Behavior > Behavior for Children > TV and movies do influence behavior

TV and movies do influence behavior

Do you believe that the magazines, movies and TV shows your kids watch don’t influence your kids’ behavior?  Think again!

Children and teens copy the behaviors they see in the movies and on TV, according to research.

Cigarettes:  If the characters in a show are smoking, kids who see the show are more likely to smoke.  Research shows this effect, even if it’s the “bad guys” who are smoking.  What’s scary is that over two thirds of shows and movies kids see do include on-screen smoking, even PG-13 movies – and the latest movies are no better than the old ones.  Magazines that kids read have just as much advertising for cigarettes as ever, despite new laws prohibiting it.

Violence:  Research shows that kids who see TV shows that model hitting and fighting, even cartoons, increase their real-life physical violence.  This effect is noticed at very young ages, and persists for years after the TV shows were watched.

Obesity:  Experts say that TV watching, all by itself, is responsible for two thirds of our nation’s pediatric obesity epidemic.  The problem is not just that the kids sit and watch; they’re watching one advertisement after another for junk food!

Alcohol:  Kids watch broadcasts of sports events, often with their families.  But beer manufacturers advertise heavily, despite laws forbidding alcohol ads on shows that kids are likely to watch.  Research links this exposure to a tendency to drink later.

So why can’t something be done?  Hollywood has been slow to respond to criticism, TV ratings are not well understood (and may not be accurate), the internet cannot be regulated, and devices like tablets and cell phones are everywhere.

So what are parents to do?  The best advice is for the parents to watch the shows with kids together, with your finger on the “pause” button, and talk about the implied messages.  Ask: “Is that character making a good choice?  What would you do?”

(Download my handout about TV watching (click here) for specific suggestions.)

A commentary in JAMA (June 3, 2009, p. 2265) points out “the extraordinary positive power of the media.  Antiviolence attitudes, empathy, cooperation, tolerance, respect for older people — the media can be powerfully prosocial.”  But we, as the parents, must watch out, every time the kids see a show or movie.  Ask yourself:  “How would I react if a real person were behaving like the characters in this show, in front of my children?”

–  David M. Epstein, MD