Experts have long known that children imitate many of the deeds — good and bad — that they see on television. But it has rarely been shown that changing a young child’s viewing habits at home can lead to improved behavior.
In a study published Monday in the journal Pediatrics, researchers reported the results of a program designed to limit the exposure of preschool children to violence-laden videos and television shows and increase their time with educational programming that encourages empathy. They found that the experiment reduced the children’s aggression toward others, compared with a group of children who were allowed to watch whatever they wanted.
“Here we have an experiment that proposes a potential solution,” said Dr. Thomas N. Robinson, a professor of pediatrics at Stanford, who was not involved in the study. “Giving this intervention — exposing kids to less adult television, less aggression on television and more prosocial television — will have an effect on behavior.”
While the research showed “a small to moderate effect” on the preschoolers’ behavior, he added, the broader public health impact could be “very meaningful.”
The new study was a randomized trial, rare in research. The researchers, at Seattle Children’s Research Institute and the University of Washington, divided 565 parents of children ages 3 to 5 into two groups. Both were told to track their children’s media consumption in a diary that the researchers assessed for violent, didactic and prosocial content.
The control group was given advice only on better dietary habits for children. The second group of parents was sent program guides highlighting positive shows for young children and received newsletters encouraging them to watch television with their children and ask questions during the shows about the best ways to deal with conflict.
After six months, parents in the group receiving advice about television-watching said their children were somewhat less aggressive with others, compared with those in the control group. The children who watched less-violent shows also scored higher on measures of social competence, a difference that persisted after one year.
Low-income boys showed the most improvement, though the researchers could not say why. Total viewing time did not differ between the two groups.
“The take-home message for parents is, it’s not just about turning off the TV; it’s about changing the channel,” said Dr. Dimitri A. Christakis, the lead author of the study and a professor of pediatrics at the University of Washington.