Can Kids Learn From TV and Movies?

A kid in living room watching tv

Photographer, Basak Gurbuz Derman / Getty Images

Kids grow up in a world where screens are ubiquitous, so it’s understandable that parents, caregivers, and teachers would want definitive answers to the question of whether children can learn from their interactions with screen media, including TV and movies. However, the research findings have been mixed.

Evidence suggests that children who are two years old and under can learn from TV and movies but only in extremely limited circumstances, making screens of minimal benefit.

However, after the age of two or three, children's cognitive development has reached a point where they can learn meaningful lessons from TV and movies, especially if the programs are age-appropriate and encourage children to form social relationships with the characters.

This article will review what current research says about children’s ability to learn from TV and movies when they are two years old and under and when they are older than two, followed by recommendations for parents and caregivers that will enable them to ensure their children’s interactions with screens are as beneficial as possible.

Can Kids Aged Two and Under Learn From TV and Movies?

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends that children under 18 months shouldn’t use screen media outside of video chatting, and children between the ages of 18 and 24 months should only be exposed to high-quality programs that parents or caregivers watch with them.

Nonetheless, as of 2020, children under two spent an average of 49 minutes a day with screen media, with 18 of those minutes spent with traditional TV, 17 minutes spent with online videos and streaming services, and 10 minutes spent with DVDs.

In other words, despite recommendations, very young children are regularly exposed to screens. Yet, although much of the media directed at children under two claims it will advance their learning and cognitive development, research has shown that, in general, children’s learning from screens during this time is extremely limited and only takes place under specific circumstances.

Children May Imitate Actions They See On TV

Studies demonstrate that starting at around 6 months old, infants are capable of imitating simple actions they watch on TV for up to 24 hours afterward. By the time they’re two, they can remember brief TV sequences for up to a month later.

Still, research has consistently shown that very young children don’t learn from screen media as easily as they do from real-life interactions.

This phenomenon, called the "video deficit," persists until children are around 2 ½ or 3 years of age. Researchers have speculated that it may be due to very young children’s inability to understand the relationship between the information conveyed on a television screen and the real world.

In other words, they understand the information conveyed through screens but they don’t think it’s relevant to them.

For example, a study by psychologist Georgene Troseth found that immediately after viewing an assistant hiding a toy in a room on a live television monitor, a group of 2-year-olds failed to find the hidden toy in the room a majority of the time.

However, in another study, Troseth and her colleague found that when they made the screen look like a window, the children’s ability to successfully find the toy increased.

Children May Absorb Some Information From Television

Yet evidence suggests that when caregivers direct their baby’s attention to a screen showing simple and developmentally-appropriate content, they are capable of learning.

For example, research showed that, although children two and under who repeatedly viewed an educational DVD that highlighted new words did not learn more words than children who did not view the DVD, if parents drew their children’s attention to the television and labeled the words, some children learned the words the DVD presented.

A longitudinal study that assessed children’s exposure to screen media at six, 12, 18, and 24 months found that delaying screen exposure until later in a baby’s life, less overall screen time, and greater verbal interaction with caregivers during screen time were associated with better cognitive development by age two.

Taken together, these findings indicate children’s ability to learn from screen media is fairly limited before the age of two, and children will benefit significantly more from real-life interactions with caregivers than interactions with screen media.

What Do Kids Learn From Movies and TV?

The AAP recommends that children between two and five are limited to 1 hour of high-quality screen time per day, and that after age five, parents and caregivers limit screen use to ensure it doesn’t interfere with children’s sleep, physical activity, homework, or any other activities that promote health and development.

However, in 2020, those between the ages of two and four spent an average of 2 hours and 30 minutes with screens per day and children between the ages of five and eight spent an average of 3 hours and 5 minutes a day.

While that time is more than recommended, the good news is that by the time children reach preschool they’re capable of successfully learning from slow-paced TV and movies that include developmentally-appropriate lessons.

For example, in one study, preschool children who were exposed to the educational TV show Super Why! learned more early literacy skills, including letter knowledge, than the preschoolers who didn’t watch the program.

Media That Mimics Real Life Help Children Learn Better

Scholars have suggested that it's the ability to interact with television socially that enables children to learn from it in the preschool and middle childhood years. As a result, children’s programs where characters mimic real-life social interactions by looking at the camera, asking direct questions, and pausing for responses create pseudo-social contexts that guide children, encourage their participation, and enhance their learning.

For instance, in one study, 3 to 5 year old children who regularly viewed the program Blue’s Clues talked to a character that the show encouraged them to help in order to assist the character in solving problems. Children reported that they believed they could help the character between a lot and a little, indicating their involvement in solving the problems presented on the show.

Similarly, in another study when preschool-age children interacted with the television show Dora the Explorer by responding physically and verbally to prompts by the characters, the children comprehended the program content better than those who did not respond. This suggests the approximation of social interaction between the children and the television characters enhanced the children’s learning.

Consequently, the research suggests that once children acquire the cognitive skills necessary to understand and pay attention to screen media, educational TV and movies that are appropriate to a child's stage of development can provide opportunities for learning, especially if the programs approximate real-life social contexts.

Recommendations for Parents and Caregivers

The reality is that it may not always be possible for families to strictly adhere to the AAP’s screen time recommendations, but Common Sense Media suggests that this is unlikely to negatively impact children as long as:

  • Children consume quality, age-appropriate content
  • They behave positively after watching
  • Screen time doesn’t take away from sleep, time with friends and family, homework, or exercise

Create a Family Media Plan

AAP suggests families create a Family Media Plan to ensure media is used thoughtfully and in ways that can benefit the lives of both children and their parents.

What Is a Family Media Plan?

The plan helps parents and caregivers decide how much time their children spend with media, specify screen-free places and times, and determine what kinds of media children will be permitted to consume. Completing this plan will ensure everyone in the family is on the same page about screen media use and that children's media exposure is more likely to be meaningful and appropriate.

If there is concern about the amount of time children are spending with screens, it’s important to limit how long kids can spend interacting with screens and to limit the kinds of content they are consuming.

In addition, parents and caregivers should model healthy media use and, for babies and preschoolers, co-view TV shows and videos with kids and discuss the content after viewing to enhance their children’s learning.

17 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Cynthia Vinney, PhD
Cynthia Vinney, PhD is an expert in media psychology and a published scholar whose work has been published in peer-reviewed psychology journals.