How children see TV, YouTube, games and movies

How children see TV, YouTube, games and movies

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Babies and toddlers: TV, YouTube, games and movies

In general, babies and toddlers:

  • are attracted to light, movement and activity on TVs, tablets and phones, but their ability to understand what's going on is limited
  • might recognise familiar characters or voices after seeing and hearing them lots of times
  • might copy what they see in TV shows or YouTube videos but are more likely to do it with you - for example, they'll copy clapping more if you clap with them
  • can't understand simple plots
  • have limited ability to tell the difference between what they see on a screen and what they experience in real life until they're about 18 months old
  • have limited ability to apply what they see on a screen to real-life situations until they're about 2½ years old.

It takes babies a lot of effort to watch screens. Watching screens can make them very tired. If they're not yet old enough to turn their heads away for a rest, some babies might even get distressed.

Toddlers also get tired from the effort of watching a screen. But they can walk away when they want to, and many will!

Very young children have no understanding of advertising. But they can be attracted to the bright colours and happy jingles. They can also learn to recognise simple and colourful logos - this could be the start of 'brand loyalty'.

National and international guidelines discourage screen time for children under two years other than for video-chatting.

Preschool children: TV, YouTube, games and movies

In general, preschoolers:

  • don't understand flashbacks or dream sequences
  • focus on the visual aspects of what they see on screens but don't always follow the non-visual parts of the story, like the spoken parts
  • enjoy interactive TV shows like Sesame Street and Play School where the hosts speak directly to the camera
  • enjoy cartoons and animations and understand that some cartoons are made for older children or adults
  • don't always understand the difference between fantasy and reality and might think that what they see is real, particularly if the fantasy uses high-quality special effects.

Scary visual images
Images of monsters, nasty animals or horrible faces can stay in preschoolers' minds for a long time. This can happen no matter what else is going on in the story or how likeable the characters are.

Preschoolers can be scared when a normal-looking character transforms into an evil one, particularly if they see the character changing.

Scary images or scenes on the news can also upset preschoolers. For example, they might be really worried by images that show war and suffering, violence, fire or accidents.

Violent images
Preschoolers might copy what they see on TV or in video games or YouTube videos, even if they don't fully understand what's happening. This can be a problem if they're watching something violent.

On TV or in video games, characters often get better quickly after violence, but preschoolers might not understand that this doesn't always happen in real life. This means they can hurt themselves or others if they copy violence they see on screen.

Sexualised images
From about five years, children start to be interested in contemporary music. If they watch music videos that show sexualised images, actions and dance moves, they might copy these moves.

Good-quality apps, games, YouTube, movies and TV for preschoolers can support learning and encourage positive behaviour. For example, a good-quality app might encourage children to take turns. A good-quality TV show might include scenarios that children like playing in real life, like 'hospital' or 'zoo'.

School-age children and TV, YouTube, games and movies

In general, school-age children can follow simple plots and understand how events in a story are related to each other. But they tend to take things at face value, rather than questioning what they see on TV, YouTube, video games or video game entertainment sites like Twitch.

Media images and role models can influence the behaviour and attitudes of school-age children. At this age, children look at the environment around them for role models, who might include TV characters, social media celebrities and other media figures.

Scary visual images
School-age children depend less on visual images for meaning than younger children do. But scary images and frightening scenarios can still upset them.

Watching the news on TV or online can be especially frightening for children in this age group. This is not only because of the images but also because school-age children know the events they see on the news are real. News reports about crime can upset them, and they might be especially worried about death.

Violent images
TV violence can have more negative effects on school-age children than on younger children.

Many TV programs, movies, and video games made for school-age children send the message that it's OK for heroes to use violence, as long as it's for a good cause. School-age children can misinterpret this message and think that violence is a good way to sort out conflict and get what you want.

Some experts suggest that exposure to TV and video game violence can make children less sensitive to violence and might cause aggressive behaviour. But others suggest that older children can tell the difference between a game and reality, and this stops video game violence leading to real-life violence.

Sexualised images
The sexualised imagery shown in music videos, YouTube videos, social media posts and TV programs can affect how boys and girls see themselves and their sexual development as they enter the school years and adolescence.

Some social media celebrities emphasise 'sexiness' or exaggerated and stereotyped ideas of femininity and masculinity in their images. This can reinforce unhealthy body images, inaccurate gender roles and unfair social roles for girls and boys and men and women.

Good-quality apps, games, YouTube, movies and TV for school-age children can support learning and encourage positive behaviour. For example, a good-quality app for primary school-age children might get children creating animations. A quality TV show or YouTube channel might inspire new off-screen play ideas.