Now Showing on Children's TV: Unsafe Behavior
April 19, 2000 -- A new study finds that children's TV programs often show
characters defying safety rules and getting away with it: running into a street
without looking, riding in a car without a seat belt, bicycling without a
Accidents are the leading cause of death and disability among children in
the U.S. And an earlier study found that kids who watch lots of television are
far more likely to end up in a hospital with injuries than kids who don't.
Could watching TV characters do dangerous things lead children to behave the
same way? It's not yet clear, according to authors of the new study, published
in Archives in Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine. But, they say, it's an
issue that needs to be explored further.
The researchers analyzed 200 children's programs that aired in Philadelphia
over one week. The analysis focused on TV depictions of unsafe behavior,
without any consequences, that children could imitate.
They found that 47% of the children's shows contained one or more acts of
unsafe behavior, and 33% had more than three such acts. Fifty-seven percent of
these depictions aired on cable stations, compared to 23% on public television.
And 60% of all such depictions were in cartoons, compared to 33% in action
The study's author says most kids spend more time watching TV than in the
classroom. "By the age of 18, the average American child has spent more
time watching TV than receiving formal classroom instruction," says Flaura
Koplin Winston, MD, PhD, director of TraumaLink at Children's Hospital of
Philadelphia and an assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of
She tells WebMD that children's understanding of the world is shaped by what
they see on television. "Research suggests that kids incorporate television
depictions into their perceptions about the world," Winston says. "And
a recent study showed that kids who watch four hours of TV per day are four
times more likely to be hospitalized for injury than kids who don't watch
Behavior that's learned early is likely to last, she says. She suggests that
future studies examine the effectiveness of messages aimed at preventing
accidental injuries, especially in light of the findings in this study.
More than half of all accidental deaths among children are caused by
motor-vehicle accidents, according to the Centers for Disease Control and
Prevention. Drowning and burns are other leading causes of death. The CDC
estimates that for every child who dies from an accidental injury, there are
about 20 hospitalizations, 230 emergency room visits, and 450 physician office
For these reasons, the study's authors say, their findings are only a first
step. "The benefits of safety education could be outweighed by unsafe
television messages," Winston says. "And so the data might have policy
implications for children's programming. But more studies are needed to explore
the effect of safe television messages during prime time as well."
- Children's television programs often depict characters behaving in an
unsafe manner with no negative consequences.
- Because kids spend so much time watching television, and because behaviors
learned early in life are likely to last, researchers say that safety education
may be overridden by these TV messages.
- Further studies are needed to examine the effects of preventive messages
about accidental injury.