I spent a year at university during my Masters degree researching children and how they interact with media when they are at different ages and stages. Summarised for you below. Liz :-)
Children and Television
Since the 1950s TV has become firmly embedded in our lounge rooms, so here are some tips on where they're at and how you can help your child manage the goggle box. These age bands are very general; children with older siblings will often be more 'media savvy' than others. Modify these tips according to where your child is at - and remember the censorship sysem - G for General (ok for kids up to 14 years) PGR for 'Parental Guidance Recommended' and AO for 'Adults Only'.
Age 1 to 3 Years
Children believe everything they see without question. Explain regularly that what they are seeing is a made-up story.
They cannot distinguish beginnings and endings and tell the difference between their show and the advertisements because their favourite characters go away. Programmes for this age group have repetitive 'hello' and 'goodbye' rituals.
Between three and four years there is a huge learning curve as preschoolers gain a greater understanding of symbols and layers of meaning. Although they don't understand television they do start to realise that what is onscreen are pictures, not actually little people.
G for 'General' shows are those classified as suitable for children up to 14 years, so bear in mind that even the mildest G may not be suitable for a preschooler. Make sure you're near whenever they're watching something new.
Age 4 to 6 Years
Children play act what they watch on television. They're trying to work out the finer points of what is real and unreal. This is ok, because the world of their cartoon heroes is far removed from the real world that is non threatening, although watch they don't surpass their physical limits!
You can use television to show examples of behaviour and values you disagree with. Talk about your personal values with your child. Disapprove of violence and highlight positive behaviour. Watch how onscreen conflict is resolved. If the hero is rewarded for resolving conflict positively that's a great message.
Try and keep to commercial free preschool programming (most channels schedule at least one hour a day ad free for under fives). If there are ads playing explain that they're there to sell them things. Point out that products don't necessarily move by themselves and are not generally as big or fast as they seem onscreen.
Ensure you are near if the news is on. The content can be scary for a child but if a trusted adult is explaining what is onscreen it helps enormously. Watch for signs of anxiety such as insomnia or bad dreams, fears, crying or bed wetting. It may be that what they've seen is worrying them.
This age group still need help understanding motivations or morals. They think the characters see the world like they do. Look for shows that present different perspectives and opinions, ones where disagreements are resolved positively.
Age 7 to 8 Years
Children will use their growing general knowledge to make their own decisions about TV content. Peer groups become important. They'll select shows that include them somehow because finding a niche in the world is important at this stage. (For example, shows with trading cards or clubs attached.)
Shows for this age group feature characters learning how to operate within the rules of their world (even a super hero world) so you'll notice characters facing their fears and using logic to solve problems. You can help with their learning by asking open questions like 'what do you think will happen next?' or 'how do you think the character is feeling?' Ask your child to retell you the story once it has finished.
They're growing up now and find obvious jokes boring - and will shun anything babyish.
Age 9 to 10 years
Your child will prefer more realistic programmes now to cartoon and will be working out 'why' character act in certain ways. They are looking for underlying motivations for a character's actions.
They will also prefer less obvious humour and understand sarcasm.
You can analyse the character's behaviour with your child and help him or her learn about dealing with anger and frustration, accept consequences and be responsible for their own behaviour.
Age 11 to 13 Years
Children have a sophisticated understanding of television now - they know it exists to make corporate money, are able to decipher complex themes and relationships between characters. Girls will start to seek out shows that feature relationships.
Use television to start discussions about sex, drug, money, war, and your family's values. Get in early. A young person can discuss issues safely by using the characters on the show as a backdrop.? Find a web site for more in-depth information about whatever issue has arisen.
Age 14 to 17 Years
Teenagers will generally watch everything, and although its harder to keep a close eye on things watch with them wherever possible and use TV as a basis to start conversations - especially about sticky issues. Music videos are a teenager's staple TV viewing and the sexualised stereotypes shown can sometimes bother parents. As long as your teen can keep one eye on your household values while they explore different experiences, they'll turn out ok. Try not to criticise!
From day one, remember that interaction with parents during viewing increases a child's comprehension and ongoing learning from television. The shows that a child will be most influenced by are the ones they think are real - and heavier viewers tend to think more of what they see is real - even up to about eight years old. If you're watching too and reiterating that this is a series of pictures, it will help your child keep a perspective on things.
Watch NZ made television where you can. If a child sees and hears their own world reflected back at them, they'll have a stronger sense of self, and of belonging in the world.
And remember - you're in charge - so hide that remote whenever it suits you!
Versions of this article appeared in Littlies Magazine and on coffeegroup.org