Television viewing and young children – How to “work with” the medium and not fight against it.

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Studies of how children spend their time at home reveal that preschoolers (children aged between 2-5 years) spend the majority of their time in play and watching television, with the exception of sleeping. The average preschooler watches 2-3 hours of television (including DVDs) per day.  Although research on children’s television viewing has been reported for over 30 years, it was not until more recently that such investigations were integrated into the field of developmental psychology.  Some of the many topics that have been investigated include television and the educational benefits, television and language production, television and prosocial outcomes, television and aggression or violence, television and its’ contribution to stereotyping, and television and multicultural awareness.

Interest in early childhood television viewing is based on the premise that cognitive and social development during this life stage is probably more malleable than it is in later childhood and adolescence.  Given that a television set is present in most children’s lives right from birth, it is argued that the preschool years are ideal for examining socialization of television viewing habits and that patterns of viewing acquired during early childhood have long-term implications for children’s development. Research evidence supports this argument.  The findings of one longitudinal study showed that viewing educational programs, such as Sesame Street, at ages 2 and 3 years predicted higher scores at age 5 on measures of language, math and school readiness.  These findings prevailed even after parental education and income level and children’s vocabulary test scores at the beginning of the study were statistically controlled. In another longitudinal study, researchers revealed that early viewing of educational and prosocial television programs was associated with higher high school grades in Science, English and Mathematics. In contrast, early viewing of violent cartoons and general audience programs was associated with lower high school grades in the subjects noted above.

Contemporary researchers argue that television viewing should not be treated as a one-dimensional construct, and that the medium of television is not homogeneous in its impact on children’s development. Hence, to claim that ALL television is bad and that young children should never be exposed to television is alarmist and unrealistic. When children want to watch television, we must ensure that the content is age appropriate with educational and prosocial messages. If the television does not supply this type of content, encourage children to watch a DVD that does provide this content. Of course, just watching television or DVDs and not taking part in other activities, is not what is being advocated here. We must encourage our children to partake in many different activities such as reading books, general playing indoors and outdoors, taking part in sporting activities, drawing, singing, dancing and so on. Television watching should be one activity for children in a day filled with other fun activities!

As adults and parents, we need to spend time watching television with our children; and whilst this article focuses on preschool children, the same rules apply for primary school-aged children.  Viewing together with your child is important for several reasons; you can:

1.  Monitor what television your child is watching;

2.  Help your child understand the content of the program; and

3.  Reject to violent images and advance nonviolent and prosocial values.

There is more scope for learning from television if you are there with your child to discuss, explain, and share the experience with him/her. There is also more scope to engage in play with your child, sing along to songs or to dance with your child as reflected in the television program or DVD. Children love to share these experiences with their parents. If you were watching “Frozen” with your child for instance, you could act out a scene by taking on characters. Encouraging your child to engage in pretend play is the best way to strengthen a wide variety of mental abilities, such as language skills, imagination, creativity, cooperation, sharing, divergent thinking, sustained attention, memory, and the ability to take on another person’s perspective and to understand the difference between self from other.

Of course, time is of the essence and it is not possible to sit down with your child every time he/she watches something on television, nor is that necessary if you are familiar with the content of the television your child is watching. However, it is important to make the time to share this experience as much as possible and that any new television programs and DVDs should first be watched together. This will enable you to judge the appropriateness of the content and discuss with your child the educational components to “work with” rather than against the medium of television.

Yu, M., & Baxter, J. (2015). Australian children’s screen time and participation in extracurricular activities. Longitudinal Study of Australian Children Annual Statistical Report 2015, Chapter 5, p. 99 -125.

Skouteris, H., & McHardy, K. (2009). Television viewing habits and time use in Australian preschool children: An exploratory study. Journal of Children and Media, 3, 80–89.

Prof Helen Skouteris is a developmental psychologist and the Monash Warwick Alliance Joint Professor of Healthcare Improvement and Implementation Science at Monash University. She has a strong track record in longitudinal multi-factorial research, randomised controlled trials, and implementation research in the area of maternal and child health and wellbeing.