Television's Impact on Kids

Television is one of the most prevalent media influences in kids’ lives. According to the 2011 Active Healthy Kids Report Card on Physical Activity for Children and Youth, Canadian youth ages 6-19 average about six hours of screen time per day, with TV programs (watched on a variety of different screens) accounting for much of this time. [1]

How much impact TV has on children depends on many factors: how much they watch, their age and personality, whether they watch alone or with adults, and whether their parents talk with them about what they see on TV.

To address the potential negative effects of television, it’s important to understand what the impact of television can be on children. Below you will find information on some areas of concern.

Violence

Over the past few decades, hundreds of studies have examined how violent programming on TV affects children and young people. While a direct “cause and effect” link is difficult to establish, many studies have suggested that some children may be vulnerable to violent images and messages.

Researchers have identified three potential responses to media violence in children:

  • Increased fear—also known as the “scary world syndrome”
    Television frequently portrays a much more violent world than the real one, and this can have an effect on kids: children who have seen significant amounts of violence on TV are more likely to believe that the world is a frightening place. This effect is more powerful when the violence is portrayed realistically (as in thrillers or police procedurals) or when it is depictions of actual violence (as in documentaries or news programs). [2]
  • Desensitization to real-life violence
    There is significant evidence that exposure to violence in real life (for instance, witnessing violent crime or domestic violence) can cause young people to see violence as acceptable or unremarkable. [3] There is some evidence to suggest this may happen, on a smaller scale, as a result of exposure to media violence. [4]
  • Increased aggressive behaviour
    There seems to be a relationship between violent media and aggression, but it’s not clear whether violent media can make children more aggressive or whether kids who are already more aggressive are drawn to violent media. [5] It’s also possible that the two reinforce one another, so that kids who are prone to be aggressive choose more violent media which encourages their aggressiveness.

See the section Violence for more details.

Effects on healthy child development

Television can affect learning and school performance if it cuts into the time kids need for activities crucial to healthy mental and physical development: the Canadian Pediatric Society recommends that school-age children should watch no more than two hours of television per day, with less than one hour being ideal, and that children should not have access to television in their bedrooms. [6] This is particularly important with young people, as screen time has been shown to have a clear negative effect on small children’s cognitive and emotional development. (While educational TV can be a good option for older children; those under the age of two get no benefit from it and suffer the same negative effects as those who watch commercial television.) [7] Among older children, excessive screen time has been shown to lead to behavioural difficulties, [8] reduced achievement at school, attention problems, sedentary behaviours and an increased risk of obesity. [9] Most of children’s free time, especially during the early formative years, should be spent in activities such as playing, reading, exploring nature, learning about music or participating in sports.

A Scientific American article entitled “Television Addiction Is No Mere Metaphor” examined why children and adults may find it hard to turn their TVs off. According to researchers, viewers feel an instant sense of relaxation when they start to watch TV—but that feeling disappears just as quickly when the box is turned off. While people generally feel more energized after playing sports or engaging in hobbies, after watching TV they usually feel depleted of energy. According to the article “this is the irony of TV: people watch a great deal longer than they plan to, even though prolonged viewing is less rewarding.” [10]

As well as encouraging a sedentary lifestyle, television can also contribute to childhood obesity by aggressively marketing junk food to young audiences. According to a 2010 study, four in five commercials advertising food on Canadian children’s television are for foods “high in undesirable nutrients and/or energy.” [11] A lot of money goes into making ads that are successful in influencing consumer behaviour: the U.S. fast-food industry spent over four billion dollars on marketing and advertising in 2009 alone. [12]

Sexual content

Kids today are bombarded with sexual messages and images in all media—television, magazines, advertisements, music, movies and the Internet. Adults are often concerned about whether these messages are healthy. While television can be a powerful tool for educating young people about the responsibilities and risks of sexual behaviour, such issues are seldom mentioned or dealt with in a meaningful way in programs containing sexual content.

According to a 2011 study, TV was the medium where youth were most likely to encounter sexual content, with three-quarters of kids saying they had seen sexual material there. Sex and sexuality are frequent major plot features of many TV shows aimed at youth – not just the self-consciously racy episodes of Gossip Girl and the earnest storylines of Glee and Degrassi, but tween shows such as Hannah Montana, which communicate their messages in a way that is more implicit but no less clear. Research has shown that without parental guidance, kids often take away inaccurate messages about sex: an episode of the sitcom Friends, for instance, in which a character became pregnant despite using a condom, left kids with the impression that condoms failed more often than not. [13] As broadcast networks have been forced to compete with cable channels, questionable language and sexual references have become more and more common, and not just in the late evening: one study found that viewers were actually more likely to hear offensive language between 8 and 10 than at 10 P.M. [14]

 


[1] Active Healthy Kids Canada (2011) Don’t Let This Be The Most Physical Activity Our Kids Get After School. The Active Healthy Kids Canada 2011 Report Card on Physical Activity for Children and Youth. Toronto: Active Healthy Kids Canada.
[2] Soulliere, D. Prime-time murder: Presentations of murder on popular television justice programs. Journal of Criminal Justice and Popular Culture 10(1), 2003, pp.12-38.
[3] Kutner, Lawrence and Cheryl K. Olson. Grand Theft Childhood: The Surprising Truth About Violent Video Games. New York: Simon & Shuster, 2008.
[4] Montag, Christian et al. Does excessive play of violent first-person-shooter-video-games dampen brain activity in response to emotional stimuli? Biological Psychology, October 2011.
[5] Kutner, Lawrence and Cheryl K. Olson. Grand Theft Childhood: The Surprising Truth About Violent Video Games. New York: Simon & Shuster, 2008.
[6] Impact of media use on children and youth. Psychosocial Paediatrics Committee, Canadian Paediatric Society (CPS). 2003, reaffirmed February 2011.
[7] “Educational TV programmes for young children ‘may cause more harm than good’ ” The Telegraph, March 2 2010.
[8] Gordon, Serena. “TV Time for Kids May Increase Behavior Problems, Health Risks.” HealthDay News, April 6, 2009.
[9] Rushowy, Kristin. “Watching TV hinders kids’ math achievement, study finds.” ParentCentral.ca, May 3 2010.
[10] Kubey, Robert and Mihaly Csikszentmihaly. “Television Addiction is No Mere Metaphor.” Scientific American, February 2002.
[11] Kelly, B. et al. (2010). Television Food Advertising to Children: A Global Perspective. American Journal of Public Health
[12] Morrison, Maureen. “Are Kids Seeing More Fast Food Ads?” Ad Age, November 8 2010.
[13] Brown, Douglas. “Sexual Content Proliferating.” The New York Times, November 22 2011.
[14] Wyatt, Edward. “More Than Ever, You Can Say That on Television.” The New York Times, November 14 2009.