Parents of toddlers can attest that their kids are like sponges. What they hear is what they’ll repeat, and what they watch is what they’ll imitate.
For children who spend hours glued to the television, their words and actions are tied to what’s on the screen. Perhaps that’s why the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that the less time a child spends in front of the tube, the better.
However, research published last week in the journal Pediatrics suggests the type of programs children watch on TV — not necessarily the amount of time spent watching — can affect their behavior.
The study, conducted by researchers at Seattle Children’s Hospital, involved more than 500 parents of preschoolers aged 3 to 5, who were asked to complete a questionnaire about their child’s behavior over a year. At the start of the study, the children spent an average of an hour and a half in front of the TV a day. Nearly 25 percent of the shows they watched or video games they played were considered violent.
For the study, half the parents were urged to put their kids on a media “diet,” swapping more aggressive TV programs with pro-social programming that encouraged conflict-resolution and respect, such as “Sesame Street.” The other half of the group was only coached on healthier eating but was not advised on their TV habits.
Experts and parents alike have long debated whether watching violence on screen can lead a child to behave violently.
“Most of those who watch violence on screen media don’t act on it by the extreme ways we see in the news,” said Dr. Michael Rich, director of the Center on Media and Child Health at Children’s Hospital Boston. “They act on it by bullying or getting into a fight at school.”
This study suggests TV could prevent violent behavior, the authors say. The researchers didn’t find a drastic change in behavior – and the change was short-lived – but the tactic of watching pro-social shows may be one way to prevent aggression or violence, they wrote.
While both groups showed improved behavior, after six months, children whose parents were coached on TV habits showed slightly more improved behavior. However, after one year, there was no difference in behavior among both groups. By the end of the study, both groups also spent on average 10 minutes longer in front of the TV.
Although the study did not find a link between the length of time spent watching TV and aggressive behaviors, viewing time still matters. Previous studies suggest prolonged tube time can increase a child’s risk of obesity and attention disorders.
According to Rich, in some cases, changing a toddler’s behavior may be as simple as changing the channel.
“It’s certainly not a magic bullet of any kind, but content matters” said Rich, who was not involved in the study.
When parents are choosing a program for their child, make sure it’s the type of content with actions they want their child to learn, he said.
“We can reduce the risk of anxiety and fear in our children and possibly even aggression by changing the context of what they’re doing with the media,” said Rich.