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.

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“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.

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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.

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