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School-age children can understand simple plots. But they take at face value things they see on TV. This means that TV characters – even violent ones – are role models for them.
Television can help children relax after school, homework, play or sport. But this can create a habit that might be hard to break later. TV can also take time away from more creative play. Here are some ideas to help you find a balance.

TV time for school-age children

Most child development experts recommend limiting children’s daily screen time: no more than two hours a day for children over five. Screen time includes TV, DVD and computer time.

This is for the following reasons:

  • The time children spend watching TV should be balanced with activities that are good for their development. These include active play, creative play (such as solving puzzles and drawing), sport and conversation with family and friends.
  • Children can become too reliant on TV for ‘something to do’.
  • Even having a TV on in the background affects children’s concentration.

A good balance of developmental activities with homework, sport and music should leave little time for TV.

Check out our article on how children see TV. Recommendations about TV time make a lot of sense when you understand that children see TV differently from grown-ups.

Making the most of TV time

Many young children will have some exposure to TV. That’s OK – but it’s also a good idea to put some thought into how your child interacts with the TV.

Programs that are classified ‘C’ are made specially for your child’s age group. You can check out programs before you let your child watch them, and encourage your child to choose and watch only a few favourites. You might also buy some suitable DVDs. Our child-friendly movie reviews can also help you choose DVDs that are suitable to your child’s level of maturity and understanding.

When you watch TV with your child, you can explain what’s happening and respond to your child’s reactions. You can also point out when characters behave in good and not-so-good ways. Watching together might even give you ideas for other activities.

When you’re choosing TV or DVD programs for your school-age child, it’s a good idea to avoid the following:

  • scary images. School-age children are getting better at processing scary or sad images, but they might still be upset by movies or programs showing the death of a parent or threats to children and animals
  • violent content. Children in this age group might imitate violent behaviour if they see their TV heroes using violence to get what they want. This is true for cartoons and live-action shows
  • TV news. Children at school are old enough to understand that things on the news are real. Reports of natural disasters and violent crimes, especially in familiar settings, can make them feel unsafe. Some parents prefer to record the news and watch it later, or watch a late bulletin
  • advertising. School-age children are likely to believe the things ads tell them and will want to buy the products they see. Children are especially vulnerable to ads that tell them certain products will help them be popular and successful
  • music video programs. As children enter the school years and adolescence, the sexy images, clothes and dance moves on these programs can affect the way girls, in particular, feel about themselves and their sexual development.
Children under eight don’t understand that ads are designed to sell things. They believe that the ‘information’ in ads is true. Some ads work by making kids feel bad about themselves or how they look. These can be very damaging for children’s self-image and self-esteem.

Limiting TV time for school-age children

Try to turn off the TV when the program is over. It can help to plan a smooth transition to another activity.

Many parents find it easier to get children ready for school if the TV stays off in the morning. Kids find it easier to concentrate at school if they haven’t been watching TV. If your child’s favourite programs are on in the morning, just record them. This way your child can watch them later in the day, when you’re both tired and more in need of a break.

What about TV at dinnertime or before bed? Most families find dinnertime works better if you don’t set a place for the TV! It’s a good time just to catch up and enjoy each other’s company. If you let your child watch TV before bed, choose a program that finishes well before bedtime and isn’t scary.

Should my child have a TV in the bedroom? Most experts would say no. Studies show that children who have a TV in the bedroom watch more television than children who don’t. They are also more likely to have sleep difficulties, become overweight, and do less well at school in later years.

It’s never too late to start setting limits on TV time. Involving your school-age child in deciding what to watch can help with this. You can also help your child plan what programs or DVDs to watch in the time allowed. Be firm about sticking to the limits.

Teaching school-age children to be active TV consumers

You can help your children be choosy about what TV they watch. You can also encourage them to be mentally active when they’re in front of the TV, rather than just accepting what they see:

  • Teach your children to think about what they watch from an early age. Help them to make their own ratings – for example, C (can’t be missed), S (so, so), W (waste of time). Encourage them to stop watching W and, later, W and S.
  • Give your children a chance to ask questions about what they see on TV. Let them know what you think, especially about natural disasters, violence and the ways characters behave, but also about the good things you see.
  • Talk about moods and feelings after watching TV and TV ads. Get children to come up with words that describe how they feel – for example, bored, happy, scared, sad, excited, cranky or worried.
  • Talk about TV characters, stories and themes, and describe your likes and dislikes. Ask questions such as, ‘What would happen if you did what that person did?’
  • Make a rule that TV is not switched on until all chores have been done. Be firm and clear: ‘You haven't finished what you need to do tonight. If you get through it tomorrow, you might have time to watch TV’.
  • Move the TV out of the main living area (if you have space). This way, it has to be a conscious decision to watch.
Sometimes peer pressure affects children’s desire to watch TV. For example, your child might say ‘But mum, all my friends watch that show’. In these situations, you can let your child know you understand, but also remind your child that different families have different rules.

What to do when the TV’s off

We know: the reality is that sometimes TV is just the easiest option. It can keep the kids entertained when you need to get dinner, talk on the phone, or just take a break for yourself.

Here are some ideas to keep young children entertained without turning on the TV:

  • Stick a list of interesting activities on the fridge. These could include learning new games to play, playing football in the backyard, going to the park, riding the bike, or going to the library.
  • School-age children enjoy listening to music and stories on CD. At this age, children are old enough to turn the pages when they hear the bell or signal on a story CD.
  • Put together a special box of games, puzzles, toys or objects that you bring out only at those difficult times of day. They don’t need to be expensive or fancy – just things your child doesn’t see all the time. Puzzles can work well, especially if you have a puzzle mat that lets your child work on a puzzle over several days. Special colouring books are also a good idea.
  • Last updated or reviewed 05-03-2012
  • Acknowledgements Article developed in collaboration with the Australian Council on Children and the Media (incorporating Young Media Australia).