Watching the Watchers: What Children Watch on TV and How They Respond

Watching the Watchers: What Children Watch on TV a…
01 May 2010

This report presents the findings of qualitative research carried out for the Broadcasting Standards Authority from December 2008 to April 2009 with 14 children and their families. The project sought an in-depth understanding of what youngsters watch on TV, and how they understand and react to various content, particularly bad/offensive language, violence, and sexual material/nudity.

The project is part of wider research on New Zealanders’ viewing habits. In 2007, Colmar Brunton conducted a quantitative study of programme content, Seen and Heard: Children’s Media Use, Exposure and Response. This focused on various media – radio, internet, TV and cell phones. The current project constitutes a second stage of the 2007 study. It has focused on:

• how decisions are made about what TV programmes children watch and who makes them;

• what, if any, rules and restrictions apply to children’s viewing;

• what content is considered appropriate/acceptable and otherwise;

• how children’s evening viewing and bedtimes are influenced by the Adults Only (AO) timeband (i.e. the change to AO programming at 8:30pm).


  • Conducted from December 2008 to April 2009 with 14 children and their families
  • Complementary qualitative research methods:

           - ethnographic observation

           - in-depth family discussion

Key Results

TV’s place in family life

  • TV is an essential part of family life and all children watch it
  • parenting style (strict or flexible) has implications for what children watch and how much

Rules about TV watching

  • families have few viewing rules
  • parent supervision depends on childrens’ maturity
  • supervision is limited at times deemed appropriate for child viewing – before and after school
  • on the whole children do not appear to watch inappropriate programmes
  • parents and children sometimes watch inappropriate programmes because of interest in a particular topic; assumption that subsequent episodes conform with previous ones; to inform children of their environment and the world in general; to keep children occupied

Deciding what to watch

  • children watching alone tend to choose children’s cartoons and series
  • children watching with older siblings tend to watch programmes aimed at older audiences
  • collectivist families display autocratic decision-making, whereas individualistic families discuss and negotiate
  • children who watch with their parents or siblings develop a taste for more mature content

Inappropriate content

  • perceptions of inappropriate content are highly subjective, varying between parents and children, and between families
  • parents and children agree that programmes containing bad/offensive language, violence and/or sexual references are inappropriate
  • although parents are adamant that children shouldn’t see this kind of content, both parents and children do watch programmes featuring it
  • genre blurring confuses perceptions of content and makes it difficult to evaluate, for example cartoons, which are traditionally seen as children’s programmes, containing adult themes

How children react to inappropriate content

  • children react in a variety of ways when watching something that upsets them or makes them uncomfortable
  • How the shift to 8:30pm ‘Adults Only’ affects children’s viewing
  • parents assume programmes shown before 8:30pm are suitable for children so do not check ratings or classifications or monitor their children’s viewing as much
  • during weekends and holidays, all children are allowed to stay up later than usual and watch TV with their parents

Classifications and warnings

  • parents do not necessarily let classification and/or warnings guide their actions – they make the final decision themselves
  • some parents would like to see more obvious warnings throughout programmes where content is inappropriate for children
  • in some families, AO-rated programmes are considered suitable for children, but only under parental
Page last modified: 15 Mar 2018