Kids and TV – How much is too much?


Parents often want to know about the positives and negatives of TV viewing so they can make well informed decisions for their children. So how much is too much? Here’s an overview to help you make that decision.

Over the last 10 years, young children’s viewing habits have changed.

Younger children are watching more screen time than ever. The average age children start to watch television is around 9 months old, with the average amount of time (for children less than 3 years old) between 1 and 3 hours per day.

The television viewing habits that are formed in early childhood seem to persist for a life time. And this probably applies to other devices and platforms like watching Youtube on tablets, or playing ‘educational’ games on mobile phones.

Kids and TV – How much is too much?

Influences on children

The age at which children watch television is significant. A pre-school child that watches television at age three may receive some benefit from a programme that a nine month old child would not. The effects of watching television in under two year old children are more profound than that of children over two years. This is related to development and the fact that under twos are awake for much less of the day. Therefore one or two hours of television per day takes up a much greater proportion of the child’s awake time.

In some studies television watching accounted for around 30% of the child’s awake time, much more than anything else the child did. Young children learn through interactions with people and their environment. Television is a passive experience which does not offer interactions. A child responding to questions or songs on television is not interacting as the response from the television carries on regardless of whatever the child does.

Effects on play, language, and attention

Children are distracted by television whether or not they are directly viewing.

One study found with the TV turned off, six month olds doubled their focus upon their toys. Another study found that under ones who regularly watched two hours of television or more, were six times more likely to have language delays. In this case, you could argue the television is taking the place of the child talking and playing directly with adults or other children.

Without this vital real experience, children’s language may not develop as expected. There are also numerous studies suggesting links between television viewing and attention deficit in late childhood, and the viewing of violent content and later childhood aggressive behaviour.

The fast-paced nature of television may be over stimulating young children’s brains. This often makes real life seem unexciting and slow in comparison. Children can find it hard to stop watching, slow down, and focus. For every hour that children spend watching TV, they are not spending time doing activities that will enhance their development like reading with adults and playing games with friends.

Television programmes don’t require children to stay focused upon the content for the programme to continue, so there is little need for children to stay focused. This can lead to an inability to maintain concentration in other areas of life and affect the building of positive relationships.

Parent or caregiver’s role

Parents often feel they are supporting their little one’s early childhood education through watching educational television. Studies have suggested that parents perceptions of how much children have learned is different from their child’s actual performance. There was more of a link between how much the parent liked the programme and the perception of how educational the experience was.

Television can be used in a positive way by creating a weekly plan with scheduled viewing. This way you are being selective and limiting of your child’s viewing. There are some informative educational programmes that best suit over twos. These may provide useful information and stimulate thought and discussion. It’s also useful to sit with your child when they’re viewing television, so you can discuss what is happening, share time together and have a cuddle.

If your young child doesn’t watch television at all, they certainly won’t be educationally disadvantaged.


How much TV your child watches is a personal choice. The research on children under 2 is generally negative concluding that it is not recommended. However, for children aged 2 and older, a programme plan with a limit on daily viewing time is considered to be the best approach.

Our society is changing, and over the past decade children are watching more television for longer periods of time with the effects of this change still being determined. One thing we do know is that pre-school children need interactive physical play, hands on experiences, and direct experiences with the natural world and people. There is never any substitute for quality parent time. Adults need to manage their children’s TV viewing time and use this as a tool for positive purposes. 

Now you know a little bit more about the effects of screentime, and how much may be too much. For more expert advice check out our Preschoolers Health and Wellbeing section.

Sue Hunter

Sue Hunter is mother of 4 boys and has a wealth of early childhood experience including lecturing on the subject. She has a special interest in how trauma and neglect can impact upon children’s learning and development. Sue believes that strong connected families are the building blocks to a healthy society.

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Categorised: Preschool
Please note that this article represents the views of the writer and does not necessarily represent the views of Kiwi Family Media Ltd.

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