Should my 5-year-old be watching educational TV?

Michael Rich, MD, MPH, is Boston Children’s Hospital’s media expert and director of Boston Children’s Center on Media and Child Health. Take a look at his blog archive or follow him on Twitter @CMCH_Boston

Michael Rich, MD, MPH

Q:So far I’ve only allowed my 5-year-old to watch DVDs that I’ve selected. Should I introduce some quality educational TV programs, or should I stick to my guns and keep her away from TV—and the commercials that come with it—for as long as I can?

Tepid about TV, USA

A: Dear Tepid,

Your question raises some good points. First, there’s no reason your child has to watch TV. There are many different ways she can learn the same lessons…like books, creative play, and time outside in nature.

If and when you do decide to incorporate TV into her media diet, there are a few things to consider. First, choose the programs carefully. There are high-quality educational TV shows that she could really enjoy (in limited quantities). Which ones work best for her depends on both who she is as an individual and her developmental stage. Refer to child-friendly reviews of children’s TV to help you decide whether the content is developmentally appropriate for her. 

Second, you are right to be concerned about exposing your daughter to commercials. Research shows that young children are especially susceptible to advertisements. Our own research has indicated that attention to food commercials on TV may be the driver of the relationship between screen media and obesity. If you do let your daughter watch a show on TV, use the same media-smart approach as you’ve been using for DVDs—by recording and pre-viewing each program yourself. Then, you can not only skip the commercials but also make sure that the show is appropriate for your child. Many educational shows are also available on commercial-free DVDs or can be watched live on PBS (which has no commercials but does include sponsorships).

Finally, even if she isn’t watching TV at home, commercials will eventually start making their way into her consciousness. Therefore, it’s important for her to start learning about how media messages are created, by whom, and for what purpose. When she does see or talk about ads, use the opportunity teach her media literacy skills, which will help her question and evaluate ads (and other media) on her own. That way, as she grows, she has the tools and strategies to think about it for herself.

Enjoy your media and use them wisely,

The Mediatrician®