Experts have long known that children imitate many of the deeds—good and bad—that they see on television. But it has rarely been shown that changing a young child’s viewing habits at home can lead to improved behaviour.
In a study published recently in the journal Pediatrics, researchers reported the results of a programme designed to limit the exposure of preschool children to violence-laden videos and television shows and increase their time with educational programming that encourages empathy. They found that the experiment reduced the children’s aggression towards others, compared with a group of children who were allowed to watch whatever they wanted.
“Here we have an experiment that proposes a potential solution,” says Thomas N. Robinson, a professor of paediatrics at Stanford University, California, US, who was not involved in the study. “Giving this intervention—exposing kids to less adult television, less aggression on television and more pro-social television—will have an effect on behaviour.”
While the research showed “a small to moderate effect” on the preschoolers’ behaviour, he adds, the broader public health impact could be “very meaningful”.
The new study was a randomized trial, rare in research. The researchers, at Seattle Children’s Research Institute and the University of Washington, divided 565 parents of children aged 3-5 into two groups. Both were told to track their children’s media consumption in a diary that the researchers assessed for violent, didactic and pro-social content, which they defined as showing empathy, helping others and resolving disputes without violence.
The control group was given advice only on better dietary habits for children. The second group of parents was sent programme guides highlighting positive shows for young children. They also received newsletters encouraging parents to watch television with their children and ask questions during the shows about the best ways to deal with conflict. The parents also received monthly phone calls from the researchers, who helped them set television-watching goals for their preschoolers.
The researchers surveyed the parents at six months and after a year. After six months, parents in the group receiving advice on TV-watching said their children were somewhat less aggressive with others, compared with those in the control group. The children who watched less-violent shows also scored higher on measures of social competence, even after one year.
Low-income boys showed the most improvement, though the researchers could not say why. Total viewing time did not differ between the two groups.
“The take-home message for parents is, it’s not just about turning off the TV; it’s about changing the channel,” says Dimitri A. Christakis, the lead author of the study and a professor of paediatrics at the University of Washington. “We want our children to behave better,” Dr Christakis says, “and changing their media diet is a good way to do that.”
Until she began participating in Dr Christakis’ trial, Nancy Jensen, a writer in Seattle, had never heard of shows like Nickelodeon’s Wonder Pets! featuring cooperative team players, and National Broadcasting Company’s, or NBC’s, My Friend Rabbit, with its themes of loyalty and friendship. At the time, her daughter Elizabeth, then 3, liked King of the Hill, a cartoon comedy geared towards adults that features beer and gossip. In hindsight, she says, the show was “hilariously funny, but completely inappropriate for a three-year-old.” These days, she consults Common Sense Media, a non-profit advocacy group in San Francisco, to make sure that the shows her daughter watches have some pro-social benefit.
The new study has limitations, experts note. Data on both the children’s television habits and their behaviour was reported by their parents, who may not be objective. And the study focused only on media content in the home, although some preschool-aged children are exposed to programming elsewhere.
Children watch a mix of “pro-social but also anti-social media”, says Marie-Louise Mares, an associate professor of communications at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “Merely being exposed to pro-social media doesn’t mean that kids take it that way.”
Even educational programming with messages of empathy can be misunderstood by preschoolers, with negative consequences. A study published online in November in the Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology found that preschoolers shown educational media were more likely to engage in certain forms of interpersonal aggression over time.
©2013/The New York Times