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What Should You Let Your Child Watch?

Whether it’s live or on demand, on a big screen or a small one, video content is everywhere. As a parent, it can be really hard to decide what to allow your little one access to. So, we’ve taken a look at the facts and pulled together the very best advice on TV for the little ones.


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There are many reasons we may want or need to let our children watch video content. Most commonly, the aim is to either entertain, educate, or, let’s be honest, distract. However, we’ve all, at some time or another, heard someone condemning television for causing an attention deficit or even violent behaviour in young people. It can be a truly terrifying prospect.

So let’s look at the effect TV can have on children. Firstly, studies have shown that children under the age of two do not learn effectively from videos. Physical contact with 3D objects and face to face engagement is vital for the development of life skills during this time, and, really, cannot be replaced. For children older than this, however, videos can be valuable learning tools. While they should never replace all-important play, the right, age-appropriate content can have a range of benefits, including language and cognitive development, inspiring imaginative play, and fostering positive and inclusive attitudes towards those from other cultures and backgrounds.

So where have all the horror stories come from?

Well, first of all, according to Harvard Medical School, too much screen time can lead to difficulty sleeping. A good night’s sleep is vital for proper function at any age, and especially while our brains are still developing.

Other studies have also linked high consumption of video content to a range of negative behaviours - but don’t panic just yet.

From many of these studies, the key takeaway is not the effect of watching too many videos, but what, exactly, that screen time is replacing. Further studies have shown a strong correlation between parental phone usage, and the likelihood for children to act out in a bid for attention. Children under the age of five require active play and quality time with their caregiver in order to develop many key life skills. And, while learning can happen from videos, this often needs to be contextualised through play, or with the help of an adult.

So, rather than worrying about how many videos your little one has watched today, it can be more effective to consider the other activities they have engaged in and how much quality time you’ve spent together.

What about violent or inappropriate video content?

It’s the elephant in the room, so let’s talk about it.

We cannot help but worry what our children might stumble across, and what effects it may have on their mental wellbeing. A somewhat infamous 2009 study showed that children who witnessed a large amount of aggression in media went on to show high amounts of violence in adulthood. So are they doomed to a life of crime if they watch too much Batman?

Well, firstly, it’s important to consider what the study actually meant by ‘aggression’. While we might call a pushy salesman or a barking Jack Russell ‘aggressive’, scientific study requires something a little more concrete. In this case, ‘aggressive’ refers to a person acting with the intent to purposefully hurt another person.

Secondly, a later review of this study found that it had failed to control for variables such as mental health and family life - proven factors in the development of violent behaviours - and another, similar study, found that already at-risk children were more likely to choose media content portraying high levels of aggression.

Essentially, adult violence is rarely caused by a single factor. And, while a baby as young as 6 months can mirror actions they see on TV, they are far more influenced by their caregiver. If they are growing up in a loving and nurturing environment, then accidentally stumbling across inappropriate content one time won’t turn them into a master criminal.

Violent television can, however, be incredibly distressing for children, and cause high levels of anxiety, so do ensure that everything your child is intentionally watching is age-appropriate, and be sure to talk it through with them, and reassure them, if they do stumble across the wrong thing.

So, this was a lot of information, and it may still seem pretty unclear what, and how much, our little ones should be watching. So, here are a few simple tips to follow at home:

:)  Content and Context
The two cons are the key to choosing appropriate videos. Before pressing play, consider: what is this about? What can it teach my child? If there are any negative behaviours or ideas, what context are they shown in? Are they praised or condemned? 

There’s a big difference between a character getting away with making nasty comments, and a character learning why their comments were hurtful.

:)  Check the Rating
When in doubt, ask the experts. The BBFC carefully considers context, tone and imitability when creating ratings for TV and Film (those are the U/PG/12 stickers). Content that does not make it clear that behaviour is wrong or dangerous, or where an empathetic protagonist appears to incite aggressive or violent behaviour, will receive higher ratings.

:)  Keep Overall Screen Time Under 2 Hours
Whether it’s watching TV or playing a game, screens simply cannot replace physical play and face-to-face interactions for the under fives. As a rule of thumb, experts recommend you try to keep screen time under two hours for 2 to 5s, and as minimal as possible for under twos, to ensure they’re not missing out on more valuable learning experiences. However, remember to observe how your little one responds to screen time. If you find it tends to make them irritable or anxious, cut the screen time down, and implement a strict routine to help them manage their mental states.

:)  Watch Together
Children learn from video so much better if they can discuss what they’re seeing with a trusted adult. By watching together, you can not only aid their learning process, but keep an eye on what they’re watching. You can also point out any advertising techniques, stereotyping or problematic content, and discuss their effects.

:)  Create a Schedule.
Routine is really important for our little ones, and, especially during this habit-forming period of their lives, it can help to teach self-discipline.
Furthermore, by keeping video-watching to set times, it will be less likely to become a distraction. If the TV is on in the background during play or mealtimes, it may keep your little one from important learning opportunities and family time.

:)  Find Other Calming Solutions
Sometimes, we turn to the TV to calm our little one when they get stressed. While this may feel like a godsend in the moment, it can become an issue in the long-run, as children learn to distract themselves from difficult emotions, rather than dealing with them.
Try to have a few calming exercises, such as guided breathing or sensory grounding, ready for these moments. There are loads of ideas to explore on our App and Instagram!

I know this is a big topic, and can cause a lot of anxiety among parents, but don’t panic. Keep an eye on what your little one is watching, and follow the above steps, and you’ll be OK.

Enjoy the show :)

Lizzie
Content Creator @MEplace
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