Media Guidelines

Television — What Children See and Learn

(based on AAP Media Guidelines)


If your child watches three to four hours of noneducational TV per day, he will have seen about 8,000 murders on TV by the time he finishes grade school. Children who see violence on television may not understand that real violence hurts and kills people. They become numb to violence. If the “good guys” use violence, children may learn that it is okay to use force to solve problems. Studies show that even children’s cartoons contain a significant amount of violence.

Research also shows a very strong link between exposure to violent TV and violent and aggressive behavior in children and teenagers. Watching a lot of violence on television can lead to hostility, fear, anxiety, depression, nightmares, sleep disturbances and post-traumatic stress disorder. It is best not to let your child watch violent programs and cartoons.


Television exposes children to adult behaviors, like sex. But it usually does not show the risks and results of sexual activity. On TV, sexual activity is shown as normal, fun, exciting and without consequences. In commercials, sex is often used to sell products and services. Your child may copy what she sees on TV to feel more grown up.

Alcohol, Tobacco and Other Drugs

Young people today are surrounded by messages that say drinking alcohol and smoking cigarettes or cigars are normal activities. These messages do not say that alcohol and tobacco harm people and may lead to death. Beer and wine are some of the most advertised products on television. TV programs and commercials often show people who drink and smoke as healthy, energetic, sexy and successful. It is up to you to teach your child the truth about the dangers of alcohol, tobacco and other drugs.


The average child sees more than 40,000 commercials each year. Commercials are quick, fast-paced and entertaining. After seeing the same commercials over and over, your child can easily remember a song, slogan or catchy phrase. Commercials try to convince your child that having a certain toy or eating a certain food will make him happy or popular. Older children can begin to understand how ads use pictures, music and sound to entertain. Kids need to know that ads try to convince people to buy things they may not need.

How It Affects Children

Family is the most important influence in a child’s life, but television is not far behind. Television can inform, entertain and teach us. However, some of what TV teaches may not be what you want your child to learn. TV programs and commercials often show violence, alcohol or drug use and sexual content that are not suitable for children or teenagers. Studies show that TV viewing may lead to more aggressive behavior, less physical activity, altered body image, and increased use of drugs and alcohol. By knowing how television affects your children and by setting limits, you can help make your child’s TV-watching experience less harmful, but still enjoyable.

You may not realize it, but there are many ways that television affects your child’s life. When your child sits down to watch TV, consider the following:


Children in the United States watch about four hours of TV every day. Watching movies on tape or DVD and playing video games only adds to time spent in front of the TV screen. It may be tempting to use television, movies and video games to keep your child busy, but your child needs to spend as much time exploring and learning as possible. Playing, reading and spending time with friends and family are much healthier than sitting in front of a TV screen.


Studies show that children who watch too much television are more likely to be overweight. They do not spend as much time running, jumping and getting the exercise they need. They often snack while watching TV. They also see many commercials for unhealthy foods, such as candy, snacks, sugary cereals and drinks. Commercials almost never give information about the foods children should eat to keep healthy. As a result, children may persuade their parents to buy unhealthy foods.


Television affects how your child learns. High-quality, nonviolent children’s shows can have a positive effect on learning. Studies show that preschool children who watch educational TV programs do better on reading and math tests than children who do not watch those programs. When used carefully, television can be a positive tool to help your child learn.

For older children, high-quality TV programs can have benefits. However, for younger children it’s a very different story. The first two years of life are especially important in the growth and development of your child’s brain. During this time, children need good, positive interaction with other children and adults to develop good language and social skills. Learning to talk and play with others is far more important than watching television.

Until more research is done about the effects of TV on very young children, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) does not recommend television for children younger than two years of age. For older children, the AAP recommends no more than one to two hours per day of quality screen time.

Positive Actions for Parents

As a parent, there are many ways you can help your child develop positive viewing habits. The following tips may help:

1. Set limits

Limit your child’s use of TV, movies and video and computer games to no more than one or two hours per day. Do not let your child watch TV while doing homework. Do not put a television in your child’s bedroom.

2. Plan your child’s viewing

Instead of flipping through channels, use a program guide and the TV ratings to help you and your child choose shows. Turn the TV on to watch the program you chose and turn it off when the program is over.

3. Watch TV with your child

Whenever possible, watch TV with your child and talk about what you see. If your child is very young, she may not be able to tell the difference between a show, a commercial, a cartoon or real life. Explain that characters on TV are make-believe and not real.
Some “reality-based” programs may appear to be “real,” but most of these shows focus on stories that will attract as many viewers as possible. Much of their content is not appropriate for children. News broadcasts also contain violent or other inappropriate material. If your schedule prevents you from watching TV with your child, talk to her later about what she watched. Better yet, record the programs so that you can watch them with your child at a later time.

4. Find the right message

Even a poor program can turn out to be a learning experience if you help your child find the right message. Some television programs may portray people as stereotypes. Talk with your child about the real-life roles of women, the elderly and people of other races that may not be shown on television. Discuss ways that people are different and ways that we are the same. Help your child learn tolerance for others. Remember, if you do not agree with certain subject matter, you can either turn off the TV or explain why you object.

5. Help your child resist commercials

Do not expect your child to be able to resist ads for toys, candy, snacks, cereal, drinks or new TV programs without your help. When your child asks for products advertised on TV, explain that the purpose of commercials is to make people want things they may not need. Limit the number of commercials your child sees by watching public television stations (PBS). You also can record programs and leave out the commercials or buy or rent children’s videos or DVDs.

6. Look for quality children’s videos and DVDs

There are many quality videos and DVDs available for children that you can buy or rent. Check reviews before buying or renting programs or movies. Information is available in books, newspapers and magazines, as well as on the Internet.

7. Give other options

Watching TV can become a habit for your child. Help your child find other things to do with his time, such as playing; reading; learning a hobby, a sport, an instrument or an art; or spending time with family, friends or neighbors.

8. Set a good example

You are the most important role model in your child’s life. Limiting your own TV viewing and choosing programs carefully will help your child do the same.

9. Express your views

When you like or do not like something you see on television, make yourself heard. Write to the TV station, network or the program’s sponsor. Stations, networks and sponsors pay attention to letters from the public. If you think a commercial is misleading, write down the product name, channel and time you saw the commercial and describe your concerns. Encourage publishers of TV guides to print ratings and feature articles about shows that are educational for children.

10. Get more information

The following people and places can provide you with more information about the proper role of TV in your child’s life:

Your pediatrician may have information about TV or can help you get it through the AAP.
Public service groups publish newsletters that review programs and give tips on how to make TV a positive experience for you and your child.
The parent organization at your child’s school.
Parents of your child’s friends and classmates also can be helpful. Talk with other parents and agree to enforce similar rules about TV viewing.
When used properly, television can inform, educate and entertain you and your family. By taking an active role in your child’s viewing, you can help make watching TV a positive and healthy experience.

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Treating Children since 1989