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Television: How It Can Affect Your Children
You are your child's first and most important teacher. You probably think long and hard about the values you want to teach your child, and you try to spend as much quality time as you can with your child. But who else is teaching your child? For most children, it's TV. How much of your child's attention does TV have, and what is your child learning?

National surveys show that children spend an average of three-four hours/day watching television. Adding in their time watching videotapes, playing video and computer games, and surfing the internet, children average six hours per day in front of the screen. A recent study found that 1/3 of 2-7 year-olds and 2/3's of 8-18 year-olds have a TV set in their bedroom. By the time children enter kindergarten, they've watched an average of 4,000 hours of television, more time than they've spent in preschool.

What do children learn from TV?

Educational TV
Some TV shows are educational and entertaining for children. Most educational shows are oriented to children over age 2. Shows such as Sesame Street, Kratt's Creatures, Arthur, and Blue's Clues try to teach children about feelings, how to be a good friend, being curious about the world, numbers, letters, singing, and dancing. But just because a program is for children, it doesn't mean that it's educational. Many children's shows, including cartoons, are violent—children's TV shows average 20 acts of violence per hour, and over half of video games are violent.

Can TV be educational for children under age 2? Some experts believe that watching TV can harm babies' developing vision, hearing, and attention span. In the first few years of life, babies' brains are developing rapidly in response to their senses and interactions with their environment. Since TV is an unnatural stimulation for their senses—it's flat rather than three-dimensional, the images move too rapidly, it has poor sound quality, and it's not interactive—it might 'wire' babies' brains for passive experiences rather than being actively engaged with their world. Current research shows that the best way to help babies learn—to experience emotions, to talk, and to play—is through real-life interactions with people and their environment.

A recent study of TV violence found:
  • Nearly 2/3s of all TV programs contain violence.
  • Children's shows contain the most violence.
  • TV violence is often shown as being glamorous.
  • The perpetrators of violence often go unpunished.
By the end of elementary school, the average child has witnessed 8,000 murders and 100,000 other acts of violence on TV. Studies have found that children who watch more TV are more likely to be aggressive, especially immediately after watching violent programs. Children can learn to use violence to express angry feelings and to solve disagreements with other people, and they often fail to understand that violence actually hurts and kills people. And they can also become overly frightened and develop anxiety and nightmares, and have difficulty concentrating and learning.

Studies have shown that the more TV children watch, the more likely they are to be overweight. When children spend their free time lying around watching TV, they don't get the exercise they need. TV commercials also advertise candy, soda, and sugary cereals, encouraging children to eat high-calorie 'junk food.' Often, children eat junk food while watching TV and are unaware of how much they're overeating. Childhood obesity can lead to numerous health problems as well as social difficulties.

TV also promotes unusually thin female models. Even at early ages, girls have been found to worry about their weight and begin dieting, which can affect health and self-esteem.

Tobacco, Alcohol, and Other Drugs
TV commercials, programs, and movies show attractive, healthy, and successful characters drinking beer, smoking cigarettes, and talking about using other drugs. Children learn from TV and movies that smoking, drinking, and taking drugs are 'cool'—they don't see how harmful they are for peoples' health, education, relationships, and work.

TV programs, commercials, music videos, movies, and video games show a lot of sexual behaviour. They show teenagers and adults dressing and acting provocatively, talking about sex, and having sex. On TV, sex is shown as being fun and exciting—there's rarely talk of long-term committed relationships, contraception, and preventing sexually-transmitted diseases. When you eventually have 'The Talk' with your children about sexuality, your message could be overshadowed by the years of messages about sex that your children got from TV.

Children see an average of 20,000 commercials each year. Commercials are catchy and entertaining—it's likely that your child has learned many slogans and jingles, and you even remember some from your own childhood. Commercials try to convince children that they need to buy certain foods, toys, and clothes—many of which they don't actually need—to be cool and happy.

What can parents do?
With our busy lives, it's difficult to find the time and energy to always engage our children in active play. Most parents resort to using the TV as a 'babysitter' when we need to get things done around the house or we just need a break. Here are some tips to help you and your values prevail when you turn on the TV:

1. Limit on-screen entertainment time: For children under age 2, try to avoid TV altogether. For older children, limit total media time (TV, videos, and/or video games) to one-two hours per day.

2. Choose what to watch: Select shows that are educational and non-violent. Consider getting a TV with a V-chip to block programs with violence and sex. Tune in to the public TV channel or rent videos for educational programs and no commercials. Instead of channel surfing, select a show to watch and then turn off the TV afterwards.

3. Keep TVs out of children's bedrooms: When your child doesn't see the TV, he's less likely to want to watch it. Keep the TV in a family area where it's easier to monitor.

4. Watch TV together and discuss the messages with your child: Know what your child is seeing to ensure it's appropriate. Discuss the program to understand your child's impressions, to clarify what's real and what's not, and to allay any fears. In particular, discuss the way violence, sex, smoking, alcohol, drugs, and food are portrayed on TV, question the messages, and explain your own values.

5. Encourage other fun options: Instead of getting into the habit of watching TV, help your child engage in other activities such as playing with adults, children and pets, riding a bike, building with blocks, reading, writing stories, singing and dancing to music, doing art projects, playing games and puzzles together, and helping you cook.

6. Set a good example: Limit the types of shows you watch and the amount of TV to encourage your children to follow your example.