Children Watching TV | Mental Health Blog

Preschoolers and TV


Even the most conscientious parents—who would never dream of leaving their preschoolers in front of a television for hours on end—nevertheless will use the TV in short bursts to keep kids busy.  Sometimes you just need those 15 or 30 minutes to make an important phone call, prepare dinner, or just get a little “me” time.  And really, how much damage could a half hour or under do to a small child?

As it turns out, quite possibly, plenty.  A recent study by psychologists at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville found that even watching just a few minutes of a typical, fast-paced children’s cartoon can negatively affect the viewer’s mental acuity.1  There has been plenty of research associating young children’s television watching with impaired cognitive function over the long term, but not much about what happens after shorter viewing periods.

The 60 four-year-old participants were randomly divided into three groups.  The first group watched nine minutes of a “very popular fantastical cartoon about an animated sponge that lives under the sea” (hmmmmm, wonder who that could be?).  The second group watched a more educational PBS show about a boy in preschool for nine minutes.  The third group didn’t watch at all; instead, they spent nine minutes coloring with markers and crayons.

After the nine-minute period, the children were given four tests.  They were designed to measure executive function, which comprises working memory, attention, problem solving skills, and the ability to delay gratification.  Executive function is widely considered a marker for potential success at school…although, it would seem, not necessarily on Wall Street.

Not surprisingly, the kids who watched SpongeBob and his pals scored substantially lower than the children in the other two groups. What was more than a little surprising to the researchers was the fact that the children’s executive function skills were so diminished after such a short period of watching the cartoon.  And let’s not forget that there are many parents out there who have no problem whatsoever allowing their young children to watch just these types of shows for hours on end every day.

And how many hours are we talking about? Well that question may have been answered by the Quebec Longitudinal Study of Child Development, a collaboration by researchers at Michigan and Montreal universities, which followed more than 1,300 kids from infancy to the age of ten.2  The scientists asked the parents of the children how much TV the kids watched at 29 months (two years and five months) and 53 months (four years and five months).  The report revealed that, on average, the two-year-olds watched just under nine hours of TV per week and four-year-olds watched just under 15 hours.

The children were revisited at ten years of age.  The follow-up showed that every additional hour of TV exposure corresponded to a future decrease in classroom engagement and success at math, increased victimization by classmates, a more sedentary lifestyle, greater consumption of junk food, and ultimately, a higher body mass index.

Obviously, this is not the kind of start that any of us want to give our children.  But what’s a parent to do when even a mere nine minutes of “SpongeBob” can be detrimental to brain power? (I mean, all you have to do is look at all the holes in SpongeBob’s brain to realize there’s a serious problem here.)  Selling your television on e-Bay isn’t the answer.  Instead, try to keep preschoolers busy with physical activities that most of them love to do.  Good, old-fashioned arts and crafts, puzzles, and games can occupy them for long periods of time and even benefit small motor control and mental skills.  Reading to them and encouraging them to look through books on their own is also very valuable at this age.  And when you do end up turning on the television—and we all do—try to enforce time limits and, most importantly, be careful of which shows you choose for them to watch.


1 Lillard, Angeline S. and Peterson, Jennifer. “The Immediate Impact of Different Types of Television on Young Children’s Executive Function.” Pediatrics. 12 September 2011.  American Academy of Pediatrics. 18 October 2011. <>.

2 Pagani, Linda S; Fitzpatrick, Caroline; Barnett, Tracie A.; and Dubow, Eric. “Prospective Associations Between Early Childhood Television Exposure and Academic, Psychosocial, and Physical Well-being by Middle Childhood.” Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine. May 2010.  American Medical Association. 18 October 2011. <>.