Children and TV

Watching TV is an easy and affordable way to entertain children.

These days, children can view programs on a TV, computer or a number of other electronic devices.

Many children are now spending long periods of time looking at screens.

This means they spend less time doing other things that are important for their development and health - like playing, socialising and exercising.

Studies show that after watching fast-paced TV shows, children can have difficulty sleeping or sticking with tasks that take longer, like reading or doing puzzles.

Watching scary shows can make children frightened and upset and can lead to sleep problems, worrying, not wanting to be alone, or concern about themselves or others being hurt or killed.

Watching a lot of TV has been linked to children:

  • not getting enough sleep
  • having a short attention span or poor impulse control
  • accepting violence as a normal way to solve problems.

TV has also been linked to children becoming overweight or obese.

Being inactive for long periods is only part of the problem.

They are exposed to more advertisements for high calorie foods, and tend to eat more snack foods and sweet drinks when watching TV. 

The risk of becoming overweight is increased if the TV is in their bedroom.

Effects of TV at different ages

Your child’s reaction to television can vary depending on how old they are and where they are up to in their development.

Under five years

Children under five have difficulty working out the difference between fantasy and reality on TV. They also:

  • tend to focus on the exciting bits but need help to follow plots
  • can think cartoon characters are real
  • can be frightened by scary images such as vicious animals or monsters, or when a normal character turns into something scary
  • can become frightened and upset about stories involving the death of a parent or vivid images of natural disasters
  • are not able to understand ‘probability’ - so may not feel better if you tell them ‘it’s not likely to happen to us’
  • may become fearful if violence is shown in familiar settings like homes, families, schools - or to children or animals.

Ages five to nine

Children aged between five and nine still have some difficulty working out what is real and what is fantasy. They tend to admire and want to be like the hero or heroine.

This means they may take a message from cartoons that violence works and wins, even if they can tell it is fantasy.

Six and seven-year-olds can believe that TV families are real families, or Sesame Street is a real street.

Nine to ten-year-olds understand that actors are playing a part.

Ages 10 to 12

Children aged between 10 and 12 are likely to be disturbed by content which is based on fact because it means it could happen to them.

They are curious about the teenage world, sex and fashion. They can be misled by the way romantic relationships are shown in programs and movies.

Children in this age group understand how TV programs are made. For example, they know how cartoons are made or that special effects are used.

They can be upset by violence or the threat of violence, or stories in which children are hurt or threatened.

13 and older

Teenagers can be affected by realistic-looking physical harm or threats of intense harm, by images of sexual assault, or by threats from aliens or the supernatural.

They may enjoy being frightened a little, but only when they feel secure. 

However, the more children see frightening programs, the more they believe the world is a frightening place. This can make them anxious and fearful.


Most children under eight years believe what the advertisements tell them, particularly if it shows a well-known person or a favourite character.

Children between eight to ten years are aware that adverts don’t always tell the whole truth. However, they are not sure how to tell when they are not.

You can help children learn about advertising by talking about the difference between what a product looks like on TV and what it can actually do in real life.

For example, a doll that looks like it is flying on TV can’t really fly when you get it home. 

Help them spot the tricks, gimmicks and hidden messages used in adverts to get people to buy products.

Violence on TV

Studies show that seeing lots of violence on TV can make children:

  • more likely to use aggressive ways to solve problems
  • less sensitive to violence in real life
  • anxious about the ‘mean and scary’ world in which they live.

The children most likely to be affected by TV violence are:

  • those who watch over three hours each day, particularly boys
  • younger children
  • children who feel insecure or who see or hear violence in the home.

You can help children realise the violence they see on TV is often pretend and would have a much bigger impact in real life.

For example, a person who is shot in real life probably wouldn’t be able to get up and keep fighting.

News on TV

TV news programs often show the most violent or shocking things that have happened that day.

It is only a small part of what happens in the world. For example, the news doesn’t focus on the thousands of planes that take off and land safely, only when there is a crash.

Watching the news can frighten children because they can’t understand the low chance of these events happening in their own life.

They may also think when they see the same event over and over again that the event is happening many times, such as when a tragedy or disaster is covered in the news over many days.

It can help to:

  • talk with children early and often about news images that might come up during other programs
  • help them understand what they are seeing - this might be the news headlines or a newsflash during their favourite program 
  • not allow younger children to watch the news - you can record the news and watch it after children are in bed
  • watch with children as they get older and start to become interested in what's going on in the world - help them get a balanced view.

Screen time recommendations

Australia has guidelines for the maximum amount of time children should spend per day watching all screens - such as mobile phones, iPads and televisions. 

These are:

  • no screen time for children under two years
  • no more than one hour per day for children under five years
  • no more than two hours per day recreational use for children aged five to 18 years.

Research recognises the increasing role of media in the lives of families and children. It has led to the following key messages for parents about children and screen time.

Set limits

Children need and expect limits. Play with your child. Teach kindness. Be involved.

Be a good role model

Limit your own media use and show on-line etiquette. Give your child attention – away from screens.

Monitor TV show quality

Focus on the quality of what your child is doing or watching, not just the length of time.

Be actively involved where possible

You could play a video game with your child. Always co-view with infants and toddlers.

Managing TV time

You can help children plan what they watch from an early age. Use program classifications to select what is suitable for their age.

TV classifications

The classifications include the following:

  • preschool children (P) - designed for preschoolers
  • children (C) - designed for school-aged children
  • general (G) - suitable for all ages
  • parental guidance recommended (PG) - parental guidance recommended for children under 15 years
  • mature (M) - recommended for mature audiences 15 years or over
  • mature adult (MA) - suitable only for mature audiences 15 years or over
  • adult violence (AV) - not suitable for children
  • restricted (R) - not suitable for children - restricted to adults 18 years or over.

Make a family media plan

You can decide as a family how you will create a balance with other recreational activities.

It’s important to review the plan often as children get older.

You might want to agree about:

  • how much time is spent viewing TV and other screens
  • keeping all screens in a room that is open so you can see what children are watching
  • creating tech-free zones - no TVs in children’s bedrooms and recharging of devices overnight and outside your child’s bedroom
  • not having TV and other screens on while getting ready for school, at mealtimes, while doing homework, and one hour before bedtime
  • only switching on the TV after all jobs are done
  • bedtimes that suit your child’s age rather than when a TV program finishes
  • watching music videos - many are sexual and show negative stereotypes which can impact children’s self-image, children as young as five are more likely to have concerns about their body shape if they watch music videos.

Watch TV together

Watching TV with children is a chance to teach them to be critical viewers. 

Help them question what they see and to know how stories work.

If you can’t watch with them, talk with them before or after the show.

You might want to:

  • know the characters in the programs your children watch
  • talk with your children about their favourite characters and what they like about them
  • help them make sense of what they see by understanding the structure of stories
  • help them understand that programs can affect our moods
  • ask them to describe how they feel when they watch something - are they bored, happy, scared, sad, excited, grumpy or worried?
  • ask questions that help them be critical viewers, for example 'What do you think would happen if they did that in real life?'

Making a complaint

If you are concerned about the content of a TV program or advertisement you can make a complaint. 

Put your concerns in writing to the TV station as soon as possible - they don’t have to respond if it is more than 30 days after the program.

If you don’t get an adequate response within 60 days you can make a formal complaint to the Australian Communications and Media Authority.

More information

Find out more, including support to help you understand and monitor how your child use TV and other media, on the following pages: 


This information was adapted from the Parent Easy Guide series © Parenting SA, Government of South Australia.

Last updated: 08 March 2016

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