By Raising Children Network
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Children watching TV
When children watch television, they don’t see and experience the same things grown-ups do. And when you understand the differences, it can help you make the most of TV time for your children.

Babies and toddlers

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 a while
  • can’t understand simple plots
  • might copy what they see on TV – for example, clapping – but are more likely to do so if you clap with them.

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 – the start of ‘brand loyalty’.

It’s recommended that children under two years watch little or no TV. For more information, read our article on television for babies and toddlers.


In general, preschoolers:

  • focus on the visual aspects of TV, but don’t always follow the story
  • enjoy cartoons and understand that they are made for kids – although some cartoons are made for older children or adults
  • don’t always get the difference between fantasy and reality, depending on how fantasy is presented
  • don’t understand flashbacks or dreams
  • don’t understand digital enhancement, such as photoshopping, and think what they see is real – for example, they believe Superman can fly
  • don’t understand what advertising is trying to do.

Scary visual images
Preschoolers are vulnerable to scary visual images. Images of monsters, nasty animals or horrible faces can stay in their minds for a long time. This can happen no matter what the character’s motivations, or what else is going on in the story.

Preschoolers can also be scared when a normal-looking character transforms into an evil one.

TV violence and sexual imagery
Preschoolers are likely to imitate what they see, even if they don’t fully understand what is happening. This can be a problem if they’re watching something violent.

Sexualised actions and dance moves – for example, in music videos – can be an issue, especially for young girls who want to copy them. From about five years, children are starting to listen less to children’s music and more to contemporary music.

Some preschoolers recognise ads because they have more colourful images, faster movement and upbeat music than TV programs. But many think that the ad is somehow part of the program they’re watching.

If preschoolers see a lot of advertising, they learn to recognise brand names and logos. They might even learn to associate them with excitement and happiness. They’re vulnerable to advertising because they don’t understand what advertising is trying to do.

It’s recommended that children aged 2-5 years should have no more than an hour a day of screen time. For more information, read our article on television and preschoolers.

School-age children

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.

They’re vulnerable to media images because they use characters they see on TV as role models and might copy characters’ behaviour and attitudes.

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

Watching the TV news can be especially frightening. 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 and sexual imagery
TV violence can have more negative effects on this age group 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 way to get what you want. Exposure to violence can make children less sensitive to violence and can cause aggressive behaviour.

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

TV advertisers often target school-age children. Food and toy advertising can sometimes lead to children feeling unhappy about who they are and what they have. These messages can be very damaging for children’s self-image, and might lead to worries about how they look.

Not all advertising is obvious. Some advertising is part of programs, so children aren’t always aware that they are being advertised to. Music videos can also work as an advertisement for that artist, and children might want to copy the artist. For example, they might want to drink the same drinks or wear the same clothes.

It’s recommended that children over five years should have no more than two hours a day of screen time. For more information, read our article on television and school-age children.
  • Last updated or reviewed 07-05-2013
  • Acknowledgements This article was developed in collaboration with the Australian Council on Children and the Media (incorporating Young Media Australia).