Why is it that no one can ever agree on how much—if any—TV is okay for kids? I personally know families who don’t have a TV in their living room and have a rule of no TV at all for their kids, except perhaps on weekends. I also know families who make no restrictions whatsoever on screen time.
In our household we’ve settled on the middle ground of setting age-appropriate limits. As a child, however, I remember having no limit other than the natural limit imposed by the TV schedule in our cable-free, pre-iPad home. At 5 pm the news came on, and that marked the end of our interest in watching TV.
Even among the so-called experts, you’ll find a vast array of opinions on everything from how much TV is okay, to what age of child should not watch TV, to the types of programming that is beneficial or harmful.
What Do the Experts Say?
TV limits time kids spend with parents
According to an article on PsychologyToday.com, one of the unforeseen consequences of watching TV is reducing how much parents talk to their children. Diminished parent-child interaction can negatively affect young children.
TV is no more harmful than reading a book or sitting in school
Another article on the same website by a different author suggests that parents are overly concerned with limiting screen time—that when given the freedom to make their own choices with how to spend their time, kids develop independence, initiative, curiosity, and their own interests. Spending several hours watching TV may be no better or worse than spending several hours reading a book or sitting at a desk in school.
Watching a lot of TV is correlated with obesity
An article in Pediatrics reveals a correlation between obesity and amount of television watched. For each additional hour of television an adolescent watched per day, the prevalence of obesity increased by 2%. Of course, it’s unclear whether the bigger culprit is the time spent in front of the TV or the tendency to consume unhealthy snacks during that time.
Watching a lot of TV can improve academic abilities
A University of London study found that children who watched three or more hours of television per day showed better cognitive abilities than children who watched less than an hour per day. So much for TV frying kids’ brains.
Too much TV causes anxiety and depression in kids
A study published by Public Health England found that children who watched more than four hours of TV per day have lower self-esteem and greater emotional problems.
Watching pro-social TV with your kids can improve their behavior
Watching a lot of TV as a child has been correlated with criminal behavior as an adult. However, a study done by Seattle’s Children’s Research Institute found that when parents watched certain types of shows with their kids, it led to positive behavioral changes. Replacing violent or aggressive television with pro-social and educational television—with no change to the amount of viewing—led to significantly less aggression in kids. Are you significantly confused yet?
TV undermines kids’ creativity
Susan Linn, author of The Case for Make Believe, says that watching TV negatively impacts children’s creativity, particularly through TV show-themed toys and merchandise. This combination supplies kids with pre-made storylines and characters, eliminating the need for children to imagine their own worlds of make-believe.
TV makes kids more creative
Just when you thought corporations might be “abducting” our children’s imaginations (to use Linn’s words), however, a Lancaster University study found a link between magical thinking and creativity. Children who watched a fifteen-minute clip from a “magical” scene in Harry Potter And The Philosopher’s Stone scored better on creativity tests than those who did not. Researchers theorized that watching magical scenes opens children’s minds, enhancing their capacity to view the world from multiple perspectives.
Making Sense of it All
As parents, we’re inundated with advice about raising kids, and there is always some new study in the media about TV watching that either contradicts our counterbalances the existing body of knowledge. It can be frustrating hear all of the conflicting viewpoints and then be the one left to sort through the mess of figuring out the best way to raise your kids. There is always something to feel guilty about, whether it’s the amount of time your child spends in front of the screen or the complaints about what their friends are allowed to do that they’re not.
Maybe it’s time to apply some common sense to the TV question. Instead of obsessing over the quantity of TV kids watch, pay more attention to the quality. Instead of worrying that TV makes kids fat, find ways to make sure kids are physically active. Too much time sitting in a chair for any reason—including school—can lead to a less healthy life. Find ways to give kids freedom to make choices about how to spend their time and explore their interests, whether or not that involves watching TV.
I think we’re looking at this issue from the wrong side. If we focus on making sure kids have what they need to develop into successful, healthy, contributing adults, the issue of TV seems less consequential. A good place to start figuring out how to do that is the Search Institute’s 40 developmental assets for kids. You can download the list here. It paints a pretty good picture of what kids need to grow up well, and most of it is common sense. If I’m wrong, I’m sure there will be plenty of studies coming out in the future that can further clarify—or muddy—the issue.
Share your thoughts: How much TV is allowed in your household? Do you have rules about the quality or quantity?