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TV viewing language skills

"Too much TV is bad for a child” – a familiar cry but how true is it?

Published on: 15 May 2017

A new study suggests that most five-year-olds can watch up to three hours of television a day with few ill effects on their language skills by the time they leave primary school

Able to communicate effectively

Researchers from Newcastle University and Queen Margaret University, Edinburgh, found that children who watch less than three hours of TV a day when they start in primary school are more likely to communicate their ideas effectively when they move on to secondary school.

Using data from thousands of children in the UK’s Millenium Cohort Study, the research team showed that while less is generally better than more when it comes to watching TV, the impact varies, depending on the child’s language skills at 11 years.

While it appears to make little difference to the children who have higher language scores, by contrast more than three hours of TV a day is strongly associated with poorer language skills later on. 

child watching TV

Helping children to develop good language skills

The researchers looked at the impact of parental involvement with children when they were aged three and five-years-old and then examined how well they were able to communicate their ideas at 11.

They asked parents how often they read to their children, told them stories, visited the library together, took them to the park or watched television together – for three hours a day or less

Reading to young children was, on average, associated with better performance but again it had much less of an effect for children with the best language scores at 11 years and correspondingly much more of an effect for those who were doing less well.

Lead researcher James Law, Professor of Speech and Language Sciences, in Newcastle University’s School of Education, Communication and Language Sciences, said: “As researchers, we’re really interested in looking at the things which parents can do which can make a positive impact on helping their child develop good language skills.

“The television effect was a very interesting finding and we saw it had a bigger impact for the children with lower language skills, but made little difference to those who had higher levels of language.

“Television isn’t the enemy. My personal view is that it’s how you watch it that’s important. If you’re actively watching a programme with your child and you’re talking about what’s happening, you’re asking and answering questions, then I think that’s fine and it will be a positive experience for both of you. 

“It’s when children are sat in front of it for hours with no input – in effect an electronic babysitter - that I think it becomes problematic.”

Targeted approaches to language development

The study was conducted to find out if a different way of analysing data could lead to more targeted approaches in helping children with delayed language development. The researchers found their quantile method, which predicts different patterns of performance for different sections of the population, could help target groups which needed particular attention - something which would have been impossible from traditional models that only use average findings for the whole population. 

The study also found poverty and the more siblings a child had were all negatively associated with language development at 11.

Professor Law added: “The Government and local authorities need to consider how they get messages about setting limits on television and reading to children across to families who will need support in issues such as delayed language development and early literacy development.”

The research was carried out using the Millennium Cohort Study, a cohort of children born in the UK between September 2000 and January 2002. They looked at the language development of 5,682 children, measuring their language abilities using the British Ability Scales assessment.

The paper, Early home activities and oral language skills in middle childhood: A quantile analysis is published in Child Development, the foremost international academic journal in the field. DOI: 10.1111/cdev.12727


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