February 18th, 2013
03:56 PM ET

TV may improve behavior in kids

For years, pediatricians have recommended that young children watch no TV, or as little as possible, because it can lead to problems in school and behavior issues.  Now a new study concedes children are sitting in front of the TV a lot longer.  However, controlling what they watch can improve how they behave.

When preschoolers watch educational programs instead of violent TV shows, they tend to be more compassionate and less aggressive, according to a study published Monday in the journal Pediatrics.

The study

About 600 families were recruited and assigned to one of two groups. Parents in the first group were encouraged to substitute violent shows with educational and pro-social ones - shows that stressed compassion and cooperation.

Families were given monthly TV guides listing educational programming for their area: shows such as "Dora the Explorer," "Super WHY," "Sesame Street" and "It's a Big, Big World." Parents were also encouraged to watch TV with their kids.

The children went from watching a half-hour of violent programming a day to 23 minutes. Parents then increased educational viewing from about 30 to 43 minutes a day.

Families in the second group did not change their viewing habits.

"This is the first study to try to modify the viewing habits of preschool kids," says Dr. Vic Strasburger, spokesperson for the American Academy of Pediatrics. "That's one of the significances of this study."

The results

After a year, researchers found that children watching less violent and more child-appropriate shows scored better on tests that measured cooperation, a willingness to share or compromise. They also had fewer incidents of aggressive behavior such as yelling and hitting.

"Although television is frequently implicated as a cause of many problems in children, our research indicates that it may also be part of the solution," the study notes.

The scientists saw the greatest improvements in boys raised in disadvantaged homes where children tends to watch more TV.

Experts know that children mimic what they see, whether it's in real life or what's on the screen. And this is of particular concern when children watch TV or movies riddled with violence.

"Children learn their attitudes about violence at a very young age, before age 8 and once they learn those attitudes it's very difficult to unlearn them," says Strasburger.

"It doesn't mean that children who watch violence are going to become murderers, but it does mean that they are desensitized to violence in the real world and they are more likely to be aggressive themselves," says study author Dr. Dimitri Christakis, director of the Center for Child Health, Behavior, and Development at Seattle Children's Research Institute.

Better shows, better kids

But on the flip side, when children watch shows with positive social messages, it helps them get along better with others and gives them the tools to become better communicators, the study suggests.

"They will imitate the good things too," says Christakis. "We should take more advantage of the fact that you can demonstrate good behaviors on-screen and that children will emulate them in real life."

Right now, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that preschoolers and older children get only one to two  hours of TV or screen time a day.  But in reality, they're really watching much more.  According to this study, preschoolers see an average of about four and a half hours daily at home and in daycare settings.  Parents struggle with guilt, researchers say, because they allow so much TV time.

"Parents need to get this message that it's not just about how much TV your children watch, it's about what they watch," says Christakis. "It's not just about turning off the set; it's about changing the channel."

soundoff (27 Responses)
  1. Chris

    Gee you mean nothing is black and white... the world is shades of grey? That most things, if chosen wisely and done in moderation can be okay? Awesome glad people are here to make inflexible blanket statements about things in peoples lives then spend millions researching it for years to tell us that if done with intelligence and moderation it's actually fine.

    February 18, 2013 at 16:28 | Report abuse | Reply
  2. lewtwo

    Considering how much time modern society spends in front of TV could not better TV make us all better. Dowton Abbey would be an excellent example to follow.

    February 18, 2013 at 16:33 | Report abuse | Reply
  3. Jim

    CNN being ran and directed by very intelligent people would say enough is enough. 99% of the stories that make headline news are of tragedies and people who do things inappropriate or inhumane. What president have you (CNN) set for being on national news?

    February 19, 2013 at 06:32 | Report abuse | Reply
  4. FSufan13

    I think that watching tv does not affect people on how they react, I think that it all depends on how they are raised by their parents and what they teach their children. Watching tv can be good but you have to keep up and monitor what kids watch and no tv is good too because kids can do something else like play outside stay active then being on the couch watching tv all day.

    April 8, 2013 at 09:03 | Report abuse | Reply
  5. Benjamin Netalonzo

    I agree that TV can improve the behavior of kids. Although they should be told to watch TV for a limited time every day. Because this is no TV Advertising business, it’s the fate of our next generation on stake.

    July 18, 2013 at 09:02 | Report abuse | Reply
  6. scholarmulhern

    What an interesting and surprising story. We tend to generalize that television is detrimental to students' learning. I found the information in this article fascinating. Thank you.

    James Mulhern, http://www.synthesizingeducation.net
    Teacher, Professor–South Florida

    November 11, 2013 at 18:13 | Report abuse | Reply
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Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.