will learn much more from you than they will from TV, so be careful not to show them examples of TV viewing that you'd rather they didn't learn. 12.You can buy locks for certain TV channels (e.g. cable channels) rather inexpensively. Check with your local cable TV station. If you are serious about not letting your child watch certain things on TV, then make sure that you carry through on your restrictions as best you can.
      For more information, we recommend the following:
      • Bryant, J. (1990). Television and the American Family. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
      • Chen, M. (1994). The Smart Parents Guide to Kids' TV. Emoryville, CA: Publishers Group West.
      • Comstock, G. & Paik, L. (1991). Television and the American Child. New York: Academic Press.
      • Condry, J. (1989). The Psychology of Television. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
      • Liebert, R. M. & Sprafkin, J. (1988). The Early Window (3rd Ed.) New York: Pergamon Press.
      • Singer, D.G. & Singer, J.L. (1987). "Practical Suggestions for Controlling Television." Journal of Early Adolescence, 7, pp. 365-369.
      • Taking Chart of Your TV, A Guide to Critical Viewing for Parents and Children. Booklet, available free from Time-Warner Cable in Ithaca, NY (by request).

      Videotapes
      • "Buy Me That" (and its two sequels). Available from HBO through your local TV affiliate station, cable company or library.

      And for children:
      • Berenstain, Stan & Jan (1984). The Berenstain Bears and Too Much TV. New York: Random House.
      • West, Dan (1988). The Day the TV Blew Up. Morton Grove, IL: Whitman.