Family Matters

Better TV Habits Can Lead to Better Behavior Among Children

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If parents can’t limit their children’s TV time, then they can at least try to improve what youngsters are watching.

That’s the if-you-can’t-beat-them-join-them approach that researchers in Seattle took in trying to address the issue of how much TV children, including toddlers, watch every day. Despite admonitions from experts and an emerging body of research that suggests children shouldn’t be watching more than two hours a day, the typical U.S. tot spends about four and a half hours parked in front of a television daily. Campaigns to reduce this screen time have clearly been only minimally successful.

So by shifting the focus away from how much youngsters watch and concentrating instead on what they’re seeing, the researchers report in the journal Pediatrics on their success in helping parents increase the time kids spent watching educational programming. The result? Better-behaved children.

(MORE: Background TV: Children Exposed to Four Hours a Day)

“There is no question kids watch too much television at all ages,” says Dr. Dimitri Christakis, lead author and director of the Center for Child Health, Behavior and Development
at Seattle Children’s Research Institute. “Part of the message is not just about turning off the television but about changing the channel.”

Kids are sponges who absorb their surroundings; it’s how they learn to develop the proper behaviors and responses to social situations. And they are not only parroting their parents and other family members, but mimicking behaviors they see on television or in movies as well. So Christakis, who has conducted extensive research on the effects of screen time on child development, explored ways to influence what shows children watch so that they’re more apt to imitate quality conduct. “We’ve known for decades that kids imitate what they see on TV,” he says. “They imitate good behaviors and they imitate bad behaviors.”

In the study, he and his colleagues tracked 617 families with kids between the ages of 3 and 5. Half of the families agreed to go on a media “diet” and swap programming with more aggressive and violent content for educational, prosocial shows that encourage sharing, kindness and respect, like Dora the Explorer, which teaches how to resolve conflicts, and Sesame Street, which models tolerance for diversity. The other families did not change their children’s viewing choices.

(MORE: Disney’s Diet: No More Junk-Food Ads on Kids Channels)

To help parents in the first group to choose appropriate shows, they received a program guide that highlighted prosocial content and learned how to block out violent programming. (The parents were so delighted with the guidance that many asked to continue receiving program guides even after the study ended.) They were also urged to watch alongside their kids. The researchers tracked what the children watched and also measured their behavior with standard tests of aggressiveness and sharing responses six months and a year into the study.

At both testing periods, the children in the first group watched less aggressive programming than they did at the beginning of the study compared with children in the control group. Both groups of kids upped their screen time a bit, but the first group saw more quality programs while the control group spent even more time watching violent shows.

Six months after the study began, the children who increased their prosocial viewing acted less aggressively and showed more sharing and respectful behaviors compared with the control group. They were more apt to compromise and cooperate than children who didn’t change their viewing content, and the effects persisted for the entire year that the study lasted. “There is a connection between what children watch, not just in terms of violence but in terms of improved behavior,” says Christakis, who is also a professor of pediatrics at the University of Washington.

Who got the biggest boost in behavior? Low-income boys. “They derived the greatest benefit, which is interesting because they are most at risk of being victims and perpetrators of aggression,” he says.

Though the study didn’t attempt to reduce the amount of time children spent in front of screens, researchers were initially concerned that kids may end up actually watching more television than they would have outside of the study since their parents might have felt the educational programming was helpful for the children. In fact, the participants did spend slightly more time watching TV, but, says Christakis, while “they didn’t watch less … they didn’t watch more, which is reassuring.” As with many other aspects of child development, TV time is all about trade-offs. But at least these results suggest that even if children are spending time in front of the tube, it could be time that is helping them learn about positive ways to interact with others.

MORE: Sleep Stealers: What’s Keeping Children from Getting Enough Shut-Eye?

71 comments
Jefcat
Jefcat

@TIME @timehealthland we need better TV shows.

Jefcat
Jefcat

@TIME @timehealthland well of course

YogAlicia3
YogAlicia3

. @AskDocG See last tweet from @TIME about TV watching. Suggestions of 'good' TV boys would want to watch? Dora and S Street won't fly.

erikwill
erikwill

@TIME @TIMEHealthland Watching no TV can lead to even better behavior in kids.

EllisLuo
EllisLuo

@TIME @TIMEHealthland FAVORITES for my child

ally_musa
ally_musa

@TIME @TIMEHealthland The research is quite an insight to the mysterious and mischivious moral values of the children of this age.nice!

adthomas3
adthomas3

This is just common sense. RT @TIME Better TV habits can lead to better-behaved children | http://t.co/lMNqXMJq via @TIMEHealthland

arnoldmay5000
arnoldmay5000

@TIME @TIMEHealthland WRONG! If they watch 2 hours of "bad tv" then it wasnt limited was it!?!?!

Kaydec6
Kaydec6

@time @timehealthland true talk u know

adela1hora
adela1hora

@TIME And among adults too, mind you!

RaqFaj
RaqFaj

@Jimparedes only if you let it.

DavidBSalva
DavidBSalva

@TIME @timehealthland Like this is a surprise? And we wonder why young adults can't or won't grasp reality.

peejayreyes
peejayreyes

@Jimparedes show now with same musical format is @Sessions25thSt of @Net25_DitoNaKo

peejayreyes
peejayreyes

@Jimparedes got to see episode of @ryancayabyab Ryan Ryan Musikahan on @JeepneyTV of @SKYserves last night. i miss decent shows like that.

fakeandyg
fakeandyg

but books can lead to a better childhood. “@TIME: Watching quality TV can lead to better behavior among kids | http://t.co/VsZTAOKF"

hood_wayne
hood_wayne

@TIME @TIMEHealthland NO WAY!!??!! you mean that Honey BooBoo Jersey Shore crap won't lead to good behavior in kids??!!??

Eufomati
Eufomati

@TIME @TIMEHealthland quality TV? Where? #pawnstars. #hoarders

aucsapma
aucsapma

@Jimparedes @TIME quality time is very important, watching and fixing our selves in tv for long waste our time

KarlGra
KarlGra

@TIME @TIMEHealthland Finally good news. Why it took so long to to publish it?

HappyCocoHostel
HappyCocoHostel

@Jimparedes @TIME Hi Jim, can we ask advice since you artist? Is this name nice? Neruda Hotspring Resort

RemyCharest
RemyCharest

@MarcCassivi Comme des nouvelles "fair and balanced?" :-)

itsshelbyyall
itsshelbyyall

@TIME Further proves my theory that Sesame Street is the best children's show of all-time.

TadCamp
TadCamp

@TIME @TIMEHealthland With both parents working pay bills? Good luck with that.

theMetz
theMetz

@seananorvell no, only what they watch. Which is why we'll only allow our child to watch pre-Axl MTV.

janisexton
janisexton

@TIMEHealthland Better TV habits for children? Would that influence their behavior in the classroom? Hum?

DebLaceKelly
DebLaceKelly

@TIMEHealthland Quick ... someone tell FoxTV!!

BebeWu
BebeWu

TV watching by children is an archaic social concern.

My senior in high school laughs at the outdated TV WARNINGS! she hears from out of touch older adults. Neither she nor her friends have watched TV for years. They are all glued to their laptops where they can do just about anything of interest to teenagers (including homework) at home.  Like the older generation, they play sports and take music lessons after school,  but their generation socializes online and for the most part eschews the boob tube. 


jota511
jota511

Without my knowledge and to my dismay, my son grew up on "You Can't Do That On Television," which was aired by Nickelodeon. In my opinion, it caused lots of "inappropriate" thinking on his part. Porn would have been the only "entertainment" as psychologically harmful.

StevenRitter
StevenRitter

That's it, find something else to blame instead of the freaking parents

vErGo_O
vErGo_O

@adthomas3 gonna forward this to your momma! #betterChild

Jimparedes
Jimparedes

@HappyCocoHostel give me a free experience ofbit and i will tell you... lol

jota511
jota511

@StevenRitter You're right that parents should be more observant of what their children watch and do for entertainment. However, there are purveyors of crap entertainment that parents "think" they can trust. In some instances, unless you watch a tv series all the time, it may be difficult to recognize the underlying theme and, therefore, the long-term harm it can cause.

adthomas3
adthomas3

@vErGo_O too late for me. You should forward to Bernard's parents. LOL