1. School Age
  2. Play & learning
  3. Media & technology

How children see television

0-8 years

When children watch television, they don’t see and experience the same things grown-ups do. And when you know more about children and television, it can help you make the best choices about TV time for your children.

Babies, toddlers and television

In general, babies and toddlers:

  • are attracted to light, movement and activity on TV, but can’t work out what these things mean
  • might recognise familiar TV characters or voices after seeing and hearing them lots of times
  • might copy what they see on TV but are more likely to do it with you – for example, they’ll copy clapping more if you clap with them
  • can’t filter out unimportant details like other sounds in the room
  • can’t understand simple plots
  • can’t tell the difference between TV and real life until they’re about 18 months old
  • can’t apply what they see on TV to real-life situations until they’re about 2½ years old.

It takes babies a lot of effort to watch TV. This can make them very tired. If they’re not yet old enough to turn their heads away for a rest, some babies might even get distressed. Toddlers also get tired from the effort of watching TV. But they can walk away when they want to, and many will!

Very young children have no understanding of advertisements. But they can be attracted to the bright colours and happy jingles. They can also learn to recognise simple and colourful logos – this is the start of ‘brand loyalty’.

It’s recommended that children under 18 months have no screen time, other than video chatting. Children aged 18 months to 2 years should watch or use only high-quality programs or apps with an adult. You might like to read more about healthy screen habits for children aged 0-2 years.

Preschool children and television

In general, preschoolers:

  • don’t understand flashbacks or dreams
  • focus on the visual aspects of TV but don’t always follow the non-visual parts of the story, like the spoken parts
  • enjoy interactive TV like Sesame Street and Play School where the hosts speak directly to the camera
  • enjoy cartoons and animations and understand that some cartoons are made for older children or adults
  • don’t always understand the difference between fantasy and reality and can think that what they see is real, particularly if the fantasy uses high-quality special effects
  • don’t understand flashbacks or dreams.

Scary visual images
Scary visual images can have a big impact on preschoolers. Images of monsters, nasty animals or horrible faces can stay in their minds for a long time. This can happen no matter what else is going on in the story or how likeable the characters are.

Preschoolers can also be scared when a normal-looking character transforms into an evil one, particularly if they see the character changing.

Scary images or scenes on the news can also have a big effect on preschoolers. For example, they might be really worried by images that show war and suffering, violence, fire or accidents.  

TV violence
Preschoolers are likely to copy what they see on TV, even if they don’t fully understand what’s happening. This can be a problem if they’re watching something violent.

On TV, characters often get better quickly after violence, but preschoolers don’t understand that this doesn’t always happen in real life. This means they can hurt themselves or others if they copy TV violence. 

Sexual imagery
From about five years, children start to be interested in contemporary music. If they watch music videos that show sexualised images, actions and dance moves, they might copy these moves. 

Advertising
Preschoolers can spot an advertisement and know that it’s different from a TV show. They recognise advertisements because they have more colourful images, faster movement and more upbeat music than TV shows. But they don’t always understand that advertisements are trying to sell something. And they don’t recognise in-program advertising, like characters drinking brand-name drinks.

If preschoolers see a lot of advertising, they learn to recognise promotional characters, brand names and logos. Children remember advertisements that use jingles or show fun and enjoyment. They might start to link brands with excitement and happiness.

It’s recommended that children aged 2-5 years should have no more than an hour a day of screen time. You might also like to read more about healthy screen time habits for preschoolers.

School-age children and television

In general, school-age children can follow simple plots and understand how events in a story are related to each other. But they still prefer to take things at face value, rather than questioning what they see on TV.

Media images and TV role models can shape the behaviour and attitudes of school-age children. This is because children at this age are thinking about their identities. They look at the environment around them for role models, who might include TV characters, celebrities and other media figures. 

Scary visual images
School-age children depend less on visual images for meaning than younger children do. But scary images can still upset them.

Watching the TV news can be especially frightening for children in this age group. This is not only because of the images, but because school-age children know the events they see on the news are real. News reports about crime can upset them, and they might be especially worried about or afraid of death.

TV violence
TV violence can have more negative effects on school-age children than on younger children.

Many TV programs and movies made for school-age children send the message that it’s OK for heroes to use violence, as long as it’s for a good cause. School-age children can misinterpret this message and think that violence is a good way to sort out conflict and get what you want.

Exposure to TV violence can make children less sensitive to violence and might cause aggressive behaviour.

Sexual imagery
The sexual imagery often shown in music videos and other programs on TV can affect how boys and girls see themselves and their sexual development as they enter the school years and adolescence.

Advertising
TV advertisers often target school-age children and try to make children want the latest toys, clothes and gadgets. This kind of advertising can leave children feeling unhappy about who they are and what they have. These messages can be very damaging for children’s self-image and self-esteem, and might lead to worries about how they look.

Not all advertising is obvious. Some advertising is woven into TV shows, so children aren’t always aware that they’re being advertised to. For example, some TV shows promote sporting, food, clothing and cosmetic brands by placing products in scenes or by having the main character wear or use them. School-age children might want these products to be more like their favourite character or celebrity.

It’s recommended that children aged six years and older have consistent limits on screen time and the types of media they use. You might also like to read more about healthy screen habits for school-age children.

Rate this article (64 ratings)

Tap the stars to rate this article.

Thanks for rating this article.

Last updated or reviewed
08-12-2016

  • Tell us what you think
  • References
  • Acknowledgements
 
 

Raising Children Network is supported by the Australian Government. Member organisations are the Parenting Research Centre and the Murdoch Childrens Research Institute with The Royal Children’s Hospital Centre for Community Child Health.

Follow us

© 2006-2017 Raising Children Network (Australia) Ltd