For many years, television was the only screen that captured the attention of children. Now the television is in competition with other devices -- computers, video games and smartphones. All of these screens offer entertainment, information, and a way to keep in touch with and stay connected to others.

With the arrival of the coronavirus pandemic, screens became our go-to for everything—work, school, video chats with family and friends, and more. Of course, with the positive comes the negative.  

Increased screen time

Today’s electronics have become a vital part of our daily lives. Unfortunately, we often forget about the impact of all that screen time on children.

  • Whether it’s watching television, using a smartphone for social media, or playing video games, it takes away from the time for important activities. Children should also read, do their schoolwork, play, exercise, have family interaction and take part in other activities that support their social development.
  • The information children receive from television, the internet, social media or video games can be inappropriate or even incorrect. For younger children, it can be difficult to tell the difference between the fantasy on television or in the video game and reality.
  • Ads are everywhere. Children are influenced by the thousands of commercials seen each year, many of which are for alcohol, junk food, fast foods, and toys.
  • Excessive screen time is linked to lower grades in school, reading fewer books, exercising less, and being overweight.
  • Violence, sexuality, race and gender stereotypes, drug and alcohol abuse are common themes of television, movie and video games. Young children are impressionable and may assume that what they see is typical, safe, and acceptable. As a result, children can be exposed to behaviors and attitudes that may be overwhelming and difficult to understand.

On-screen violence and how it can affect children

For American children, the time spent on screens is increasing with each year. Unfortunately, a lot of that may include television shows, movies, video games, or YouTube videos that include violence.

There have been hundreds of research studies examining the effects of television violence on children and teenagers. The results of the studies show that on-screen violence can cause children to:

  • become “immune” or numb to the horror of violence
  • gradually accept violence as a way to solve problems
  • imitate the violence they observe
  • identify with certain characters, victims and/or victimizers

Extensive exposure to on-screen violence can cause greater aggressiveness in some children. Sometimes, watching a single violent program can increase aggressiveness. Children who view on-screen violence that is very realistic, frequently repeated, or unpunished, are more likely to imitate what they see.

Children with emotional, behavioral, learning, or impulse control problems may be more easily influenced by on-screen violence. The impact may be immediately evident in the child’s behavior or may surface years later. Young people can even be affected when the family atmosphere shows no tendency toward violence.

Violence in video games and ESRB ratings

Be sure to check the ratings on video games. Those ratings and descriptions are designed to inform you about the content of video games for sale or for rent. According to the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB), the rating system has two parts: the symbol, which suggests what is age appropriate for the game, and the content descriptors, which explain the content of the game.

The ESRB rating symbols and what they mean:

  • EC/Early Childhood: Content may be suitable for ages three and older. The game does not provide material that is inappropriate.
  • E/Everyone: Content may be suitable for ages six and older. This category may contain minimal cartoon, fantasy or mild violence and language.
  • E10+/Everyone Ten and Older: Content may be suitable for ages ten and older. This category may contain cartoons, fantasy, mild violence and language and minimal suggestive themes.
  • T/Teen: Content may be suitable for ages 13 and older. This category may contain violence, suggestive themes, crude humor, minimal blood, and infrequent use of strong language.
  • M/Mature: Content may be suitable for ages 17 and older. This category may contain intense violence, blood, gore, sexual content, and strong language.
  • AO/Adults Only: Content may be suitable for ages 18-years and older. This category may include prolonged scenes of intense violence and graphic sexual content and nudity.
  • RP/Rating Pending: Games with this listing are awaiting final rating from the ESRB and is used in advertising prior to a game's release.

Before you buy a video game, check the ratings. Carefully read the game's description and look at the pictures displayed on the game box. Talk to other parents about the video games your children play.

Children and the news media

The news has evolved as well. Today news is everywhere – on television, the internet, and social media, 24 hours a day. Now, media outlets are broadcasting live events as they are unfolding, in “real time” with repetitive visual coverage of natural disasters and violent acts.

Seeing and hearing about local and world events, such as a health crisis, natural disaster, catastrophic event, and crime reports, may cause stress, anxiety, and fear in children. While there has been great public debate about providing television ratings to warn parents about violence and sex in regular programming, news shows have only recently been added to these discussions.

What is active parenting and how can it help?

Active parenting can ensure that children have a positive experience with television. Parents can help by:

  • viewing programs with your children, including news programs
  • asking what your children have heard or what questions they might have
  • providing reassurance regarding their own safety in simple words, emphasizing that you are going to be there to keep them safe
  • selecting developmentally appropriate shows and games, and making use of parental controls to block certain channels
  • placing limits on the amount of television viewing and hours of screen time for each day
  • have a no screens policy during family meals and study time
  • turning off shows you don’t feel are appropriate for your child and explaining why
  • looking for signs that fears or anxieties may have been triggered, such as sleeplessness, bedwetting, crying, or talking about being afraid
  • encouraging discussions with your children about what they are seeing as you watch shows with them, pointing out positive behavior

With proper guidance, your child can learn to use screens in a healthy and positive way. For more tips for healthy, happy children, visit the Growing section of our Lifespan Living health and wellness blog.

Julie Klang, LICSW, and Jamie Turcotte, LMHC

Julie Klang is a social worker in the children's inpatient program at Bradley Hospital.

Jamie Turcotte is a licensed mental health counselor in the SafeQuest Program at Bradley Hospital.