The Checkout

Watching Children Watch TV

One in three children between the age of 6 months and 6 years have a TV set in their bedrooms. And children who have TVs in their bedrooms spend an average 30 minutes more per day watching TV than those who don't.

These are just two of the fascinating findings in the latest Media Family report issued by the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation on Wednesday. The report's findings will certainly be used as fodder in the growing debate about how young a child should be allowed to watch TV. Despite the American Academy of Pediatrics recommendation that babies under two should not watch any TV (or play with video games or computers), a growing number of companies are marketing to that very age group, including a brand new 24/7 TV channel, BabyFirst TV.

According to the study, more children read or are read to than watch TV on a typical day (83 percent read while 75 percent watch TV). However, the average time spent reading is 48 minutes while the average time watching TV is 1 hour 19 minutes per day.

The report shows there's a substantial racial and socio-economic divide on TV-viewing. Children from families with lower incomes and less formal education watch more TV than those in families that are more affluent and better educated. Black children watch more and play more console video games than white children. Children in Hispanic households read less than both black and white children. Similarly, children from families with lower incomes and less formal education are more likely to have TVs in their bedroom.

Why TVs in children's bedrooms? According to the study, which is based on a 2005 national survey of 1,051 parents with children and several focus groups, the most common reason is to free up other sets in the house to allow parents or other family members to watch their own shows. Other reasons include: keeping a child occupied so parent can do things around the house, helping a child fall asleep, rewarding a child for good behavior and stopping fights with siblings.

Afternoon Update: Kaiser Family Foundation just sent over a link to see video clips of one of the focus groups. It's worth checking out.

By  |  May 25, 2006; 7:39 AM ET Kids Marketing
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Please email us to report offensive comments.

Why is it such a bitter pill to swallow: Becoming a parent should change your lifestyle.

You shouldn't get to relax and throw in "Pulp Fiction" on the DVD while eating a TV dinner. You shouldn't get to down a flask of whiskey after work just 'cuz you had a rough day. You shouldn't have that hunky neighbor over for a quick snog (or, for the more idealistic, you can't throw your spouse down on the kitchen floor when the urge hits).

Things change when you become a parent. If they haven't changed, you're doing something wrong.

The problem is, America has become such a selfish society that many of us no longer want to think anything requires self-sacrifice. Not even children.

Posted by: Billy F. | May 25, 2006 9:16 AM

I just want to give my personal opinion on the matter. My daughter is now 3. She has (for the most part), always had a TV on in the background while we do our daily activities. She will sit and watch some programs, others, she will completely ignore. We read, and do crafts, and other activites, sometimes in the same room as the TV without losing much concentration.

I feel, as a parent, that there is much for a child to learn from TV. Things get reinforced, like counting, colors, etc. My daughter loves to watch Dora the Explorer, and loves to count along with Dora (in English and Spanish). We do these things with her while not watching TV, but it gets reinforced by her 'favorite' TV character.

She would not know how to count in Spanish, and know her colors in Spanish if it was not for this show. My wife and I do not speak spanish in the house, and would not know some Spanish words if we hadn't her our daughter repeat them.

Children CAN learn from TV. It can be used as a teaching tool without being lame and boring to the child.

Posted by: Joe S - NY | May 25, 2006 9:16 AM

I strongly feel that TV can negatively impact a baby/toddler's development and behavior based on our experience with our 4 year old. Things like short attention span, crankiness, preference to watch TV over other activities were what we did not like. The worst was a decline in our 'family' time.
Before our second child was born (10 months now) we went cold turkey and pulled the plug on the boob tube.
Can't say if this is the right approach for others, but for our family it worked.
The flip side of this experiment was that Mommy, Daddy and our nanny had to be much more involved with our kids' activities than before. Who said parenthood would be easy?

Posted by: Daddy of two | May 25, 2006 9:46 AM

Daddy of two, we also went cold turkey recently. A funny thing happened, though-- eventually, our girls got so used to having the TV off that they were playing by themselves much more than ever before. Parenting actually became easier, once we got over the hump.

The only time we miss TV is when the girls are in a really bad mood and need a distraction. Then we either separate them, or read them a story, or feed them. Still works.

I'm not saying that this is right for every family, but it worked for us. My greatest concern with TV is the commercials. If you think about it, they're always designed to make you feel inadequate-- like you need to buy X to make your life happier. I'd rather have my kids feel that their lives are happy now, and they don't need to buy something to make their lives complete.

Posted by: Ms L | May 25, 2006 10:03 AM

I was a television baby. Both mom and the sitter would use it to keep me occupied as a child (grew up in the 1960s/1970s).

Consequently, I find it hugely distracting to concentrate on other things, or even carry on a conversation when there's a cathode ray tube flickering merrily in the room.

When I was in college, I attended a thanksgiving dinner with some friends who kept a television in their kitchen. I felt horrible; I was completely unable to participate in food prep or conversation with an otherwise charming family, cause I was too wrapped up in "A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving."

Now that I'm a father of two, my house has 1 television. I let my kids, 6 and 3, watch maybe 3-4 hours of television a week, and I am told by studies like these that my restrictions are draconian.

I've seen my kids watch television -- they're just like I was. Glass-eyed zombies. The only good that come out of it is that we're able to talk about what they watched afterwards, so at least I know they're processing something.

Posted by: Dumbdaddy | May 25, 2006 10:16 AM

When I was a child, I read books, indeed, I read many books, but I also grew up on 'Sesame Street', 'Mister Rogers' and 'Electric Company' in the 1970s. Much value can be found on television if the medium is used and monitored properly by the parents.

Posted by: Mike B. | May 25, 2006 10:21 AM

TV is not bad for children if used in moderation. I'm sorry I cannot sit down with my child 100% of the time. Allowing him to watch a video with nursery rhymes and singing along with him is not harmful.

Posted by: Single mommy of 1 | May 25, 2006 10:43 AM

In reality Television is just a tool of consequence whether for good or bad. People who think television is bad while books are good are snobs and evidently have never read Flaubert's Madame Bovary or realize that most book sales come from romance novels.

The American Academy of Pediatrics policy statements came out prior to any kind of research into the matter. It also made the claim that children will find school boring. Children find school boring because it is boring.

Children are engaged with television because it is a much better medium for understanding. This is because they have had limited experiences. Sure they can read Dickens description of Coke Town but it pales in comparision to a picture of it. It is like trying to describe the colors of a rainbow by providing numerical wavelength s.

In our house public television is a staple and I will not allow a bunch of physiologists who can't even explain consciousness tell me television is bad for development.

Posted by: Mike L | May 25, 2006 10:44 AM

Honestly, I pulled the plug on TV many years ago and do not miss the negative, profanity, violence, sex, or nudity at all. I find it humorous that almost every store, restaurant, bowling alley, indoor recreational center and many other public places have at least one, but usually several televisions displaying so much immoral activities and commercials. Even a live sporting event has either a cheerleader "popping out" or fans exposing their "private" body parts on national television. Is this exposure appropriate for toddlers, children, teenagers or even an adult? Sorry, it's not for me.

Posted by: Mel | May 25, 2006 10:46 AM

I turned off our tv reception 3 years ago and I have never regretted it. Soon, the things that the children wanted for Christmas, etc., were things they wanted, not what some commercial told them they wanted. They became more creative and began creating their own games, make their own jewelry, write stories and plays to perform. Now, both of my children read at at least 3 grades higher and more, than the children they go to school with.

We went from a family who was always in front of the tv, to a family who rarely watches tv, but that is the movies that we pick out and enjoy as a family.

I have no regrets.

Posted by: Maggie | May 25, 2006 10:57 AM

I agree with turning off the TV, but how? For those of you who have, where both parents in agreement? If not, how did you come to a decision? I'm totally for it, I hate when I catch myself zoning out while I should be doing something else (anything else!); but I don't think I can sell this idea to my husband who's a TV junkie.

Posted by: Lisa | May 25, 2006 11:06 AM

Sorry...were both parents in agreement...not where.

Posted by: Lisa | May 25, 2006 11:07 AM

Great question, Lisa!

My husband didn't have TV for 14 years before we married-- so he compromised by having one at all. I was the one who really cut down on the TV watching, until we got to almost nothing (we watch movies from Netflix occasionally). For me, I did it in several steps, which made it less painful:
1. I cut down on the TV I watched just because I was tired or bored, and only watched the shows I felt I had to see.
2. We got rid of cable;
3. We started doing other fun things instead of watching TV, like going for walks, playing games, going out for ice cream, etc. I realized I was more relaxed and slept better when I didn't watch TV than when I did.
4. I stopped watching my favorite shows because I knew that I could rent them on Netflix later. As I said, I hate commercials, and I like watching shows on DVD because you can see the entire season at one time. I also discovered that I didn't need to watch all of the shows I thought were can't miss-- I actually didn't like them all that much once I realized how much I was missing by watching TV.

I was a TV kid myself, and my husband wasn't. I don't think it ruined me, but I think it took time away from doing lots of cool things that he experienced as a kid-- learning piano, biking for long distances, exploring in creeks, building giant paper-mache creatures, designing his own boomerang... he had a much more interesting childhood than I did, and is much the better for it.

Posted by: Ms L | May 25, 2006 11:18 AM

Lisa, my heart goes out to you! I was just so fed up I didn't care what it cost me. I figure, there is so much "trash" out there, I did not need to see it in the privacy of my own home. We do have two children, (now almost adults) so that did help, turning it off for their sakes as well as my own. For years I sat tense with a remote in my hand just to watch a sporting event (that's all we actually watched because TV is so bad). If it were up to my husband it wouldn't bother him, but thank God he knows it's bad too and we went through a lot of arguing but I did not give up. We do watch TV more now, but that is only because we have Sky Angel Satellite its been a blessing so far. We've only had it for a year and it is a lot of "Christian" shows, but at least there are some things we can watch without being exposed to anything significantly "gross". It's changed alot in the year, though. Plus I have everything over 'G' blocked. So it works for me. Good Luck!

Posted by: Mel | May 25, 2006 11:21 AM

What a shame! It's a sin to let your kids be babysit by a TV. It's bad enough that TV in your living room is compared to a SEWER, even worse to have a SEWER in your child's bedroom!

Good Luck :(

Posted by: Samad D | May 25, 2006 11:51 AM

Lisa, both parents were in agreement when we went cold turkey. In hindsight, it seemed easy and logical but in reality it was hard on everyone since we had grown such attachment to it over the years.
We moved when our TV-addled child was 3 and told him that it was 'broken'....never turned on the cable (which saved money for the college fund, $50 a month equals $10,800 in 18 years).
Like Ms L, we had to fully engage and be really creative in order to make up for the stimuli drop-off.
We increased activity time in our church, local zoos/parks/museum, went on outing such as free concerts in the local music schools, read a lot more books and set more play dates with other friends/families with kids.
That said, we do allow our 4 year old to play some video games (Leapster) and watch movies (on the portable DVD player in long car trips) as rewards for good behavior. Visiting Grandma means cartoons, so we see family more often too.

I am not being judgemental on whether TV is good or bad. Realistically, there will come a time when the kids will do what they want. But before that time, we are exercising parental restraint.

You don't have to be a snob to appreciate; Flaubert, Proust, Faulkner, Joyce, Waugh and the like....personal favorites, all. TV adaptation is one thing but letting your imagination paint a fuller image while reading fosters a different type of growth.

Good luck.

Posted by: Daddy of two | May 25, 2006 11:59 AM

We have three small children and really try to limit television, but there are times when I really need a break -- to get dinner made or just to have a moment when I child isn't hanging on me -- and that is when I use the tv. We recently got tivo and that has been a huge help because I can record PBS shows and then play them when I need to.

We avoid network channels because of the commercials. My son watched some of the Superbowl this year and so we were more aware of the commercials. I was shocked at the violence and sexual content. A few days later, we passed a Kentucky Fried Chicken and my son said, "I love that place." He had never been to a KFC and I told him that. He replied, "Well, kids love that place." I asked him why he thought that and he said, "I saw it on tv." Needless to say, we have eliminated tv with commercials for him!

Posted by: len | May 25, 2006 12:06 PM

Television is the new playpen. The Sims is the new doll house. And video games are the new outdoors. Childhood in the 21 century.

Posted by: Paula | May 25, 2006 12:14 PM

We cut TV/cable at home 3 yrs ago. It was a liberating experience -- we found more quality things to do with our time and we don't miss TV at all. So our toddler doesn't watch TV and, even at other people's homes, she is not interested in TV. We have some DVD kidvideos but our toddler is limited to 1 movie of her choice per day on Sat/Sun. Sometimes we rent kidvids on Netflix. Our toddler knows the Sesame Street characters and others like Dora, SpongeBob, Blue, etc. but she isn't hyped up about them. She has good social skills, can focus well on creative activities, has a great imagination (could understand "pretend play" concepts before 1 year), and loves to look at picture books. For us, having no TV was a lifestyle change for the better.

Posted by: Mojo | May 25, 2006 12:16 PM

I agree with most of you on not having tv's in a child's bedroom and not having tv on excessively. However, those of you who seem to condemn parents who allow their children to watch shows like Sesame Street or DVD's like Baby Einstein need to either have children yourselves or realize what life would be like if you didn't have the resources for a nanny, childcare, or babysitter. Apparently you either take your children to child care or have partners who's schedules work out well. I can tell you as a parent of 21 month old twins and having a more than full time job that requires frequent travel, my wife finds tv a necessity. Without letting them watch an hour of sesame street in the morning, she could not get a shower without waking up at 5am. She could not vacuum their room or prepare their lunch. 21 month olds are not very patient in general and generally do not do well for more then 3-4 minutes without parent interaction and entertainment, so even a simple task like preparing a homecooked lunch can be a trial in patience if the child is stuck in their highchairs or left to play on their own in their babyproofed playroom. For some parents, tv is not an option, but a necessity to exist in some sort of civilized fashion. In my opinion, an hour of television per day with something like Sesame Street is not detrimental, but yet it seems as all tv is portrayed as evil.

Parents in my situation, where my wife is sometimes the only person left caring for our children while I travel or single parents often have no choice but to use tv in order to complete necessary tasks.

In addition, one of our daughters would prefer to read books over television since we spend so much time reading to them in general so she will watch part of Sesame Street and then move on to one of her favorite books.

Posted by: Greg | May 25, 2006 12:35 PM

It seems to me, as a grandmother of two children under 10, that parenting is a lot harder than it used to be.

When I was a child, we could go out to play without the basic fear that something horrible might happen. Going out to play was the entertainment of the times. And going outside was not as dangerous, as long as we "looked both ways." Everyone on the block knew everyone else. It was more like a global village, with neighbors keeping that extra eye. It was still somewhat safe when my son was a child.

Nowadays, you are lucky if you have a vague idea of who lives next door. Your neighbor is as likely to be a sexual offender as anything else.

I don't know what I would do if I were trying to raise a child now.

Posted by: Kitten, SW FL | May 25, 2006 12:45 PM

We have limited our almost 5-year-old's viewing to only three 20-min "kid shows" per day (which is still a lot of tv, I know!). She keeps a chart of which shows she watched, then adds up how many it is in total. The funny thing is that she frequently doesn't use up her quota, often skipping entire days of tv. I hope this is a trend we can continue.
We have educated her about commercials, and from the time she was 2, she knew to say "no thank you" to an ad as it played. To this day, she has never asked for anything she has seen on tv.

My big problem is that I like tv myself. During the day, I often find myself wondering what is on the "news". When I do catch myself checking out CNN, or the Today show, I realize how passive I become, letting the "information" flow over me. I am definitely a product of a tv childhood (a latch-key kid, with tv as a sole companion--not a good idea).
The sad thing is that, while I have limited her watching, my daughter is with me all day, and sees my lapses when I do watch and zone out (not to mention some of what is on). When I do give in to my curiosity, I try to keep it to 15-20 minutes at a time, a few times a day. I get the tv off, but boy, it can sometimes be hard--and there's really nothing on! I have decided to cold-turkey my daytime tv "news," and limit my news consumption to a 20-minute browse on Google news once a day.

Posted by: RImom | May 25, 2006 12:56 PM

So far we have been able to limit our 19 month old's TV watching - meaning he does not watch television AT ALL at home. We have allowed him twice to watch something on Sprout because he was ill and shouldn't be moving around, and it was the only way we could think to get him to "zone out." He did - for about 5 minutes - and then he wanted to read a book with mommy and daddy. To the commenter regarding we must have childcare - he's absolutely right. We do have an excellent daycare center - that has NO TV -- but my husband and I do not watch TV in the morning while getting the little one ready for daycare or in the evening as part of the winding down process. On the weekends we go to the park or zoo or just shopping - watching people in person is alot more fun that the 2-D figures on television. I honestly don't know if I would "plop" him in front of a tv if I were the sole caregiver - I do know that I have to get ready frequently in the morning, and my boy has always known how to entertain himself in the bathroom while I take a quick 5-10 minute shower. We talk while I get dressed, blow dry my hair etc. Whether this is better or worse than him learning his spanish alphabet in his own room without any human interaction I guess is up to the scientists, but I feel better for it...

Posted by: mdmom | May 25, 2006 1:31 PM

My issue with TV is the commercials. Even the best shows are ruined with crap commercials. "Buy me, buy me now", and such.

Posted by: Brettski | May 25, 2006 1:31 PM

There is absolutely nothing wrong with children watching television as long as parents pay attention to their children. Television today is not television from my childhood in the 1950s and 1960s. In fact, my child's vocabulary has increased at a dramatic rate as a result of carefully managed television viewing. Certainly, television viewing is not an alternative to outdoors play, or interaction with other children. But to suggest that somehow watching more television is bad for children is ridiculous. The sooner my child learns what to expect from television, and as long as I help manage the content he (as a five year old) views, the stronger and more intelligent I believe my son will become.

Ray Hanania
Chicago, IL

Posted by: Ray Hanania | May 25, 2006 1:57 PM

"do not miss the negative, profanity, violence, sex, or nudity at all"

I would miss the sex, violence and nudity. Seriously, that's the best part of TV.

(although, I keep my sex and nudity apart from violence. But if you like that sort of thing, I'm not very judgemental.)

Posted by: Just a note here... | May 25, 2006 2:07 PM

Since the pediatricians are mouthing off based on no data whatsoever, I see no reason why we parents should not do the same.

We did not restrict our childrens' TV time. They are now teenage honor students at the top of their class, with no discernible bad habits. I grew up as a TV kid, still managed to become a succesful professional with a happy marriage, as did all of my siblings.

Pediatricians live fantasy lives of economic and social privilege in this country. When they pull their opinions out of their you-know-whats, they are just talking about what works for them and their full time nannies. They do not and cannot understand ordinary American middle class life, let alone the challenges of being poor.

I would wait for some data before listening to pediatricians about behavioral issues involving children. If they would just stick to precribing antibiotics for ear infections, we all would be better off.

Posted by: Nimbler Jack | May 25, 2006 2:08 PM

Here are some family-friendly tips for helping parents manage their children's TV intake, courtesy of TV Watch (

TV Watch member and parenting expert Dr. Sal Severe provides helpful pointers for parents trying to monitor their child's viewing habits. Although these tips are tailored for the summer, they can serve as guidelines the whole year through.

Dr. Severe suggests the following do's and don'ts:


Set time limits on how much television your child can watch per day or per week, with enough flexibility to change the limits under special circumstances, like rainy days. Two hours a day is plenty.

Use the rating system and the parental control features that come with your TV, cable set-top box or satellite, to screen out objectionable content when you just don't have the time to watch with your children.

Plan ahead. Sit down with the TV guide at the beginning of the week and agree on what shows can be watched. The schedule should include some of your kids' favorite shows as well as programs you would like them to see.

Schedule family viewing times. You can watch what your children choose and discuss the content with them.

Be consistent. Make sure that you and your partner agree on what shows your children can watch. Create a checklist and post it on the refrigerator to remind you, your children and caregivers of the rules of the household.

Use your VCR or DVR. If you record programs, children can play outside when it's sunny and use the video when it's raining or when you can't watch with them.

Remember to spend some time reading every day. Either have your children read silently, or for extra fun, read aloud to them.


Do not let TV become the default entertainment or the babysitter. But simply telling children to play outside won't work. Parents have to guide their children by providing ideas on how to enjoy their non-TV time.

Don't assume that if a program is nonviolent or on PBS it will necessarily be consistent with your values. Try to watch at least one episode of a new program that your child wants to watch to make sure that you approve of the show's content for your child.

Avoid putting a TV in your child's room. However if you do, activate the parental controls to block out content you don't want your child to see.

Posted by: Owen Becks | May 25, 2006 2:16 PM

I'm always curious to know what people watch that's so explicit and full of profanity. Most of what's on I don't watch because it's just plain insipid and boring.

But there is GOOD TV now. My kids just watched the PBS show "MegaFlood" with me. I was sucked in by the local geography and science; they were wowed by the special effects. Shows on A&E and the History, Science and Discovery Channels are usually decent (excluding some of the medical and cop shows, which turn my stomach, too), entertaining and educational.

And recently my kids have discovered Boomerang, a network from the people who brought you Cartoon Channel. It shows the old cartoons from my days: Pink Panther, Scooby Doo, Atom Ant. Ok, so they can be a little violent, and not really "PC". But NO COMMERCIALS! My girls LOVE Pink Panther. Mostly, they like snuggling with me for quiet time with the TV

Some of my favorite memories from growing up involved the TV and time spent with my family watching Mary Tyler Moore or Bob Newhart. It was comfortable time together; bonding in a quiet way. This is bad? I don't think so

Posted by: Mark | May 25, 2006 2:39 PM

The key to early childhood development is time interacting with adults whether sharing a TV show, a book, craft time or outdoor fun, they learn from us.

So I agree with one of the early posters. The saddest part is that some parents don't change their lives for their kids. My husband and I have changed our lives for our son and we do use the TV as one tool in managing our lives with new priorities.

Posted by: Mommy in Training | May 25, 2006 2:41 PM

How did parents handle their children before TV was invented?

Posted by: June | May 25, 2006 3:40 PM

"How did parents handle their children before TV was invented?"

I think Grandmother Kitten said it was easier in her day because you could let kids roam around outside and play with the neighbor kids. I remember playing baseball for hours without checking in with my mother. I just had to be in before dark. If she needed me before then she would either holler or call a neighbor to see if they could see me.

My daughter loves Scooby Doo which we have a tape of. She is 5 and wants the princess TV for her room. She has already been told she will have to be in high school before that is even discussed. I had a TV when I was in middle school but it was an old black and white so I spent most of the time watching shows with my mom who only believed in basic cable so she could watch the Atlanta Braves or Chicago Cubs.

Posted by: Dlyn | May 25, 2006 5:26 PM

Maybe we could use the "parental" guidelines, ratings, controls etc...But, who is in charge of the ridiculous rating system? Every channel has some desperate women with her shirt wide open, top falling out, or clothes that just don't fit (way too small). How do you classifiy that as "family-friendly". I know women feel the need to expose themselves in public too, but on national television that comes into my home? Women use to tell one another, discreetly, that a bra strap or slip was showing. How do you politely say, "Excuse me, mam, but your breasts are hanging out." or "your shirt is unbottoned to your navel?" Television will never clean up if society is so immoral. Of course it's going to be rated 'G' for general audiences because that's what we see every day.

Posted by: Fed Up | May 26, 2006 8:38 AM

It appears from a lot of the negative comments about TV content and commercials that the writers are unfamiliar with PBS or a satellite/cable channel such as Noggin, neither of which carry commercials or sexually offensive material (unless the writers find something offensive in Barney or Yellow Bird or Dora). A few programs such as Oobie concern me because of the ungrammatical language they use (e.g., "Me Oobie"), but most are usefully educational. Perhaps those objecting to TV content should take a look at these channels and inform themselves about the content before they automatically condemn all TV.

Posted by: Rudy | May 31, 2006 2:29 AM

My wife and I cannot agree on whether it is necessary to limit our daughters'(11 and 13) viewing time (TV, DVD, Internet, MSN messenger chatting with school friends), or any other screen. I think two hours a day, but she thinks that is overly restrictive. We agree that they shouldn't have internet and TV's in their own room, although they will shortly have their own computers for school assignments,which I probably will not limit.

Posted by: Stuart Papworth | June 11, 2006 7:43 AM

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