Television, Navigating the Content of our Global Neighborhood

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All of television is educational. The only question is: What does it teach?

–          Nicolas Johnson, Former Chairman, Federal Communications Commission

School age children in the U.S. watch on average twenty-eight hours of television a week according to Nielson Media Research. They spend an average of 5.6 hours doing homework and 1.8 reading. They may only spend five minutes a day on average with Dad and twenty minutes with Mom and thirty hours a week at school. So if you merely look at time spent over the course of a week, just behind school, television is the second biggest influencer of a child’s social, emotional and cultural development and perceptions. Steven Covey in The Seven Habits of Highly Effective Families[i] writes,

                  It is true that there is so much good on TV – good information

                  and enjoyable, uplifting entertainment. But for most of us and

                  for our families, the reality is more like digging a lovely tossed

                  salad out of the garbage dump. There may be some great salad 

                  there, but it’s pretty hard to separate out the trash, the dirt and

                  the flies.

Last week my guest blogger, David L. Smith, author of Television that Matters and Visual Communications, recommended that you open the dialogue with your children DSCF0042about television and develop rules together. Steven Covey did just that with his family. He and his wife introduced the conversation and listened to their children’s opinions. The kids, tweens and teens, had strong arguments about how everyone at school talks about certain shows so they would feel out of the loop if they didn’t watch. The parents then introduced research articles that articulated the effects of television, which David wrote about in last week’s post. Ultimately they allowed their children to decide the rules. The children came up with seven hours per week as being reasonable and Covey writes, “This decision proved to be a turning point in our family. We began to interact more, to read more. We eventually reached the point where television was not an issue. And today – we hardly ever have it on.” See Creating a Family Media Agreement for a simple format for a family conversation.

David continues this two-part series on how parents can actively manage television usage with their children.

How does a parent determine what kind of content a child is ready for?

Because there’s so much variation between children at different ages, there’s not a one-kind-fits-all answer to this question. Nonetheless, a general guideline is suggested by the basics we want for our children—health and well-being. As part of optimizing their physical health and well-being we try to provide foods that contain some nutritional value—life-sustaining substances, variety and balance. The same applies to mental-emotional systems. As a starter, I offer below a list of values that I consider to be enriching. You won’t find programs that use these values in their title or promotions, but you will find programs and segments that model them. Look for consistency. In part because it lacks commercials, I believe that children’s programming on PBS has been a consistent provider of “nutritional” programming.

Beauty                                  Connection                         Collaboration

Empowerment                      Encouragement                  Engagement

Enhancement                       Expansion                           Faith

Forgiveness                         Goodness                           Gratitude

Honesty                                Hope                                   Humility

Improvement                        Inspiration                           Integration

Integrity                               Joy                                       Kindness

Love                                    Meaning                               Service

Trust                                   Truth                                     Wisdom

Confident Parents, Confident Kids’ Note: Recent research on PBS prosocial programming such as Calliou, Arthur and Clifford has been shown to result in some harmful effects. Those shows focus much of an episode on relationship conflicts. At the end of the show, a solution is reached but children take from it the words and content of the conflict since the majority of the show focused on it. Preschoolers who watched these shows regularly were more likely to engage in relational aggression, or a form of bullying in which one attempts to damage another’s social relationships or status according to a study[ii] published in Nurture Shock, New Thinking about Children. So although PBS does provide some “nutritional” programming, it’s not enough to trust that all shows are helpful. It is critical to know the content of shows and what they are teaching.

Notice child’s reactions after viewing.

Observe the child’s responses to what they have been watching. If it makes them fearful or gives them frightening dreams, cut back. If it makes them feel good about themselves, others or the world and it provokes good questions, seeps into their conversations and play, go with it. Reinforce the positive.

Read reviews (see resource section) and use videos and movies.

Videos produced to entertain and educate can be a good way to introduce young children to the television set. Whereas the act of “watching television”—watching the least objectionable programs that happen to be on—subjects them to the adolescent values of popular culture and risks its attendant consequences, the selection of videos that contain age-specific content can actually promote language and visual literacy, introduce them to the simple stories and enjoyable characters that abound in the culture and even help them to understand the important difference between fantasy and reality.

Confident Parents Confident Kids’ Note: I use DVDs and pre-recorded television exclusively and E is not aware of any difference. It allows me much more control over the content and it lessens the worry of commercials particularly if you pre-record PBS shows. If you want to make the switch from “what’s on” to DVDs and pre-recorded selections, introduce this as a benefit to your child. She can watch favorite shows without the need to search for something that is offered during the time she wants to watch.

Are television and movie ratings enough?

No! The movie rating system is helpful in that it provides an initial sense of appropriateness, but buyer beware. The industry perceptions and definitions of content can and do differ greatly from those of viewers. Consider the rating to be the barest minimum assessment, just a place to start. You are—or should become—the best judge of what’s appropriate for your children.

                 Find out as much as you can about a movie before letting your

                 child watch. Read reviews, check the Internet, talk to friends who

                 have seen it. Choose carefully when considering movies with PG-13,

                 PG, and sometimes even G ratings. If you aren’t sure, see the movie

                 first, and decide if it is appropriate for your child.

–          American Academy of Pediatrics

Confident Parents, Confident Kids’ Note: Furthermore, a study by the Parents Television Council found that a child watching television shows rated TV-PG during primetime will be exposed to “adult-oriented content more than once every six minutes” including sex, violence and profanity.

Watch with your children.

Whatever your children are watching, television or movie, watch with them and engage them in conversations about the subject matter, production techniques and presentation. Increased awareness of the “man behind the curtain” makes them less vulnerable to “his” manipulation and agendas. Rather than diminishing the fantasy, it empowers the child to observe more fully and activate their own creative imagination.

Aside from answering your child’s questions about subject matter, you can introduce topics for discussion by asking your own questions: “How do you think they did that? Do people really talk like that? Where do news’ anchors get their stories? Does that actor make the character seem real to you? Is that true, or are they just trying to get us to buy their product?”

And then you can provide information: “It’s amazing—every word that every person is saying was written by someone and the actors had to memorize it in order to make it seem real.” (This is true of the lion’s share of programming today).  “When they fight like that the actors are like dancers. They practice every move over and over in slow motion. And then they put the camera in a place where we can’t actually see the punches, because they don’t actually hurt each other.” And “Those (monsters, dinosaurs, talking animals) were drawn on film or computers by a lot of artists. Animators can create whatever their imagination dreams up and make it look real.”


Common Sense Media

Thank you, Kimberly for calling our attention to this one. Find age-appropriate movies, books, apps, TV shows, video games, websites, and music that you and your kids will love. Browse our library of more than 17,500 reviews by age, entertainment type, learning rating, genre, and more using the filters in the left column. Common Sense has recently begun a blog about parenting and media issues with titles such as Best 2013 Oscar Movies for Kids, Screen Time Rules for Every Occasion, Watch Out! Cursing in “Family” Movies.

Parents Television Council

A non-partisan organization advocating responsible entertainment provides a color coded rating system in which it rates all shows on Prime Time TV.

The TV Parental Guidelines and The TV Boss

You can take advantage of the V Chip that has been installed in all new television sets to set parental controls on your television. You can program the V Chip to block all programs with a rating that you know is unacceptable to you for your child’s viewing.

Screen It

Provides movie reviews for parents. We are a small but growing team of reviewers who are not affiliated with any political, social or religious group thus assuring that we’ll provide unbiased reviews. By doing so, we allow parents and others to decide whether a movie, video or DVD is appropriate for them and/or their kids based on THEIR values.

More Resources:

Better TV Equals Better Kids Check out the terrific graphics in this article that visually show the effects of television on children!

[i] Covey, S.R. (1997). The seven habits of highly effective families. NY: Golden Books.

[ii] Ostrov, J.M., Gentile, D.A., & Crick, N.R. (2010). Media exposure, aggression and prosocial behavior during early childhood: A longitudinal study. Social Development.

3 Comments on “Television, Navigating the Content of our Global Neighborhood”

  1. Pingback: Smart Home Media Use: Limiting Screen Time | confident parents confident kids

  2. Reblogged this on Student Life! and commented:
    Happy new year to everyone and welcome back to the school community! I begin this new year by sharing the following blog post from one of my very favorite bloggers on family life, Jennifer Miller. Every school year I feel compelled to remind parents of the powerful influence of media in their children’s development. This week, I was reminded during the first Morning Meeting of 2015 when I heard student after student recount the laundry list of video games and devices they had received and movies they had viewed over the holiday break. This post on Confident Parents Confident Kids offers both caution and common sense advice for families. If you find it useful, please comment or stop by my office. Also, be sure to attend our upcoming parent book club meeting next Thursday, Jan. 15 at 8:30 am. We will be discussing the book Duct Tape Parenting by Vicki Hoefle. Reading the book is desired but not required!

    • Becky,
      Thanks so much for sharing this post! I sincerely appreciate your reading, commenting and participating in this important dialogue. I couldn’t agree more that conversations about media use at home are critical since kids are gaining access to more and more devices and games and parents are trying to keep up! The most popular post of 2014 was called “Smart Home Media Use; Limiting Screen Time” and I am including a link here,, just in case it provides additional supports to your community of parents. Clearly you do such important work! Thanks for including me as part of it! Best to you and happy new year! – Jennifer

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