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Must See TV?

According to market research company A.C. Nielson, Americans watch an average of almost four hours of television per day. What are the consequences of spending so much time in front of the television?

Most studies concerning the effects of TV watching focus on television’s impact on children. However, the ways in which television affect us in childhood stay with us as we grow into adulthood. For example, researchers at the University of Otago in New Zealand found a clear link between watching more than two hours of TV per day in childhood and smoking, being overweight, and being physically unfit in adulthood.

Other findings include:

  • A family’s diet is influenced by its children’s attitudes toward food, and those attitudes are influenced by television. Findings suggest that television may send confusing messages about food and nutrition, such as portraying diet foods as having nutritional benefits.

  • Researchers studying a group of secondary school children found an association between alcohol consumption and television viewing. Results suggest that television exposure may cause an increase in alcohol consumption.
  • Adolescents who watch three or more hours of television a day are at risk for frequent sleep problems during young adulthood. Reducing TV viewing time to less than one hour per day resulted in a reduction of the risk for subsequent sleep problems. The study concluded that extensive television viewing in adolescence may contribute to the development of sleep problems by early adulthood.

So far, most studies regarding the relationship between television viewing and health focus on physical health. However, researchers are beginning to find that television plays a part in our emotional and mental health as well. For example, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) website states that children exposed to television violence become numb to it, even when the violence is portrayed in cartoons. The AAP states that children and teenagers exposed to television violence are more likely to display aggressive behaviour, and witnessing television violence can contribute to the development of emotional disorders such as anxiety and depression. Studies on television’s impact on our emotional and mental health have found the following:

  • Television was introduced to a rural community in Western Fiji, and its impact on the adolescent ethnic Fijian girls was examined. Results showed the beginnings of weight and body preoccupation, purging behaviour to control weight, and body disparagement.

  • Extensive television viewing hinders childrens' academic success. Children who watch a lot of television tend to spend less time doing homework, studying, and reading for leisure. They also become more impulsive in their behaviour. All of this results in an eventual decrease in their academic achievement.
  • Looking at September 11’s effect on the mental health of individuals across the United States, researchers found that experiencing symptoms of anxiety and meeting the criteria for post-traumatic stress disorder were strongly associated with the number of hours of television watched on September 11 and in the days afterward. It appears that people, including children, need only to witness traumatic events on television in order to be traumatized.

The AAP recommends that children over two years of age should not watch more than two hours of television per day, and content should consist only of non-violent educational programming. Perhaps this recommendation is one that would be beneficial for all of us to follow.


Hancox, R., Milne, B., Poulton, R. (2004). Association between child and adolescent television viewing and adult health: a longitudinal birth cohort study. The Lancet, 364(9430): 226-7.

Harrison,K. (forthcoming). Is 'fat free' good for me? A panel study of television viewing and children's nutritional knowledge and reasoning. Health Communication.

Beullens, K. & Van den Bulck, J. (2005). Television and music video exposure and adolescent alcohol use while going out. Alcohol and Alcoholism, 40(3): 249-253.

Johnson, J. et al. (2004). Association between television viewing and sleep problems during adolescence and early adulthood. Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, 158(6): 562-8.

Becker, A. (2004). Television, disordered eating, and young women in Fiji: negotiating body image and identity during rapid social change. Culture, Medicine, and Psychiatry, 28(4): 533-59.

Shin, N. (2004). Exploring pathways from television viewing to academic achievement in school age children. Journal of Genetic Psychology,165(4): 367-81.

Marshall, R. & Galea, S. (2004). Science for the community: assessing mental health after 9/11. Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, 65(Suppl. 1): 37-43.


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