For all a parent might do to monitor the influences on their kids, everything from enrolling them in positive activities to controlling who they hang out or play with, studies indicate that one of the strongest influences on kids’ values and at least some of their behavior may be the television.

As with other statistics, those on the “average” American family and its TV viewing habits are more of a portrait than a snapshot; suggesting the overall pattern, but usually blurring the details.  They tend to leave out those households where one or multiple televisions are on constantly, as well as those where the TV is hardly ever turned on at all.  Still, those statistics are troubling because they suggest that as many as two-thirds of all American infants and toddlers watch a screen an average of 2 hours a day, and that kids under age 6 watch an average of about 2 hours of screen media a day, primarily TV and video games.

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, American children spend an average of four hours a day watching television, and a stunning average of 6 hours and 32 minutes each day using all media, including television, commercial or self-recorded video, movies, video games, print, radio, recorded music, computer, and the Internet. This is more time than they spend on any other activity, with the exception of sleeping. When simultaneous use of multiple media is accounted for (using the computer and/or texting while watching TV, for example), that exposure increases to 8 hours a day.

Many busy parents are grateful for the time their kids spend in front of the TV because it gives them a chance to take care of other household necessities while the kids are occupied, television or video games are a convenient “babysitter,” and one often needed if the household is to be run effectively.

Unfortunately, a large proportion of the media exposure kids get while in front of a screen includes acts of violence that are witnessed or “virtually perpetrated” (in the form of video games) by young people.  As one illustration of the prevalence of these violent themes, it has been estimated that by age 18, the average young person will have viewed 200,000 acts of violence on television alone, a number that only rises when “first-person-shooter” games like Mortal Kombat and Assassin’s Creed are added to the mix.

While the precise impact of all this violence is still being debated, some general findings do seem clear.  According to The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, studies of the effects of TV violence on children and teenagers have found that children often become “immune” or numb to the horror of violence, gradually accept violence as a way to solve problems, and will frequently imitate the violence they observe on television.

A report from the The Kaiser Family Foundation stated that not only is violence more prevalent in children’s programming than in other types of programming, but that children’s Saturday morning and weekday afternoon TV shows, programs that, even though cartoons, feature “sinister combat violence,” raised the most serious concerns. These are shows in which violence is central to the storyline, the villains and heroes use violence as an acceptable and effective way to get what they want, and the characters are valued for their combat ability.

So what is a parent to do?

For many families, simply turning off the TV is impractical: it is already too much a part of the family’s “culture,” and parents often find it difficult to watch shows they enjoy (shows themselves that often depict violence or have it as a central theme!) if they’re telling the kids that they can’t watch television.

Two things, however that parents can do are to become familiar with the TV Rating system and the V-Chip.

TV Parental Guidelines

Modeled after the movie rating system, this is an age-group rating system developed for TV programs. These ratings are listed in television guides, TV listings in your local newspaper, and on the screen in your cable program guide. They also appear in the upper left-hand corner of the screen during the first 15 seconds of TV programs. But not all channels offer the rating system.

For those that do, the ratings are:

  • TV-Y: suitable for all children
  • TV-Y7: directed toward kids 7 years and older (kids who are able to distinguish between make-believe and reality); may contain “mild fantasy violence or comedic violence” that may scare younger kids
  • TV-Y7-FV: fantasy violence may be more intense in these programs than others in the TV-Y7 rating
  • TV-G: suitable for a general audience; not directed specifically toward kids, but contains little to no violence, sexual dialogue or content, or strong language
  • TV-PG: parental guidance suggested; may contain an inappropriate theme for younger kids and contains one or more of the following: moderate violence (V), some sexual situations (S), occasional strong language (L), and some suggestive dialogue (D)
  • TV-14: parents strongly cautioned — suitable for only kids over the age of 14; contains one or more of the following: intense violence (V), intense sexual situations (S), strong language (L), and intensely suggestive dialogue (D)
  • TV-MA: designed for adults and may be unsuitable for kids under 17; contains one or more of the following: graphic violence (V), strong sexual activity (S), and/or crude language (L)

V-chip (V is for “violence”)

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has required V-chips in all new TVs since 2000. This technology lets you block TV programs and movies you don’t want your kids to see. All new TV sets that have screens of 13″ or more now have internal V-chips, and set-top boxes are available for TVs made before 2000. The V-chip allows you to program your TV to display only appropriately rated shows — blocking out other, more mature shows.

As for video games, the ESRB Ratings Guide is something that parents should be aware of before they go out and buy that game that “all the other kids have.”

The ratings are as follows:

  • EC (Early Childhood) Content is intended for young children.
  • E (Everyone) Content is generally suitable for all ages. May contain minimal cartoon, fantasy or mild violence and/or infrequent use of mild language.
  • E10+ (Everyone 10 and older) Content is generally suitable for ages 10 and up. May contain more cartoon, fantasy or mild violence, mild language and/or minimal suggestive themes.
  • T (Teen) Content is generally suitable for ages 13 and up. May contain violence, suggestive themes, crude humor, minimal blood, simulated gambling and/or infrequent use of strong language.
  • M (Mature) Content is generally suitable for ages 17 and older. May contain intense violence, blood and gore, sexual content and/or strong language.
  • Ao (Adults Only) Content suitable only for adults ages 18 and up. May include prolonged scenes of intense violence, graphic sexual content and/or gambling with real currency.
  • RP (Rating pending) Not yet assigned a final ESRB rating. Appears only in advertising, marketing and promotional materials related to a game that is expected to carry an ESRB rating, and should be replaced by a game’s rating once it has been assigned.


Sadly, in a telephone survey of US homes, The Kaiser Family Foundation found that only 15% of parents had used a V-chip. Whether from a lack of awareness or a discomfort with programming technology, these effective means for limiting exposure to violence are underutilized.

As for video games, many parents who themselves do not participate in video games, are unaware of the levels of entertainment violence, or are uncomfortable addressing the problem. Particularly when behaviors and patterns have already been established, changing those behaviors, implementing new rules and restrictions, and enforcing those rules can be very difficult. There are so many things and so many sources that can influence your kids, that is makes it difficult to know what boundaries to set and how best to enforce them.

If you are having difficulty in communicating these concerns to your kids, if the battle over what they can and can’t watch, the games they can and can’t play, are causing problems for you and your family, we urge you to call Capital EAP and make an appointment with one of our trained counselors.  Very often, our assistance in family communications can improve parents’ ability to talk to their kids about not only TV and video games, but the wide range of issues that come up every day of every week between parents and children.