Kid watching TV

The Good and Bad Effects of TV on Children

Updated November 26, 2020 by Ronaldo Tumbokon

It is hard to avoid television if you are a kid.  People in the house are usually tuned in to TV – siblings as well as parents.  In some homes, the television is perpetually “on” even without anyone watching.  It is common for parents and caregivers to use TV as a substitute babysitter.   Also, many parents buy videos that they think can make their kids smart.  But how does watching TV really affect children?

The bad news is, the majority of experts think that a TV/video-driven culture has bad effects on kids – and may prevent kids from being smart.  They cite the following:

  • TV provides no educational benefits for a child under age 2.  Worse, it steals time for activities that actually develop her brain, like interacting with other people and playing.  A child learns a lot more efficiently from real interaction – with people and things, rather than things she sees on a video screen.
  • TV viewing takes away the time that your child needs to develop important skills like language, creativity, motor, and social skills.  These skills are developed in the kids’ first two years (a critical time for brain development) through play, exploration, and conversation.  Your kid’s language skills, for example, do not improve by passively listening to the TV.  It is developed by interacting with people, when talking and listening is used in the context of real life.

  • Another study that shows very young children missing out on brain development suggests that kids who have TV in the bedroom, and tended to watch half an hour more TV per day, are more likely to be overweight, have higher levels of self-reported depressive symptoms, teacher-reported emotional distress, victimization, physical aggression and poorer social skills by age 12 or 13.
  • TV viewing numbs your kid’s mind as it prevents your child from exercising initiative, being intellectually challenged, thinking analytically, and using his imagination.
  • TV viewing takes away time from reading and improving reading skills through practice (Comstock, 1991).  Kids watching cartoons and entertainment television during pre-school years have poorer pre-reading skills at age 5 (Macbeth, 1996).  Also, kids who watch entertainment TV are also less likely to read books and other print media (Wright & Huston, 1995).
  • According to Speech and language expert Dr. Sally Ward, 20 years of research show that kids who are bombarded by background TV noise in their homes have trouble paying attention to voices when there is also background noise.
  • Kids who watch a lot of  TV have trouble paying attention to teachers because they are accustomed to the fast-paced visual stimulation on TV.  Kids who watch TV more than they talk to their family have a difficult time adjusting from being visual learners to aural learners (learning by listening).  They also have shorter attention spans.
  • A 2019 study led by Dr. Mireia Adelantado-Renau suggests that excessive television watching among children “has been shown to decrease attention and cognitive functioning and to increase behavioral problems and unhealthy eating habits.” The study also suggests that increases in TV viewing are associated with lower language, mathematics, and composite test scores. Teen scores appears to be worse than those of younger children because teens replace studying, sleeping, exercising and other positive activities with TV watching, while younger children still reap educational benefits from repetitions provided by watching TV.
  • School kids who watch too much TV also tend to work less on their homework.  When doing homework with TV on the background, kids tend to retain less skill and information. When they lose sleep because of TV, they become less alert during the day, and this results in poor school performance.
  • A long-term study conducted by the Millennium Cohort Study and published in 2013 found that children who watched more than 3 hours of television, videos, or DVDs a day had a higher chance of conduct problems, emotional symptoms and relationship problems by age 7 than children who did not. Notably, they did not find the same problem with children who played video games for the same amount of time.
  • TV exposes your kid to negative influences, and promotes negative behavior.  TV shows and commercials usually show violence, alcohol, drug use and sex in a positive light.  The mind of your kid is like clay. It forms early impressions on what it sees, and these early impressions determine how he sees the world and affect his grown-up behavior.  For instance, twenty years of research has shown that children who are more exposed to media violence behave more aggressively as kids and when they are older.  They are taught by TV that violence is the way to resolve conflict – as when a TV hero beats up a bad guy to subdue him.
  • The more TV kids watch, the more their viewing contribute to the parents’ overall stress levels. That’s because kids see more ads, and they are more likely to ask for things in their shopping trips, researchers found.
  • Kids who watch too much TV are usually overweight, according to the American Medical Association.  Kids often snack on junk food while watching TV.  Children tend to ‘tune out’ and don’t notice when they are full when eating in front of TV. They are also influenced by commercials to consume unhealthy food.    Also, they are not running, jumping, or doing activities that burn calories and increase metabolism.   Obese kids, unless they change their habits, tend to be obese when they become adults. A recent study confirms this finding, suggesting that even just an hour of TV is associated with childhood obesity.

  • Too much watching TV as a young adult, especially when combined with not much exercise, may be linked to lower brain functioning even before one reaches middle age, according to a 2015 sturdy from the Northern California Institute for Research and Education.
  • Researchers from the University of Sydney report a link between total screen time and retinal artery width in children. Kids with lots of screen time were found to have narrow artery in their eyes, which may indicate heart risk.
  • A 2014 study published in the International Journal of Cardiology suggests that children aged 2 to 10 who watch TV for more than two hours a day is 30% more likely to be at risk for blood pressure compared to those who spend less time in front of TV. Lack of physical activity increased the risk even more – by 50%. The lead researcher Dr Augusto Cesar de Moraes, from the University of Sao Paulo, Brazil, warned that the condition can cause cardiovascular problems later in life. The findings are consistent with an earlier 2009 study.
  • TV watching also affects a child’s health and athletic ability. The more television a child watches, even in the first years of life, the more likely he is to be obese and less muscularly fit, according to a study by the University of Montreal. Even though your kid does not aspire to be a football star, his athletic abilities are important not only for physical health, but predicting how physically active he will be as an adult.
  • Every hourly increase in daily television watching from two and a half years old is also associated with bullying by classmates, and physical prowess at kindergarten, said Professor Linda Pagani of the University of Montreal and the CHU Sainte-Justine children’s hospital.

Some experts, however, believe that TV is not all that bad.  They qualify though that viewing TV can be good if it is done in moderation, and if the program being watched is selected:

  • Some TV shows can educate, inform and inspire.  It can be more effective than books or audiotapes in teaching your kid about processes like how a plant grows or how to bake a cake.
  • Studies show that kids who watch educational and non-violent children’s shows do better on reading and math tests than those who do not watch these programs.
  • Kids who watch informative and educational shows as preschoolers tend to watch more informative and educational shows when they get older.  They use TV effectively as a complement to school learning.  On the other hand, kids who watch more entertainment program watch fewer informative programs as they get older  (Macbeth, 1996).
  • Preschoolers who viewed educational programs tend to have higher grades, are less aggressive and value their studies more when they reach high school, according to a long-term study (Anderson, et. al, 2001).
  • Allowing kids to watch educational shows from TV can expose children to millions more words, especially if they have parents who are unable to speak more or better with them.
  • With shows that are more entertaining than educational, TV exposes kids to diversity of culture and other people’s worldviews, as well as humanistic values. Watching dramas and comedies gives them an idea of the complexity of life and moral dilemmas.
  • Scientists from the University of Siena found that children experience a soothing, painkilling effect by watching cartoons.  So perhaps, a little entertainment TV can be a source of relief to kids who are stressed or are in pain.
  • Watching TV with parents or caregivers can make it more engaging and less passive, and can provide opportunities for learning and social development. According to Sheri Madigan, an assistant professor of psychology at University of Calgary, “Families can develop healthy media habits. When parents watch with their children, they can point out interesting things and contribute to language skills and learning.”
  • Finally, think about what your child could be doing if he’s not watching TV. It would be great if the alternative is to read a book, engage in outdoor play or imaginative play with educational toys, or having an intelligent talk with you. But if the alternative is simply for him to sit around and do nothing, whine about being bored, or start a fight or a conflict, then letting your child watch TV is a better option.

For more on how to make TV a more helpful rather than a harmful tool for making kids smart, see tips on how TV can be good for your child or if you have a baby, see the effects of TV on baby.

Your kids’ watching TV is not the only screen time you should be concerned about. Recently, kids spend more time playing with tablet and smartphone screens. Click here to learn how to manage your child’s tablet and smartphone screen time.

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Photo courtesy of Ian Chase