Communication Currents

June Communication Current

What Are the Cognitive Effects of Parental Co-viewing Television with Children?

June 3, 2019
Health Communication, Mass Communication

The United Nation’s World Health Organization (WHO) recently updated its guidelines for screen time for children, reducing it to no more than one hour a day for children aged 2 to 4 years old, and no screen time for children in their first year of life. The guidelines cover time spent with tablets, smartphones, and television. According to WHO, extended amounts of screen time can increase the risk of childhood obesity, poor performance in school, and many other problems. However, some parents view watching television and movies with their children as a regular pastime for bonding and learning. 

In a new study published in NCA’s Journal of Applied Communication Research , a group of researchers from Texas Tech University, Michigan State University, Nebraska NPR, the University of South Dakota, and the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services explored the influence that parental co-viewing, or “the act of being present when a child is watching television,” has on a child’s cognitive processing. 

According to WHO, extended amounts of screen time can increase the risk of childhood obesity, poor performance in school, and many other problems. However, some parents view watching television and movies with their children as a regular pastime for bonding and learning.

The study had three goals: First, it aimed to compare the specific content-level and message-level effects of co-viewing to identify similarities. Prior work by these authors (Rasmussen et al., 2016) has demonstrated that co-viewing elicits greater resource allocation and arousal over the course of the entire message if the message if exciting and interesting to the child. However, if the content is boring, there is a boomerang effect that causes the child to allocate fewer resources and have lower arousal.

The second goal was to investigate how cognitive responses, or thought processing of messages, were affected by the following three types of information, all of which are commonly used in children’s programming: 

  • Plot explicit – Information that is directly related to the message but is not related to any possible education points within the message. 
    • Sample message: “The main characters drove through the neighborhood.”
  • Educational explicit – A content type that presents elements related to the nature of the situation, characters, or the world. 
    • Sample message: “The main characters need to find the highway to get to their house.”
  • Implicit inference – Information that might lead to an eventual inferential decision on the part of the viewer, despite the specific outcome never being fully addressed by the message. 
    • Sample message: “If the main characters get lost, they might run out of gas.”

The final goal of the study was to explore how co-viewing affects children’s cognitive processing of the three types of information listed above.  


The study participants ranged in age from 6 to 13 years old, with the mean age of approximately 9 years old.  Each parent-child group was shown one of two 11-minute video clips. The clips were edited segments of two educational programs, Man vs. Wild (High Arousal) and Pure Nature (Low Arousal). Each group was randomly assigned to watch content in one of four conditions:

  • High arousing content with parent
  • Low arousing content with parent
  • High arousing content without parent 
  • Low arousing content without parent

The lab where the experiment was conducted simulated a living room with a couch and television, and electrode sensors were attached to each child to monitor their heart rate. Once the clip was finished, both the parent and child were asked to complete separate questionnaires. The child was asked a series of questions related to their learning from the message, and the parents were asked to complete a questionnaire about their families’ media habits. 

Heart rate was used as a measure of cognitive resources, or capacity allocated to the cognitive responses when each type of information was introduced. The children were monitored for changes or spikes in their heart rate when each of the three types of information was introduced. The researchers monitored the heart rates of children while the children watched television either with or without their parents. In most of the groups, the mother joined the child for the co-viewing parts of the experiment. 

The researchers predicted that children’s responses would be greater to plot explicit information than to educational information, because they believed that the children would view the plot explicit information as more novel than the educational information.  


As the researchers predicted, co-viewing not only affected the overall processing of the message, but also influenced the initial heart rate of the child, regardless of what type of information was introduced.  Additionally, there were differences in the specific content-level resource allocation across the three types of content in the educational programs. The plot explicit content produced the greatest resource allocation. The educational explicit and inferential implicit information both caused small cardiac accelerations. While co-viewing affected the initial response, the content seemed to control the allocation of cognitive resources for message processing. 

The results show that parents should be aware of the effect their presence has during television consumption, as it leads to more encoding when the information shown is plot related and exciting, but less encoding when the content shown is considered boring. If the exciting information is appropriate, this can be beneficial, but the researchers note that when child-inappropriate content is co-viewed, the child may also allocate more resources to the processing of that content. According to the researchers, this aligns with the American Academy of Pediatrics’ (AAP’s) guidelines around media and television viewing. AAP recommends that parents control the amount of media consumed, what content or programming is being viewed, and who is in the room while the child is watching television. 

For their part, content creators should closely tie educational content to the story line of the program to promote learning. The researchers note that some children’s networks and content producers have already begun to list for parents what educational information is included in the program. However, the researchers call for these networks to expand this information to include children’s shows with an older target audience. 

To summarize, the research found that the co-viewing, or the presence of a parent, does impact a child’s processing of the information and messages displayed on the television, and that the type of information conveyed in television programming is also a factor. The researchers call for further research into the effects external vs. internal stimuli have on the learning and behavior of children. 

This essay was translated from the scholarly article: Justin Robert Keene, Eric E. Rasmussen, Collin K Berke, Rebecca L. Densley, Travis Loof, Robyn B. Adams, Gregory H. Mumma and Andres Marshall (2019). “The effect of plot explicit, educational explicit, and implicit inference information and coviewing on children’s internal and external cognitive processing.” Journal of Applied Communication Research. doi: 

About the author (s)

Justin Robert Keene

Texas Tech University

Assistant professor in the Department of Journalism and Creative Media Industries in the College of Media & Communication, and Director of the Cognition & Emotion Lab

Justin Robert Keene

Eric E. Rasmussen

Texas Tech University

Associate Professor of Public Relations and Director of the Doctoral Program in the College of Media & Communication

Eric Rasmussen

Collin K. Berke

Nebraska NPR & PBS Stations

Media Research Analyst

Collin K. Berke

Rebecca Densley

Texas Tech University

Doctoral Candidate in the College of Media and Communication

Rebecca Densley

Travis Loof

University of South Dakota

Assistant Professor of Media and Journalism

Travis Loof

Gregory Mumma

Texas Tech University

Associate Professor in College of Psychological Sciences and Psychology Clinic Director

Gregory Mumma

Robyn B. Adams

Michigan State University

Doctoral Candidate in the Department of Advertising and Public Relations

Andrew Marshall

State of Texas

Data Analyst, Department of Family and Protective Services