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Children Watching Television: Using it to Advantage and Reducing its Harm

Lee Sonko

Warren County Community College


Television is a pervasive part of society, it's use shapes our adult society in many important ways. For better or worse, children are often given general access to this medium for long periods of time every day. This relatively unrestrained access affects children of all ages in many ways, both positively and negatively. This paper identifies the issues raised by children viewing appropriate and inappropriate television and proposes ways that children can most benefit viewing in general.

Children Watching Television: Using it to Advantage and Reducing its Harm

The question that most people want answered is, "Is TV bad for kids?" But of course, this is a heavily loaded question. The answer depends on many variables, some of which can be controlled more than others.

Most of this paper is in regard to children ages 1-14, who often have access to a broad range of television programming. Even children who only have access to limited programming receive messages through what they see on often difficult to digest subjects. Parents often use television to keep company with their children and, unmoderated, children are drawn to many types of programming. Children end up spending a sizable amount of their waking day watching TV. The exact figure is (surprisingly) debatable, but the average child spends somewhere between one and four hours a day watching TV; that's between 4,400 - 17,500 hours of TV for the twelve years from age two to fourteen! As a comparison, an American child will spend 13,000 hours in a classroom during that period.

It is possible to get by in American society without watching television. However, the statistics show that is a route less taken. Television viewing can bring substantial rewards to children and adults, but only if used appropriately in order to lessen the negative impact it can have on our lives.

In order for children to derive any possible benefit from television viewing, we have to identify the risks involved. Here is a small sampling of the possible harm that can come to children viewing television. Long term aggressive tendencies as a result of viewing violent television. Cognitive impairment as a result of passivity in viewing. Poor socialization development as a result of incorrect assessment of society. Missing out on time spent in more productive pursuits. Being manipulated by advertisers to become good consumers instead of good people. Becoming addicted to the sedative effects of viewing. Psychological harm due to inappropriate learning about age inappropriate subjects, ie. Sexuality. Being traumatized by age inappropriate material, ie. horror movies, graphic news. Shortened attention span.

Violence on Television
The issue that comes up the most when talking about kids and television is violence on TV. There has been a tremendous amount of research done on this narrow subject. The most simple truths being that there is a lot of violence on television and children that watch more television tend to be more aggressive, in childhood and adulthood. However, most of the non-technical articles, those in newspapers and magazines) don't delve into the underlying topics deeply enough to give the reader a full picture.

For example, what exactly defines "violence" in a television program? I wasn't able to find a specific television example but I did find a relevant video game reference. In a Communications Journal article (Dominick, 1984) the author includes "Pac Man" and "Ms. Pac Man" as his two best examples of highly popular violent video games because of the way the player "eats" monsters. Dominick's definition of "violent" is more broad than that of some other researchers. However, this example points out the wide disparity between those on either side of the argument.

Another missed point is the non-connection between non-violent programming and aggressive behavior. It is very difficult in studies to separate out children that watch a lot of television but only non-violent programming compared to a lot of television with violent programming. However, there seems to be a correlation between non-violent viewing and non-violent behavior. It seems that there isn't enough non-violent programming for a child to watch 4 hours a day, every day. That isn't to say that there isn't enough non-violent programming. Instead, maybe 4 hours a day is too much. Many parents only barely trust the public school system, going to great lengths to find the best education for their children. Likewise, television viewing should be viewed with this same critical eye.

There are a number of important points concerning the correlation between television viewing and increased aggressive tendencies in children. First, television viewing is only one predisposing factor. A partial list of other factors would include neuropsychological abnormalities, poor child rearing, socioeconomic deprivation, poor peer relations, attitudes and beliefs supporting aggression, drug and alcohol abuse, frustration and provocation, and others(Huesmann, 2003). These factors are often combined and concentrated in various home environments but not necessarily. A very important factor in this correlation is how the child perceives television violence. Children that perceive television violence as more like real-life are much more likely to become aggressive. Also, children that make a strong personal association between themselves and a violent television character, a TV "role-model", are also more likely to become aggressive (Huesmann, 2003).

It appears that how children watch and interpret programs is at least as important as what they watch. In order to digest material properly, children need outside involvement (likely a parent) to guide their viewing. Without a solid foundation for their viewing, children interpret much of what they see on television as fact. This is understandable, given that an important mode of learning in children is mimicry.

It's been shown that at least to some degree, when a child views something extremely stimulating on television, they have a hard time determining if it is real or not, at least for a few moments. As people grow, they become more able to interpret these messages quickly (O'Mara, 2003). This demonstrates that children's television experience must be moderated by someone that can tell the difference between fact and fiction.

It is extremely easy for television programming to skew reality. For example, if a child watched the news every night, he could easily think that he lived in a much more dangerous society than he actually lives in. Adults have many reference points available to distill news programming. Even seemingly more benign programming like a prime-time sitcom presents a grossly incorrect view of the world: situations are often handled inappropriately for the benefit of the storyline, everyone is "beautiful", characters are often extremely disrespectful of one-another, characters are less concerned than ought be about putting themselves and others in physical danger to no bad end. Without a cultural standard to stand by, a child who watches hour after hour of "Home Improvement" is bound to try something dumb with a chain-saw. Children learn by imitation.

Advertising on Television

For the most part, advertising is the reason that TV exists at all. If programs couldn't pay for themselves, then they would quickly close up shop. Most advertisers have absolutely no incentive to educate or inform; they only want one thing, to sell their product. Television advertising is a huge business. For example, the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers television and merchandizing combination grossed over one billion dollars in fifteen months (Mertes, 2003). Advertisers and programmers have terrific financial incentives to promote their programming to children. The only inducement that the free market has on programmers and advertisers to produce shows that don't merely act as promotions for children's products (toys and the like) is the parental control that we exercise on our children's viewing habits. To demonstrate this point, in 1983, the FCC removed their ban on programs sponsored by toy companies. By 1987, toy manufacturers financed 80% of children's programming (Mertes, 2003). The difference between programmers and advertisers in children's TV is often imperceptible.
Finding Valuable Programming
There is valuable children's television programming, but it must be sought out. Public Television, which has mandate from the government to produce educational programming has done a good job of producing programs like "Sesame Street", "Three Two One Contact", "Blue's Clues", and others. The battle between public and private interests continues even in this arena. An example of this is the "Barney" series, which moved from public television to commercial ownership. It continues to be the responsibility of parents to watch these programs and choose what their children should watch and how the experience should be interpreted.

Such programming can do a very good job of educating children while keeping their interest, in much the same way that a teacher can do in person. The non-interactive nature of television has it's limits as to what it can achieve for education purposes but it is a valuable tool for parents and educators. Distance learning has become a very large industry for colleges. A person can earn an undergraduate or graduate degree entirely through distance learning in a variety of subjects that don't just include strictly vocational training. Some degrees offered include Master of Arts in Education with a Specialization in Teacher Education for Elementary Licensure, and Doctor of Management in Organizational Leadership (University of Phoenix, 2003). These programs are approved by accreditation services and are just as valid as "brick and mortar" college educations. These programs combine non-interactive video programs with real-time distanced interaction with teachers. If these programs can work, then there is likely something worthwhile in using distance learning in child environments. The only tools necessary for adult distance learning is internet access. Most of the functions of the service are still intact with only a television and VCR. Actually, although I wasn't able to find appropriate studies, it is likely that the non-interactive but easily repeatable and more durable environment of video tape is more appropriate for younger learners. These are tools that every parent has and, although some might not even be aware of it, like it or not, we are already educating our children with television.

When used appropriately, the influence of television over children can have a very positive cultural effect. There is currently a culture of silence about HIV in much of Africa even though approximately one in nine South Africans have it. Revealing that you are HIV-positive means bringing upon yourself a powerful stigma and contending with discrimination (Segal, 2002). Infected persons regularly keep their status from even close family members, distancing themselves from the very people who might best help them cope with their illness. This kind of stigma about HIV only further endangers the society, increasing infection and mortality rates. In order to break this silence, the producers of the South African version of Sesame Street decided to introduce an HIV-positive character on the show. Children seeing the interaction between the HIV-positive character and others on the show will hopefully engender a sense that they can talk to others about the disease. Without any positive role-models concerning HIV and being in a culture that shuns discussion about it, this introduction can only be a public health boon for South Africa. As of writing this, the character hasn't been introduced yet, but I look forward to seeing the long-term response in the society.
How Children Can Benefit From Television
Is TV bad for kids? It is integral to our adult society and can be an excellent tool for childhood development. Asking if television is bad for kids is as meaningful a question as, "Are cars bad for society?" Every year people are killed in auto accidents but the automobile's incredible usefulness is undeniable. The television is one of the cornerstones of the information age in which we live in. It is a necessary and often beneficial part of life.

Television viewing offers much more extensive exposure to and interaction with the world than most children could otherwise experience. It has a profound effect on many aspects of childhood growth. Welcoming television into the home is opening a very large door to the world. What comes through that door is our own choice. If parents are pro-active in putting this force to good use, they harness a compelling advocate for positive growth and development. If not, they can easily lose their children to a stranger that they themselves invited into the home.

Here are some strategies that parents can use to get the most out of television:

  • Most important of all, limit TV viewing time to a few hours per week or less.

  • Control what programs children watch. Beware of age-inappropriate material and unhealthy programming.

  • Discuss what children watch. Help them interpret reality from fiction, especially violent programming.

  • Be aware that children imitate what they watch. This includes parents, friends and television characters.

  • Encourage children to only watch intelligent programming. Much programming is "easy to watch" but gives inappropriate messages to children.

  • Don't let television viewing be a purely passive experience.

  • Make sure that most viewing sessions have a purpose and a real-world frame of reference. Are you watching to become informed? Entertained? Distracted? Being goal oriented helps children interpret what they see.

  • Train children to have a critical eye for the messages being given to them, especially advertising.


Dominick, J. R. (1984). Videogames, Television Violence and Aggression in Teenagers. Journal of Communication, 34, 136-147.

Huesmann, L., Moise-Titus, J., Podolski, C.-L., & Eron, L. D. (2003). Longitudinal Relations Between Children's Exposure to TV Violence and Their Aggressive and Violent Behavior in Young Adulthood: 1977-1992. Developmental Psychology, 39(2), 201-221.

Limit TV Inc. (2003). In the News. In (chap.) Retrieved from

McGinn, D. (2002, November 11). Guilt Free TV. Newsweek, 140(20), 52-59.

Mertes, C. (2003, February). Program 1: Watching TV Watching Us [Television broadcast]. In Signal to Noise: Life with Television. New York: WNET.

O'Mara, P. (2003, January). TV is Not Good for Kids. Mothering, 8-10.

Primavera, L. H., & Herron, W. G. (1996). The effect of viewing television violence on aggression. International Journal of Instructional Media, 23(2), 137-151.

Segal, L., Cole, C., & Fuld, J. (2002). Special Issue: Global perspectives on children's media. Early Education & Development, 13(4), 363-378.

Special Issue: HCI Report 5 - Reducing Violence: A Research Agenda. (1997, October). APS Observer, 13-16.

Tepperman, J. (1997, January). Toxic Lessons. Children's Advocate. (Available from Action Alliance for Children)

U.S. Department of Education. (1994). Strong Families, Strong Schools: Building Community Partnerships for Learning. (Available from U.S. Department of Education)

University of Phoenix. (2003). Campus Program List. Retrieved from

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