TV & Kids Revisited

I could­n’t find this acces­si­ble to all online, so I’m post­ing the full article

The Dan­gers of Sec­ond-Hand TV: What You Watch Can Affect Your Kids
The Wall Street Jour­nal Online (WSJ.com) HEALTH JOURNAL
By TARA PARKER-POPE

When it comes to kids and TV, the real prob­lem may not be what they watch — it may be what you watch.

A recent study link­ing ear­ly TV watch­ing with atten­tion prob­lems in chil­dren has bol­stered the argu­ment for lim­it­ing or even ban­ning tele­vi­sion view­ing by kids. But lost in the debate about tele­vi­sion and kids is the fact that it’s the grown-up shows blar­ing in the back­ground while kids play that may be the real culprit.

And sur­pris­ing­ly, turn­ing off the tele­vi­sion entire­ly isn’t always best for kids. Some stud­ies show that care­ful­ly craft­ed edu­ca­tion­al pro­grams for preschool­ers, like “Blue’s Clues” and “Sesame Street,” can actu­al­ly improve a child’s read­ing or prob­lem-solv­ing skills com­pared with kids who nev­er watch the shows.

Kids’ shows like Sponge­Bob are less wor­ri­some than adult pro­grams like game shows blar­ing in the home.

Last week, the med­ical jour­nal Pedi­atrics pub­lished a provoca­tive study look­ing at tele­vi­sion-view­ing habits of about 2,600 chil­dren ages 1‑to‑3 years old. The researchers found that the more tele­vi­sion chil­dren were exposed to at a young age, the more like­ly their par­ents were to report atten­tion prob­lems at age 7.

The study was impor­tant because very lit­tle is known about the impact of tele­vi­sion on very young chil­dren, and cur­rent­ly, most pedi­a­tri­cians advise no tele­vi­sion for chil­dren under 2. But while experts agree kids under two prob­a­bly should­n’t watch TV at all, the con­cern is that the study is also wrong­ly being used as a broad indict­ment of allow­ing kids of any age to watch TV.

The research has some sig­nif­i­cant lim­its. For instance, the study authors not­ed that it isn’t clear whether the tele­vi­sion expo­sure caused the atten­tion prob­lems or whether kids with atten­tion prob­lems were sim­ply more like­ly to be put in front of the TV or that rest­less kids are more drawn to television.

More impor­tant, because the study data were col­lect­ed in the 1980s before many pop­u­lar kids shows like “Tele­tub­bies” were even cre­at­ed, many researchers think it’s unlike­ly the tod­dlers were active­ly watch­ing kids’ shows, but were instead exposed to tele­vi­sion in the background.

Hav­ing a game show like “Jeop­ardy!” on in the back­ground may affect how tod­dlers spend their playtime.

There’s no way to know from the study data what shows the kids were watch­ing, but experts think that with so few kids pro­grams to choose from at the time, it’s more like­ly that chil­dren were sim­ply exposed to reg­u­lar TV pro­grams watched by oth­er mem­bers of the household.

“Very like­ly they were just in the room when old­er sib­lings were watch­ing TV or in the room when par­ents were watch­ing TV — that’s a crit­i­cal dif­fer­ence,” says Daniel R. Ander­son, psy­chol­o­gy pro­fes­sor at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Mass­a­chu­setts-Amherst who has stud­ied tele­vi­sion’s impact on child behav­ior and development.

Dr. Ander­son and oth­er experts say the study bol­sters con­cerns that it’s actu­al­ly tele­vi­sion play­ing in the back­ground that may most inter­fere with a devel­op­ing mind. The dis­tinc­tion is impor­tant because many well-mean­ing par­ents don’t let their chil­dren watch hours of tele­vi­sion, but do watch news pro­grams and oth­er shows while their kids play near­by and don’t seem to be pay­ing attention.

But stud­ies show that the TV still affects kids even if they don’t appear to be watch­ing it. Dr. Ander­son com­pared tod­dler play habits in a qui­et set­ting and while a tele­vi­sion played “Jeop­ardy!” near­by. Even though the tod­dlers did­n’t watch the game show, turn­ing the TV on changed their play­time, prompt­ing them to spend half as much time with a toy before mov­ing on to anoth­er toy.

The study sug­gests that back­ground tele­vi­sion can be a sub­tle dis­trac­tion and might inter­fere with con­cen­tra­tion and focus. It’s also like­ly that par­ents watch­ing TV are more dis­tract­ed and inter­act­ing less with kids.

Oth­er research shows that some TV can actu­al­ly be good for chil­dren. Stud­ies show that preschool­ers who watched “Sesame Street” end­ed up lat­er read­ing more books than kids who did­n’t watch the show. Preschool­ers who reg­u­lar­ly watched “Gul­lah Gul­lah Island” and “Blue’s Clues” devel­oped bet­ter prob­lem-solv­ing skills and more patience than kids who weren’t exposed to the shows.

“They had learned ‘if at first you don’t suc­ceed, try anoth­er way,’ ” says Jen­nings Bryant, direc­tor of the Insti­tute for Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Research at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Alaba­ma, who has authored sev­er­al stud­ies on chil­dren’s pro­grams. “The kids learned a more patient style of prob­lem solv­ing — the antithe­sis of the kinds of atten­tion-dis­or­der prob­lems peo­ple are talk­ing about.”

Of course, many of these skills can be taught by par­ents, so par­ents who want to turn off the tele­vi­sion and read or play with their kids should­n’t now opt to put their kids in front of the TV instead.

But par­ents who do allow their preschool kids to watch some TV don’t have to feel guilty. Vio­lence is nev­er accept­able for kids, but par­ents also need to pay atten­tion to the pac­ing of a show. Shows like “Poke­mon” and “Spi­der­man”
that flick­er quick­ly from scene to scene and move at a fast pace can be over­whelm­ing for very young and even school-age chil­dren and inter­fere with their abil­i­ty to focus and concentrate.

Mean­while, slow-paced shows, like “Dora the Explor­er” and “Mr. Rogers’ Neigh­bor­hood” are designed to give very young kids enough time to process the infor­ma­tion and are more like­ly to have a ben­e­fi­cial effect. 

In the mid­dle are medi­um-paced pro­grams — like “Sponge­Bob SquarePants” and “Scoo­by-Doo” — that aren’t par­tic­u­lar­ly edu­ca­tion­al but are sim­ply mind­less enter­tain­ment that kids can enjoy as an occa­sion­al diver­sion with­out par­ents wor­ry­ing that they are harm­ful. “There is some gen­uine­ly fine edu­ca­tion­al pro­gram­ming,” says Dr. Bryant. “We rec­om­mend a diet of care­ful­ly thought out pro­gram­ming with some time for the “Sponge­Bobs of the world.”

Cyn is Rick's wife, Katie's Mom, and Esther & Oliver's Mémé. She's also a professional geek, avid reader, fledgling coder, enthusiastic gamer (TTRPGs), occasional singer, and devoted stitcher.
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