Whether they prefer Elsa, SpongeBob or a Russian heroine named Masha, today’s kids have endless reasons to beg for more screen time. Yet almost nobody thinks there is too much children’s programming.
Media companies have heavily invested in kids’ content as they build new digital businesses to court consumers directly. Walt Disney Co announced details about Disney+, a family-friendly streaming service it is launching in November for $7 per month.
The benefit for Disney, Netflix Inc, Viacom Inc and other media companies is clear: Hook viewers when they are young, with content that often has merchandising and theme park tie-ins. And the streaming model in particular makes sense: Children are the original binge-watchers, with an endless appetite for repeats.
Yet experts who study media consumption among children are not concerned about the explosion of programming, as long as parents impose limits, said Shelley Pasnik, the director of the nonprofit Center for Children and Technology.
“Parenting no longer involves relying on the finite-ness imposed by media. Instead, it’s up to the parents and household rules to make it finite and help kids understand when to stop,” Pasnik said.
When considering their rules around screen time, parents who want to shield their kids from commercials likely see a value in ad-free services like Disney+ and Apple TV+, Apple Inc’s upcoming streaming venture. But that format can provide false comfort: When it comes to selling merchandise, content can have the same effect as commercials.
“Even though there are no commercials disrupting the narrative, you may not be as alert to the fact that your son or daughter is developing a great affinity for a character, and then it’s pretty bonkers when it comes to shopping,” says Pasnik.
Parental controls - which can be tricky to locate - are not an easy solution. Instead, experts say, parents should help their children make choices around programming; watch with them if possible; and talk about what they have seen, helping to connect that content to a family’s values.
“Parents need to communicate why a show is OK to watch, and help their children process the messages of what they just watched,” says Jill Murphy, vice president and editor-in-chief of the nonprofit Common Sense Media. “It comes down to quality of content.”