Television is an inescapable part of modern culture. We depend on TV for entertainment, news, education, culture, weather, sports—and even music, since the advent of music videos.
With more and more ways of viewing TV available we now have access to a plethora of both good quality and inappropriate TV content. In this crowded television environment, the key is to provide young children with a guided viewing experience and to model and teach them the critical thinking skills they need to be active, engaged viewers.
Television offers lots of benefits to kids:
- Because of its ability to create powerful touchstones, TV enables young people to share cultural experiences with others.
- TV can act as a catalyst to get kids reading—following up on TV programs by getting books on the same subjects or reading authors whose work was adapted for the programs.
- Television can teach kids important values and life lessons.
- Educational programming can develop young children's socialization and learning skills.
- News, current events and historical programming can help make young people more aware of other cultures and people.
- Documentaries can help develop critical thinking about society and the world.
- TV can help introduce youth to classic Hollywood films and foreign movies that they might not otherwise see.
- Cultural programming can open up the world of music and art for young people.
How to choose good TV
How can we select viewing that is good for children? One approach is to ask the following questions:
- Does the program encourage children to ask questions, to use their imaginations, or to be active or creative?
Television watching doesn't have to be passive. It can prompt questions, kindle curiosity, or teach activities to pursue when the set is off.
- How does this program represent gender and diversity?
Young children believe that television reflects the real world. To not see people like themselves—in race, ethnicity, or physical ability, for example—may diminish their self-worth, and not seeing people different from themselves may lead to a distorted view of the world as well. Beyond the simple presence or absence of diversity, it's important to look at how different people are portrayed.
- How commercialized is this program?
Some children's programs are designed to act as extended commercials for related merchandise. While this is often true from the outset, in other cases the merchandising may not appear until the show is successful – which can lead to a situation where the "tail wags the dog" as the marketing becomes more important than the program itself, and hurt the quality of the show.
- What are the common themes and topics in this program?
Watch a few episodes of the program to see the common themes and storylines. What characteristics are shown in a positive or negative light? Which behaviours and activities are rewarded, and which are punished? What does the show suggest is important, valued or desirable?
- What emotional effect will this program have on children?
Consider that children will often have different emotional reactions than adults. Things which we consider to be normal elements of drama, such as conflict between characters or putting characters in jeopardy, can be distressing for very small children. Also, all children are different: don't assume that a child will be able to handle content because you watched it at their age or because siblings or classmates have watched it without incident. See the section Special Issues for Young Children for more details.
The good news is that Canadian children's television, in particular, is frequently a source of good messages. A 2009 study of Canadian TV aimed at youth found that among shows aimed at preschoolers, nearly half focused on social relationships, while a third focused on learning, with none focusing on fighting or violence. These themes did appear in Canadian programs aimed at kids ages 6-12, but represented only one in 10 shows: social relationships, adventure and learning were all found much more often. Canadian children's TV was also found to have a high level of ethnic diversity, with visible minorities represented at a level close to their actual numbers in Canada. Unfortunately, the same study found that fewer children's programs are being made in Canada, falling from half of all kids' programming broadcast in Canada in the 1990s to roughly a third in 2009. 
 Caron, Andre et al. A National Study on Children's Television Programming in Canada. Centre for Youth and Media Studies, Universite de Montreal, 2009.