The amount of time parents spend watching television was the strongest influence on the amount of screen time their children log, results of survey show.

The correlation was three times stronger than any other factor examined, including access to television in the bedroom and rules about TV viewing in the home, Amy Bleakley, PhD, MPH, of Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania, and colleagues reported in Pediatrics.

For every hour of television parents watch, their child watches an additional 23 minutes, the researchers found. This pattern was the same for all age groups included in the study.

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“By watching television with their parents and observing their parents’ own media practices, youth are socialized to view television in a way that reflects the culture and norms of their household,” the researchers wrote. “Interventions to reduce television time among children may benefit from a greater focus on parents.”

They analyzed data from a nationally representative sample of 1,550 parents  who participated in the 2012 Annenberg Media Environment Survey (AMES) and their 629 children. Children were grouped according to age — those younger than 6 years, those between the ages of 6 and 11 years, and those between the ages of 12 and 17 years.

The survey defined television time as any show, movie, or DVD watched on a television or computer. Using these standards, parents were asked to report how often they watched TV and how often their children watched TV. Other information requested included, which rooms in the household had televisions and how often parents watched TV with their child, as well as a question regarding general health and well being.

On average, parents watched 4.07 hours of television a day. This figure did not correlate with parent age. Children watched an average of 2.81 hours a day and increased with age. 

The study’s results confirmed several other factors such as television access and parental rules that have traditionally been associated with a child’s television watching habits, but the amount of television parents watched proved to be the “strongest predictor.” 

Correlations between variables and children’s viewing quantities were expressed with beta coefficients (β). With an overall β value of 0.53, parents’ viewing times had at least twice as strong of a correlation than any other variable, including the presence of a television set in the child’s bedroom (β=0.19), the child’s age (β=0.20), and the practice of coviewing between parents and children (β=0.11).

Several unique trends were seen in the six to 11 year old cohort, where the correlation between parents and children watching television was strongest (β =0.66), and where parents restricting television viewing actually led to more hours in front of the screen for their children (β=-0.32).

The researchers proposed several explanations for these phenomena. First, they suggested that kids might merely be emulating their parents, emphasizing the need for parents to be “good media role models.”

On the other hand, coviewing as a primary form of spending time together might be the reason behind the correlation, as parents and children that use television as “an integral part of family life” will end up logging more hours.

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) currently recommends children watch no more than two hours of television a day. “A more family-based ecological approach to screen time reduction is promising,” the researchers wrote.

The researchers noted several study limitations, including errors in parent reporting of children’s viewing times, as they may underestimate the quantities especially if their children are not always under their supervision. They also encouraged further research, including studies that examine the affect of new technologies, such as tablets and smart phones, on television viewing in families.

by Walker Harrison, an undergraduate student at Columbia University and editorial intern with Clinical Advisor.


  1. Bleakley A et al. Pediatrics 2013; doii: 10.1542/peds.2012-3415.