4 Simple Ways To Assess Your Kid’s Favorite Shows, if You Refuse to be Screen-Free

Screen-Free Parenting's guide for concerned parents of young children

4 ways to assess your kid's favorite show web

We recommend you delay your young child’s introduction to screens as long as possible. When you are ready, there are some key (research-based) ways to assess your children’s programming. Be wary of any baby media described as “educational” – several companies have been sued due to these claims.

The only thing that should be stamped “educational” in your baby’s environment is your own forehead. Click To Tweet

The only thing that should be stamped “educational” in your baby’s environment is your own forehead.  Once you move past the infant and toddler years, there is some media which can be educational if it is consumed in the right way.


One thing that research consistently shows is that the negative effects of media can be somewhat mitigated if an attentive caregiver is jointly watching the media with the child.  So, if you are able to sit with your child while s/he watches television or movies, your child is much better off.  Use this time to talk to your child about what they are seeing. Discuss anything they don’t understand.  Discuss anything you disagree with (any antisocial action a character takes).

One of the many reasons that we don’t do screen time with our own children, is that what I just described is a lot of work.

I am totally fine with a lot of work in parenting.  In fact, this whole parenting thing is A LOT OF WORK.   However, if I am going to do a lot of work, I am going to do it with tools that I know always have a positive effect on kids (i.e., outdoor active play, books, or free play).  I’m not going to waste my energy on something that is often bad for my kids and results in a screen habit that I have to deal with. However, this article is about what media to choose, so I need to get back to that topic and stop raving about how great it is to be screen-free.

Research regarding media for children is becoming more and more nuanced.  There is a large difference in the quality of programming available for young children. Choose your child’s television programming by assessing it in the following categories. We also give a list of a few specific programs that have some positive research as well.

  1. Chose Television Programming that is Prosocial

There is a very famous set of research studies that is featured in all Introductory Psychology texts. They are collectively called the “Bobo Doll” studies conducted by Albert Bandura and they exemplify how critically important modeling is for young children.  The studies were conducted in the early 1960’s.

Prior to this research study, psychologists, particularly behaviorists, believed that in order for a behavior to be repeated or imitated, rewards would have to be involved.  A child would need to see another child be rewarded for their sharing behavior to think, “Hey, sharing is a good idea.”  This research study proved that the rewards are actually unnecessary.

Another popular idea in the 1960’s (violence on television had become a controversial issue during this period) was that viewing violence would somehow be cathartic for individuals. The premise was that simply by watching others behave aggressive on television, the aggressive impulses of the viewers would be lessened. We now know how silly this idea is.

These studies involved children watching a video of an adult behave in aggressive ways towards a clown doll (throw it, kick it, beat it) or play in non-aggressive ways. The children were then placed in a room with the same doll and a variety of play toys. The children who viewed the aggressive model were far more likely to imitate the violent behavior and displayed novel aggressive behavior (using guns). 1

If you would like to view a very unenthusiastic 1960’s woman beat up a blow-up clown doll and then be disturbed by children pointing a gun at a clown’s nose, you can watch some of the original research videos here:

This is one reason to not show aggressive or violent images to young children. They will likely “try” that behavior out at some point. Fortunately, the opposite appears to be true as well. Children will imitate prosocial behavior viewed on a screen (even more so prosocial behavior exhibited by a family member they know).  Researchers found that when preschoolers viewed a Barney episode demonstrating kindness and sharing, the children were more likely to display these behaviors in a play scenario.2

Bottom line: Only expose your children to television characters that you wouldn’t mind them acting like.

Only expose your children to television characters that you wouldn’t mind them acting like. Click To Tweet
  1. Choose Television Programming that Has Minimal Screen Shifts 

Screen shift simply refers to the number of times the screen changes in a given period of time.  Slower shows, like good old Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, have few screen shifts.  Faster-paced programs like Sponge Bob Square Pants and Baby Einstein videos have many screen shifts in a very short period of time (5-10 in 20 seconds).  Screen shifts are important because of the impact they have a young child or baby’s attention.

Research has shown a link between television viewing prior to age 3 and problems with attention at school age. Specifically, there was a 10% increase in the likelihood of attention problems for each hour of television viewing.3  Research also demonstrates that children perform worse on tests of executive functioning after watching a fast paced program.4  More on this research and how screens have changed can be found in this article.

Bottom line: It is best to choose slower-paced programming for young children with minimal screen shifts.

  1. Choose Television Programming that is Developmentally Appropriate

You want to make sure that your child is able to understand what they are viewing on the screens.  There are some positive programming options that can be educational (i.e. Arthur), but contain plots and topics which are too challenging for young viewers (under five’s).  Make sure that you watch the shows with your child and ensure that s/he can follow the program.  If you believe it is over their head, switch to something more simplistic that they will be able to follow.

  1. Choose Television Programming that Allows Your Child to Avoid Commercials

It is estimated that the average American child views over 40,000 advertisements in a year.   Researchers have demonstrated that children under the age of 5 are unable to distinguish commercials from regular programming, being equally influenced by both.  It’s also been established that children younger than 8 are unable to understand the intent of commercials (to persuade children to do or buy something).

Despite children’s inability to filter out advertisements, the commercials are incredibly effective.  Several studies have demonstrated that children prefer advertised products and are more likely to request these items.5

Marketers are making it much more difficult for parents to eliminate commercials from their child’s lives.  Because streamed content often does not include commercials, many shows now include in-program commercials.  Additionally, many children’s characters are used to sell foods or other products in the store. The marketers are relying on your child’s familiarity with a character to sell a product.  Essentially, no commercial is necessary when the Sponge Bob character is on the Goldfish bag.  However, you can still do your best to avoid commercials as much as possible.  If you are watching a program on a traditional television network, mute or turn it off during a commercial break.  If you are selecting programs via a tablet or streaming service, they should already be sans traditional commercials. However, keep an eye out for in-program product placement.

Bottom-line: Your kid cannot filter out advertisements and is easily influenced by them.  Do your best to keep commercials away from your child.  Speak to your child about advertising and commercials regularly.  Make it a game to help them spot the advertisements.

Selected Children’s Television Programs With Positive Research Backing*

Dora the Explorer & Blue’s Clues

Some research suggests that educational programs like Dora the Explorer and Blue’s Clues resulted in greater vocabularies than other programs. Before you get too excited, no show results in greater vocabularies when compared to reading or one-on-one time with a caregiver. However, when compared to others, these shows do have the advantage of being slow-paced and developmentally appropriate for a young viewer.

Sesame Street

One study demonstrated that viewing Sesame Street at ages 2 and 3 predicted higher scores on math and language tests at age 5.  Sesame Street is also prosocial and lower on the screen shift metric.  It’s use of real adults makes it understandable for young children.  The best returns for this show are in the 3-5 age range.7


After preschoolers viewed Barney (an episode which promoted kindness and sharing), they demonstrated more sharing and less aggressive play when compared to a group of preschoolers who did not view the video.2  However, another research study found viewers of Barney to have smaller vocabularies compared to kids who watched other shows.6

Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood

This show has been linked to increased imaginative play and creative thinking in preschoolers when compared with other shows.  Again, the gains were most pronounced when the viewing was enhanced by conversations with adults.  Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood also has minimal screen shifts and can be considered educational for preschool aged children. 8

*Yes, the shows we are highlighting are older. Research takes time.  However, because we live in the internet age, you are able to access shows from any decade. Sesame Street can be purchased on youtube.com and Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood is available on Netflix streaming.  Just be cautious of advertisements on youtube.com.

The Final Word

If you choose to take the screen-limiting approach, programing should be carefully selected and closely moderated.  Bear in mind, the research above is most commonly comparing programing to programing.  Going screen-free is simpler and every parent needs simple.  With all of the positive things to do with our children, we cannot image when we would have time for screens.  Check out our Screen-Free Activities page for an ever-growing list of awesome stuff to do with your kids.

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  1. Bandura, A. (1975). Social Learning & Personality Development,New York, NY, USA:Holt, Rinehart & Winston
  2. Singer, J. L., & Singer, D. G. (1998). Barney & Friends as entertainment and education: Evaluating the quality and effectiveness of a television series for preschool children. In J. K. Asamen, G. L. Berry, J. K. Asamen, G. L. Berry (Eds.) , Research paradigms, television, and social behavior(pp. 305-367). Thousand Oaks, CA, US: Sage Publications, Inc.
  3. Zimmerman, F. J., & Christakis, D. A. (2007). Associations between content types of early media exposure and subsequent attentional problems. Pediatrics, 120(5), 986-992. doi:10.1542/peds.2006-3322
  4. Cooper, N. R., Uller, C., Pettifer, J., & Stolc, F. C. (2009). Conditioning attentional skills: examining the effects of the pace of television editing on children’s attention. Acta Paediatrica, 98(10), 1651-1655. doi:10.1111/j.1651-2227.2009.01377.x
  5. American Psychological Association. (2004). Report of the APA Task Force on Advertising and Children. Retrieved from http://www.apa.org/pubs/info/reports/advertising-children.aspx
  6. Linebarger, D. L., & Walker, D. (2005). Infants’ and Toddlers’ Television Viewing and Language Outcomes. American Behavioral Scientist,48(5), 624-645. doi:10.1177/0002764204271505
  7. Mares, M., & Pan, Z. (2013). Effects of Sesame Street: A meta-analysis of children’s learning in 15 countries. Journal Of Applied Developmental Psychology34(3), 140-151. doi:10.1016/j.appdev.2013.01.001
  8. Strasburger, V. C., Wilson, B. J., & Jordan, A. (2014). Children, Adolescents, and the Media: Third Edition. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications