Turn Off That TV

Children and the mass media

Watch TV With Your Kids, But ...

Why simple co-viewing with children can sometimes backfire

A long time ago, someone told me that I should always watch TV with my kids. The advice was irrelevant to me at the time, but for some reason I always remembered it. Maybe that's because the message is continually reinforced in articles written about parenting or on TV talk shows that discuss childrearing. The advice is simple: If you're going to let your kids watch TV, then sit with them and watch along with them. 

This is good advice when it comes to your child's viewing of educational TV programs. Children who watch educational programs in the company of caregivers actually learn more from the material than children who view without co-viewing caregivers. Why? Children pay more attention to the TV, and view the material as more important, when a caregiver watches with them. It's almost as if the child says, "Hmmm...if mom is watching, this must be good." According to your child, the simple fact that you're in the same room and watching the same program means that you endorse the content. 

Unfortunately, the same process occurs when caregivers co-view less desirable TV programs, such as those containing violence. Some research has shown that children whose parents co-view violent TV shows are more aggressive than children whose parents do not co-view. This may be because children have the same interpretation of their parent's presence in the room. That is, kids may assume that if mom or dad is watching the violent show, then the behavior they are witnessing must be okay. 

In this case, telling parents that they should watch TV with their kids may not be the best advice. Or perhaps it's just overly simplistic. Parents should watch TV with their kids, but they need to assume an active role when inappropriate content appears. They should either change the channel to avoid the exposure or talk to their children about the objectionable material. Unlike co-viewing, restricting or discussing violent TV programs is associated with many positive outcomes for children, such as lower levels of aggression.

The bottom line: A parent's presence during TV viewing can be very meaningful to co-viewing children. Children view and interpret the material differently when parents are there compared with when they are not. Sometimes we unintentionally send the message we intend but other times we might send the opposite message. And we don't have to actually verbalize a message to send it.

Watching TV with your kids has many benefits. It not only allows parents to get a taste of what content their kids are watching but it also produces feelings of closeness and positive emotions. However, it's important to remember that children do not regard their co-viewing parents as mere viewers. Rather, they are looking toward their caregivers to provide input, guidance, and perspective on what they are seeing. Sometimes it's what you don't say that sends the loudest message.

Amy Nathanson, Ph.D., is an associate professor at the Ohio State University School of Communication.

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