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How Media Use Can Affect Kids

Most kids today are plugged into devices like TVs, game consoles, tablets, and smartphones well before they can even ride a bike.

Technology is part of life. And parents can make technology a healthy part of childhood by teaching smart media use. Preschoolers can get help learning the alphabet on public television, gradeschoolers can play educational apps and games, and teens can do research online.

But too much screen time can be a bad thing:

  • Children who often spend more than 4 hours per day watching TV or using media are more likely to be overweight.
  • Kids who view violence onscreen are more likely to show aggressive behavior, and to fear that the world is scary and that something bad will happen to them.
  • Teens who play violent video games and apps are more likely to be aggressive.
  • Characters on TV and in video games often do risky behaviors, such as smoking and drinking.

That's why it's so important for parents to keep tabs on their kids' media use and set limits to ensure they're not spending too much time in front of a screen.

What's Recommended?

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends these guidelines for screen time:

  • Babies and toddlers up to 18 months old: No screen time, but video-chatting with family and friends is OK.
  • Toddlers 18 months to 24 months: Some screen time with a parent or caregiver.
  • Preschoolers: No more than 1 hour a day of educational programming, together with a parent or other caregiver who can help them understand what they're seeing.
  • Kids and teens 5 to 18 years: Screen time for TV, social media, and video games needs limits. Talk with your teens, who may struggle with media limits. Media should not take the place of getting enough sleep and being physically active.

Seeing Violence

The average American child will see 200,000 violent acts on television by age 18. Many violent acts are done by the "good guys," whom kids are taught to admire. In fact, often the hero wins by fighting with or killing the “bad guys."

This can confuse kids trying to understand the difference between right and wrong. Young kids are easily frightened by violent images. Because they don’t yet understand what is real and what is make believe, simply telling them that violence isn’t real won't help. Behavior problems, nightmares, and trouble sleeping may happen after kids watch violence on screen.

Older kids can be scared by violent images too. Talking with kids this age will help them, so it's important to comfort them and explain what they see to help ease fears. But it's even better to not let your kids view shows or play games that could be frightening.

Watching Risky Behaviors

TV and video games often show behaviors like drinking alcohol, doing drugs, smoking cigarettes, and having sex at a young age as cool, fun, and exciting. When these things seem acceptable, kids and teens might be tempted to try them. That might lead to substance abuse problems, and studies show that teens who watch lots of sexual content are more likely to start sexual activity earlier.

The Obesity Link

Health experts have long linked too much screen time to obesity. When they're staring at screens, kids are inactive and tend to snack. They're also bombarded with ads that encourage them to eat unhealthy foods like potato chips and drink empty-calorie soft drinks that often become favorite snack foods.

Studies show that decreasing the amount of TV kids watched led to less weight gain and lower body mass index (BMI). Replacing video game time with outdoor game time is another good way to help kids maintain a healthy weight.

Understanding Commercials

Young kids don't understand that commercials are for selling a product, and sometimes can’t tell the difference between their show and the ad. Even older kids may need to be reminded of the purpose of advertising. Video games are especially full of pop-up ads with pressure to buy.

You can turn off the TV or at least limit kids' watching time, but it's nearly impossible to remove all exposure to marketing messages.

When your kids ask for the latest must-haves, explain that ads are designed to make people want things they probably don't need and believe the products will somehow make them happier.

So what can you do? Teach kids to be smart consumers. Ask them questions like:

  • "What do you like about that?"
  • "Do you think it's really as good as it looks in that ad?"
  • "Do you think that's a healthy choice?"

Try to limit kids' exposure to ads. You can:

  • Have them watch public television stations, which rarely show ads featuring products.
  • Record shows so you can fast forward through the commercials.
  • Mute the TV during ads to ask your child questions about the show.
  • Stream their favorite programs, or buy or rent DVDs.

By setting healthy limits on screen time and knowing what your child is watching and playing, you can help make the most of your child's media use.

Reviewed by: Kate M. Cronan, MD and Melanie L. Pitone, MD
Date reviewed: October 2021