Children’s Television Viewing Habits Page 1 of 6
Children's Television Viewing Habits
The purpose of this assignment was to conduct research into the viewing habits of
children. Those chosen for the survey would be different enough to facilitate
comparison of varying trends according to age, gender, or both. The research was
done through the use of a questionnaire asking brief or multiple-choice questions.
Fifty questionnaires were completed by pupils aged twelve to sixteen at a secondary
school in a rural area of Wales. The questions asked were intended to establish:
how much television children actually watch on a average day.
what types of programmes children watch.
what other activities children engage in.
whether children watch any educational programmes.
whether any restrictions are placed on what children are permitted to watch.
whether there is a role for television in the classroom.
All of these proposals will be studied on the basis of the criteria previously specified.
The results of this survey will be discussed with reference to the current literature
addressing this subject.
The amount of television watched, or thought to have been watched, by children has
caused considerable concern for parents and educators alike. It is thought that children
remain glued to the set for long periods of time, viewing unsuitable programmes
which may adversely affect not only their cognitive and emotional development, but
their academic achievement. There is no doubt that children are susceptible to the
images which they see on the television screen:
Child viewers…are in very active developmental stages. Their attitudes. Beliefs, and
ideas about the world, as well as physical and social skills, are taking form; and they
absorb information from everywhere. Because of the considerable number of hours
spent viewing television, however, television becomes a disproportionately
informational and attitudinal source. (van Evra 1990: xii)
However, many factors must be taken into account before this theory can be proved or
disproved, and this survey will attempt to address some of these issues.
Ninety eight per cent of households have at least one television set and many children
have their own set in their bedrooms. It is extremely unlikely that any child will be
denied the opportunity to watch television. The official viewing figures in the United
Kingdom are published by the Broadcasters Audience Research Board (BARB); they
are drawn from a national panel of some three thousand households. The number of
hours of television watched by twelve to fifteen year olds varies from 2.5 to 3.2 hours
per day from 1982 to 1987 respectively. This increase is due to the introduction of
Channel Four, breakfast programmes and daytime television. Most of the children
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questioned watched three to four hours of television after school (38 per cent), but this
was only slightly more than those who watched one to two hours (30 per cent).
However, only eight per cent of those questioned watched less than one hour a day.
Almost a quarter admitted to watching over four hours a day. This is quite a large
amount to watch after school, although in this case the school day does finish
relatively early. There is a difference apparent in the viewing habits of girls and boys
in this respect. Over seventy per cent of boys watch three hours and over, whilst only
forty five per cent do the same. (see figure 1) There does not appear to be a pattern of
viewing according to the age of the children; the number of hours watched must be
down to personal preference. The average viewing time for those questioned is
approximately three and a half hours. According to BARB figures for 1991 and 1993,
four and fifteen year olds watched eighteen hours twenty minutes and nineteen hours
twelve minutes a week, respectively. This appears to be less than the figures for this
survey, although it is complicated by its different age range and its weekly parameters
(HMSO 1995: 216). According to research the level of children's viewing declines at
around ten years of age and so would not be evident within the scope of this study
(Gunter & Svennevig 1987: 9) (see figures 2 and 3).
The time of day when children watch television is important because of the schedule
restrictions which are in force. The watershed of nine o'clock is intended to prevent
children watching unsuitable programmes. Of those questioned four out of ten
watched television between seven and nine at night. At this time soap operas and light
entertainment programmes take up the bulk of the schedule. One in five watch
television after nine o'clock when they would see programmes with more adult
content. Not many watched from four to six o'clock when programmes aimed
specifically at children can be seen (approximately 15 per cent). This general trend can
be applied to both girls and boys, although there is a significant difference in the post
nine o'clock viewing: twice as many boys than girls watch after the watershed. The
girls watch a higher proportion of their programmes during the earlier hours of four till
seven. It is clear that boys prefer the action and adventure programmes which are to be
found after nine o'clock. According to one source, peak viewing times for children up
to the age of fifteen occurs between four and eight o'clock (Gunter & McAleer 1990:
6). This is confirmed by the results of the survey. There is a deviation from the figures
found in this source when it comes to the breakdown of the number of viewers at each
particular hour. It shows more children watching between four and six o'clock and
greater numbers watching later than those in the survey. There is a correlation between
the survey and the percentages shown by the source to be watching in the evening, six
to nine o'clock. (see figure 4) Once the survey figures are broken down in terms of age
there does not appear to be any definite pattern. There is an increase in the numbers
watching after nine until the age of fifteen and the same is true of a decrease in the
number watching when children's programmes are on air. Across the entire age range
the slot of seven to nine o'clock is the most popular. (see figures 5 and 6) The survey
proves that not as many children as feared are watching unsuitable programmes,
although neither are they viewing those specifically targeted at them.
According to other research soap operas have proven to be extremely popular with
children: 'Children are likely to watch situation comedy or evening soap
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operas' (Gunter & Svennevig 1987: 10). These results have been mirrored by those of
the survey: over twenty per cent of those questioned regularly watched soap operas.
They were twice as popular with girls than with boys and this popularity increases
with the age of the child, regardless of gender. Therefore more fifteen year old boys
and girls watch soap operas than their twelve year old counterpart. Drama programmes
also proved popular with the children and again they were more popular with girls;
over twenty three per cent of girls watched them compared to eleven per cent of boys.
Whilst viewing of drama programmes tends to increase in relation to a rise in the boys'
ages, it decreases in relation to that of the girls. At the same point where the girls'
interest in drama programming declines, at age fourteen, they begin to watch
informative programmes such as documentaries and news. Boys also watch these
programmes to a lesser extent, but do not begin to do so until the age of fifteen.
Science-fiction is watched by both girls and boys, although by a slightly higher
percentage of the latter. However, there is not such a significant gap as might be
expected because of so-called gender difference. The most obvious difference between
the viewing of girls and boys can be seen in the proportion of those who watch sports
programmes: only five per cent of girls compared to almost twenty seven per cent of
boys. Children watch a wide variety of programmes including films, comedy,
cartoons, game shows and music programmes in addition to the ones already
mentioned. The survey agrees with previous that 'boys watch more action adventure
and sport, girls watch more soap operas' (Gunter & McAleer 1990: 8) (see figure 7 to
The favourite programmes named by the children show clearly the pattern which has
emerged through the types of programmes stipulated. Specific names of soap operas
occur more often in the girls' responses, whilst the titles of sports programmes appear
as the boys' choices. Children's programmes disappear after the age of thirteen to be
replaced by more adult alternatives such as The X-Files: 'With increased age, viewing
of programmes made especially for children drops significantly, while viewing of
general programming…increases substantially' (Gunter & McAleer 1990: 8).
According to BARB figures for 1990, drama and light entertainment made up forty
one per cent of all viewing, which follows the trend set by this survey, showing that
children's viewing is not that dissimilar from that of adults. The significant difference
is the number watching news programmes, twenty one per cent. The figures for this
survey being much lower. However, the correlation between an increase in age and the
proportion of those watching information programmes has been identified in this
survey (HMSO 1992: 178). Comedy and drama are always present in the lists,
signified by programmes such as Casualty and London's Burning. By the age of
fourteen boys are beginning to watch programmes with a more adult theme, although
the majority of them belong to the comedy genre: Bottom, Game On and Men
Behaving Badly. However, there is one drama programme with amore adult content
mentioned, The Crow Road. This trend is more pronounced than the one evident in the
girls' answers where Men Behaving Badly is mentioned by one fifteen year old. This
corresponds with the fact that more boys than girls watch after the watershed and is
linked to the girls' preference for soap operas which are scheduled earlier. It does
show that both genders are watching similar programmes. According to the evidence
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collected it does not seem that a significant proportion of children's viewing consists
of unsuitable programmes.
Many parents are concerned with the violent nature and sexual content of television
programming and this would find expression in the restrictions which they impose on
their child's viewing. The important question is whether the child feels that they are
under any restrictions regarding the programmes they are allowed to watch. The
survey therefore asked this question and then asked the child to stipulate the nature of
the restriction. Only twenty four per cent of those surveyed felt that they had any
restrictions on their viewing. There was a distinct difference between boys and girls.
Whereas forty two per cent of girls felt that their viewing was curtailed in some
respects, only twelve per cent of boys laboured under the same assumption. There
does not appear to be any explanation for this and one can only conjecture that more
programmes are thought unsuitable for girls than for boys, that the boys did not wish
to admit to restrictions, or that girls pay more attention to their parents' wishes.
According to a major survey which targeted parents with children under the age of
fifteen, forty one per cent said that they had definite rules, thirty per cent said that they
had no rules, and six per cent said that they made an effort to control viewing (Gunter
& Svennevig 1987: p.27). If the findings of both these surveys can be regarded as
typical then there is a clear gulf between the rules parents believe they are imposing on
their children and what the latter feel are restrictions. The results of the survey of
parents is, however, close to the girls' responses. In the 1970s over one in three eleven
to twelve year olds and fifteen to sixteen year olds felt that they either currently were
in or in the past had been under some kind of restriction (Gunter & McAleer 1990:
137). Only the girls in the survey can be said to show any correlation with these
findings, and on the whole the percentage is less. Although, admittedly, the difference
could be due to the passing of time; different generations of parents may have different
ideas on what is suitable. It has been stated that any restrictions decline as children
reach their teens (Gunter & McAleer 1990: 137). There does not appear to be any
relationship between age and the imposition of rules in this survey, except only the
fifteen year olds felt that they had no restrictions on television viewing out of the girls
questioned. The kinds of restrictions mentioned made no attempt to regulate the
number of hours watched but did try to control the nature of the viewing; the banning
of certificate eighteen or unsuitable films, no programmes with bad language, no
television after ten o'clock at night or whenever the parents considered to be too late,
and not too many soap operas. These restrictions did not alter for boys or girls. There
was also the restriction which attempts to prioritise activities; homework must be
completed before the television can be watched. However, most of those questioned
were responsible for regulating their own viewing.
It has been thought that television watching must displace other activities or cause
participation in them to be superficial. The children questioned engaged in a wide
variety of activities in addition to the amount of time they spent watching television.
Activities which were followed included many sports, computers, painting, writing,
reading, performing arts and socialising. Therefore television has not replaced all other
activities: 'Generations of children reared with television found ways to integrate
extensive use of this new medium without finding it necessary to neglect other
Children’s Television Viewing Habits Page 5 of 6
pursuits' (Gunter & McAleer 1990: 11).
The children were not asked to specify how long they spent on these activities but it is
not difficult to see that those who watch more than four hours of television after
school are not going to have time for anything else until the weekend.
One part of this survey was intended to establish whether the provision of facilities for
young people is related to the amount of television watched. The area where the
children questioned lived does not cater extensively for them. This is reflected in the
responses where ten per cent thought facilities were good, forty-one per cent thought
that they were passable and forty-nine per cent thought them poor. (see figure 10)
They were then asked whether they would watch less television if there was more to
do in the area: sixty-six per cent said that they would, thirty per cent did not know, and
only four per cent said no. (see figure 11) It appears that if there were more organised
activities to take part in then children would be less interested in television. This
medium has not supplanted all other forms of entertainment.
Television is a source of a wealth of information, but doubts have been cast over its
ability to enhance academic performance. It has been said that it can impair a child's
progress at school: 'Viewing fewer than ten hours a week had a slightly positive effect
on achievement; viewing more than ten hours a week had negative effects that
increased up until thirty-five to forty hours after which there was little further
effect' (William et al. 1982 in van Evra 1990).
Television can be a powerful tool in the classroom so it was important to ascertain
children's opinions about its usefulness. The children were asked if they ever used
television to help them with their school-work since there are numerous educational
programmes broadcast. None of those questioned used television often for this
purpose, fifty-eight per cent said that they sometimes did, and forty-two per cent said
that they never did. There was a parity between girls and boys on this issue with sixty-
one per cent of the former sometimes using television as an educational aid and fifty-
seven per cent of the latter. The programmes which were used for this purpose were
generally news programmes, documentaries were also mentioned as were science
programmes such as Tomorrow's World. Specific education programmes were only
mentioned by one child. The survey also asked if watching videos in lessons was an
enjoyable experience; this was thought to be a worthwhile question as recorded
educational programmes are often utilised. Ninety-five per cent of girls and ninety-
three per cent of boys expressed a positive opinion about videos. Although some of
those in favour of videos saw them as an easier option, less writing involved, many
saw them as providing an added dimension to the learning experience. Children saw
the videos as interesting and entertaining, injecting more variety, having better
explanations, and being highly informative. One reason which appeared more than
once was that videos were more visual; the children could see rather than being told.
They were able to see what they were to learn at first hand and so could retain the
information more readily. It is clear that television can be integrated into the classroom
and with a defined framework for its use can complement traditional methods: 'Used
sensibly, with the right encouragement from both parents and teachers alike, it can
help to enhance the learning process' (Gunter & McAleer 1990: 129). Television
Children’s Television Viewing Habits Page 6 of 6
should not be ignored as an educational tool.
This survey has shown that children display many different television viewing habits.
There can be no doubt that television plays an important part in the leisure activities of
every child. Consequently it must have a significant role to play in their development.
It must not be assumed that children are unusually susceptible to the images relayed to
them by the screen. They are discerning viewers: 'they often actively select what to
watch to satisfy particular needs or moods and they place their own meanings on
programming' (Gunter & McAleer 1990: 157). They select a wide variety of
programmes and although they do watch a substantial amount of television, other
activities are not neglected. Several patterns of viewing have been identified in this
survey and generally complement previous studies. There are differences between the
viewing habits of girls and boys, but they can never be called mutually exclusive;
there are overlaps. Girls watch science fiction and boys watch soap operas. Age does
have some impact on viewing habits in terms of the type of programmes selected, but
not to a significant extent in the range surveyed. Despite the identification of these
trends this survey has shown that viewing habits are largely individual. Weekend
viewing habits were not within the scope of this survey and it is possible that the
viewing patterns would be substantially different and with the introduction of Channel
5 these patterns may alter. What is certain is that in an age of ever-increasing variety
of entertainment forms television is a presence in children's lives which cannot and
should not be ignored.
Secondary PGCE Course, 'IT and the Media', April 1997
Gunter, Barrie & Jill McAleer (1990): Children and Television: The One-Eyed
Gunter, Barrie & Michael Svennevig (1987): Behind and in Front of the Screen:
Television's Involvement With Family Life. London:
HMSO (1992, 1995): Social Trends. London: HMSO
Van Evra, Judith (1990): Television and Child Development (1990). Hillsdale,