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Media and Children: Taming Television

Posted , updated Dec 11, 2010.

Media and Children: Taming Television
Over half of all children say that their families have no rules about TV watching.

Did you know that American kids spend more time with media than they do going to school? Or that they spend more time watching TV than hanging out with family or friends, reading for fun, in physical activities, or on hobbies? It's true! A 2005 study found that 8-18 year olds spent an average of 6 1/2 hours a day watching TV or using other kinds of media like DVDs, videos, computer games, or being online. This is more than time spent hanging out with parents or friends (2 ¼ hours each), in some kind of physical activity (1 ½ hours), pursuing a hobby or other activity (1 hour), or reading (45 minutes).

TV has become a big part of our kids' lives. Almost all families own a TV, and half of these families have 3 or more TV sets in their homes. Many children (68%) have televisions in their bedrooms. half live in families where a TV is on most of the time (even when no one is watching), and 63% live in homes where the TV is usually on during mealtimes.

Parents are getting worried about how TV might hurt their kids. A 2004 study found that 90% of parents think that TV, videogames, and music help make children too materialistic, grow up too fast, use bad language, or behavior aggressively or antisocially. Half of these parents said their children’s eating habits were changed “a lot” by ads on television, and a third said their children “often” asked for things at the grocery store that they had seen on TV.

So, are parents right to worry? Twenty years of research says, “Yes.” A lot of studies have found TV-watching to be related to more obesity/weight and aggression problems in kids. Watching television has also been linked to teens’ thoughts about body image and sexuality. Interestingly, while almost 3 out of 4 teens think TV affects the sexual behavior of other kids their age, less than 1 in 4 believe it affects their own behavior.

Surprisingly, while parents say they are worried about the effects of TV, over half of all children say that their families have no rules about TV watching. Only 17% of families make rules about how much TV their kids can watch, and only 13% make rules about what kinds of shows they can watch.

What Parents Can Do

Are you worried about how TV might be harming your child (or your family as a whole)? Here are some ideas that can help:

  • Set a good example. Take a look at your own TV habits. How much TV do you watch? What kinds of shows do you watch? Think about ways you could change your own habits to set a good example for your family.

  • Keep the TV in a public place, like the family room. Fight the temptation to let kids have a TV in their own bedrooms. Children who have TVs in their rooms spend more time watching TV and less time reading than children who don’t have their own TVs. Having the TV in view makes it easier to keep track of how much time they are spending watching TV, and what kinds of programs they are watching.

  • Protect family time. Turn off the TV when no one is watching, and keep it off during meals. When the TV is left on a lot (especially during meals), kids are less likely to talk about their problems with parents. Mealtimes can be a great way for busy family members to catch up with each other—don’t lose this time with your family. If you like having noise in the background, try turning on some music instead of the television.

  • Set and enforce TV rules. Set limits on the amount and type of TV shows your children can watch and stick to these limits. Kids in homes with TV rules that are enforced at least “most of the time” watch less TV and spend more time reading than do kids who live in homes without rules.

  • Explain why you have rules. Having limits is not enough, especially for older kids. Taking too strict of an approach can backfire and make them even more interested in watching “forbidden” shows. Talk with your kids about why you are setting limits. Discuss your concerns and your family’s values. Acknowledge that different families may have different rules.

  • Help your kids make good viewing choices. Teach your children how to find appropriate programs to watch. Choose videos/DVDs at home for them to watch in the place of broadcast or cable TV. Learn more about the V-chip, TV ratings, and websites that give program content information to help you and your kids make more educated viewing choices.

  • Watch TV together as a family. Make watching TV a family activity. Consider having a regular “family movie night” at home. Involve children in choosing and talking about the films you watch together.

  • Talk about what you see. Watch TV together with your kids and talk with them about what happens in programs and commercials. Studies show that when families watch shows with violence or sex and parents do not comment (or only make neutral comments), kids believe that their parents approve of the content. If you and your children see violence on TV, you can: (1) clearly say that you don’t like the violent behavior, (2) state concern for the victims rather than the aggressors, (3) talk about the consequences of violence, and (4) point out the differences between TV and real-life to help your kids understand that what happens on TV is not real. When parents make comments such as these, children are less likely to show aggressive behavior.

For information on how you can use movies to talk with your children about things they are intensely curious about, see:

  • What Kids REALLY Want to Ask: Using Movies to Start Meaningful Conversations—
    A Guidebook for Parents and Children Ages 10–14 by Rhonda A. Richardson, PhD and A. Margaret Pevec, MA. Vanderwyk & Burnham. 2007.

For more on how to select TV shows, videos, DVDs, or movies that might be appropriate for your family, see the article:


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