How Does Watching TV Affect Your Child?

Television is everywhere and children are some of its most voracious consumers, often exposed to it even as infants and toddlers.1 TV can be educating and entertaining, but as parents you also need to understand the downside and decide how much TV is too much.

TV And Your Child

Brain Development

The influence of TV on children’s psychosocial and brain development is profound. In a national survey, hyperactivity and behavioral problems were studied in 1278 children aged 1 and 1345 children aged 3. Ten percent of these children had attention problems by the age of 7.2 In another study on TV’s influence on cognitive development and impact on children’s education, heavy TV viewers had poorer school and academic achievement than their counterparts who did not watch as much TV.3


Language skills are also often hampered by children’s exposure to TV. Reading is put on the back burner and the child may not develop a proper vocabulary at par with other peers. Since TV is generally one-way communication, children also lose out on learning through interaction.


Obesity and oversnacking have clearly been linked to TV viewing. Once addicted to TV, children are often glued to it for long hours at the expense of playing and other physical activities. Children also tend to snack more on junk food while watching TV. A study by Hernandez et al. found that television viewing and video games increased the prevalence of obesity in children aged 9–16 years. Physical activities took a beating while snacking on high-calorie foods was a focal element of the TV viewing experience.4 TV viewing also increases the chances of fatigue and lack of motivation among children. Commercials set off cravings and demands for high sugar, junk, or processed foods.5


Violence, Aggression, And Bullying

According to a study by George Gerbner, children’s TV programs show about 20 violent behaviors every hour.6 Other studies show that the average American child will end up watching approximately 200, 000 violent acts by the age of 18.7 In many cases, TV quite often offers a child’s first glimpse of aggression and they become accustomed to it. Eventually, viewing violence on TV desensitizes children – they not only think it is acceptable but also learn to condone it. Children also often fall prey to the “mean world syndrome,” assuming violence they see on screen is a reflection of the real world.8 Many children and adolescents also fall back on aggression as the first line of defense for resolving conflict. A longitudinal study by Eron et al. confirmed that children who were exposed to media violence as children grew up to show higher levels of aggression and were also more likely to be criminal offenders.9

Risky Or Deviant Behavior

TV shows and commercials often promote risky behaviors involving alcohol, smoking, drugs, rash driving, petty crimes, and promiscuity. Children perceive these as cool, fun things and assimilate these values. In a study of randomly selected 14–16 year old adolescents in 10 urban areas of southeastern United States, 8 potentially risky behavioral risks (sexual intercourse, drinking, smoking cigarettes, smoking marijuana, cheating, stealing, skipping school, and driving a car without permission) were seen to be higher among adolescents who spent more time watching music videos and television movies.10


Commercials too have a deep impact on young minds – after all, as the American Psychological Association points out, “The average child is exposed to more than 40,000 TV commercials a year.”11 Children don’t have the discretion to understand an ad is biased, subjective, and often far from the truth. They also pick up racial and gender cues from television and internalize stereotypes.

How Much, How Soon?

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) clearly advises parents to either totally eliminate or minimize screen time for children below 2 years of age.12 The brain triples in mass in the first 12 months. Maximum brain development happens in the first two years when the child picks up language skills, gross and fine motor skills, and visual, spatial, and kinesthetic skills. Too much exposure to digital media will only get in the way of development during this time. TV may also affect parent‒child bonding. A study investigated the hypothesis that background television affects parent-child interactions and found that both quantity and quality of interactions decreased while the television was on.13


The AAP also advises parents to limit screen time for children up to the age of 8. The brain matures by the age of 10‒12 (in a process called myelination) and during this time it is important to stimulate and enable learning of key physical, psychosocial, and emotional skills.14

The Canadian Pediatric Society advises no more than 2 hours of viewing daily among school-going children while referring to the interference of TV on children’s cognitive and emotional development. The society also endorses studies that link older children’s behavioral difficulties to excessive TV viewing.15


The Right Course

If used correctly, TV can be a window to the world. Kids above the age of 2 can pick up skills (media literacy) and learning (nature, wildlife, history etc) via the TV as long as it is moderated by parents. Avoid violent shows and set children off on a TV trail comprising nature and wildlife documentaries, discovery and science shows, and history and art programs. Cartoons are fine once in a way so long as the time is limited. Programs should also be carefully selected to allow for positive role models, strong male and female characters, and diversity in context and characters. A meta-analysis of 34 studies on the positive effects of television indicated that children who watched prosocial content had better social interactions and behaviors than those who watched violent, aggressive programs.16

TV can never be a “substitute nanny” or replace playtime or family time. Get your child to the playground, every day! Encourage conversations with others at home and activities like reading and drawing. You may not be able to banish the TV completely but there’s enough to be done to reduce its sway on your little one.