Child Development 101: TV or Not TV?
In a recent study, researchers observed what happens if youngsters receive a healthier “diet” of TV programming to reduce aggressive behavior, rather than reducing viewing time, as previous studies have done. Their conclusion: While we often label TV as complicit in generating negative behaviors in children, TV may also be part of the solution – that modifying the viewing habits of preschool-aged children can measurably enhance social and emotional competence.
Many previous studies confirm that preschool children imitate what they see on screen – the good and the bad. Other studies have demonstrated that aggressive, bullying behavior can be dampened by reducing the amount of violent TV preschoolers watch. But in this new study, released in May, researchers focused on content rather than quantity to see if parents can reduce aggression in preschoolers by modifying, rather than eliminating, what the children viewed.
Researchers worked with 820 families of preschoolers. Half of the families were coached to replace aggression-filled TV programming with educational or pro-social content – programs that role-modeled nonviolent conflict resolution, cooperative problem-solving and emotional empathy, such as Sesame Street, Dora the Explorer and Super Why. Meanwhile, the half of the families in the control group were given no training, but were encouraged to provide a positive media diet.
Modifying the viewing habits of preschool-aged children can measurably enhance social and emotional competence.
At both six-month and 12-month measurements, the children in the intervention group had considerably reduced the amount of violent programming being viewed, and demonstrated significantly less aggression and more positive, pro-social behavior compared to the control group. Researchers also noted that the intervention subgroup of low-income boys showed the most positive outcomes.
Parents in the intervention group also reported improved sleep in their children, aligning to results from previous studies tying violent content to childhood sleep problems.
Preschool-aged children in the U.S. spend an estimated 4.4 hours per day in front of a TV screen. Even though study results suggest that substituting violent content with healthy content can have a positive effect on behavior, should children be encouraged to watch this much TV?
Dr. Susan Linn, director of the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood and instructor in Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, responded to the report with caution, noting the need for a holistic understanding of the effects of media on children from the youngest of ages.
“While some exposure to quality, non-commercial programming can be beneficial to children over 3, there is no evidence that time with television is beneficial to babies – and some evidence that it may be both harmful and habit-forming,” Linn cautioned.
“Research suggests that excessive screen time is a factor in childhood obesity, sleep disturbance and poor school performance,” Linn noted. “The more time children under 3 spend with screens the more time they spend when they’re older, and the harder time they have turning them off. For all of these reasons, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends discouraging screen time for children under two and no more than one-to-two hours a day for older kids.”
Regarding the authors’ conclusion that intervening in children’s TV viewing with pro-social programming can positively impact behavior, Linn added, “It’s important that parents receive accurate information about the potentially positive and negative impact of screen time and content on children. That they receive help and support in setting appropriate limits and encouraging activities proven to be beneficial to young children’s healthy development: hands-on creative play, active play and being played with, read to, and cuddled by the adults who love them.”