All TV is educational, just maybe not in the way you want

Feb 17, 2013

Anyone who says watching TV has no impact on children’s behavior is ignoring a lot of scientific research. The latest study, from pediatricians in Seattle, shows you can improve the behavior of young children by changing what they watch. 

They took this approach after about two decades of trying to get parents to turn off the TV, and severely limit screen time for young kids. They were almost ready to give up. The best they could achieve was cutting TV time for pre-school age children from four-and-a-half hours per day to four hours per day.

That hardly seemed worth the effort.

"So we shifted our focus to a harm reduction approach," says Dr. Dimitri Christakis of Seattle Children’s Research Institute.  Harm reduction means means you accept the bad behavior is just a fact of life – like drug addiction -- and try to minimize the harm from it.  

“And that’s what we did here. We did a media diet intervention. We tried to get children to watch healthier television. We tried to get them to substitute, if you will, Mr. Rogers for Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers,” says Christakis. 

The media diet

Christakis’ lab setup an experiment where 276 families got coaching just like you’d get for a food diet – with a menu of healthier TV choices for their preschool kids. The researchers even made a DVD with highlights from the better shows, which were essentially less violent. Instead of cartoons with fighting, they got cartoons that feature problem solving. Instead of Transformers, they got Blues Clues.

The control group of families got no advice about TV, just tips about eating healthier meals.

The success was modest, but the kids who got the media diet id show a measurable difference.

"They had less violence, less aggression, more pro-social behaviors, they were more apt to share, more apt to compromise, by their parents' reports. And this was both at 6 months and 12 months after we initiated the intervention," says Christakis.

To be precise, the results published in Pediatrics show these kids were watching about 5-7% fewer minutes of violent TV per day, plus 7-9% more TV that modeled positive behaviors. The children's behavior differences were scored on an evaluation commonly used for measuring social competence.

For whatever reason, the intervention made a bigger difference in the behavior of low income boys, compared to girls and other income groups.  

Christakis says, in general, kids up to at least age seven don’t fully understand what we mean by words like "fantasy" and "reality." That’s why they go to Disneyland and believe they really met Mickey Mouse.

So, it makes sense they might emulate the behavior they see on TV, even in cartoons. 

"All television is educational. The question is, What is it teaching?" says Christakis.

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