It's no surprise that pediatricians aren't huge fans of television for small children.
The American Academy of Pediatrics says children should be limited to less than one to two hours of nonviolent programming per day -- which should be under the supervision of a responsible adult -- while the group adds kids under 2 should not watch any television at all.
Now, a new study published Feb. 18 in the academy's journal, Pediatrics, finds that it may not be the duration of TV time that has a negative effect on kids, but what they're watching. The study found parents who switched off aggression-filled shows for "high quality", educational programming were more likely to have better-behaved kids than children who got to watch whatever they wanted.
"We often focus on how much kids watch and don't focus enough on what they watch," study author Dr. Dimitri Christakis, director of the Center for Child Health, Behavior and Development at Seattle Children's Research Institute, said in written statement. "While too many children watch too much TV, this study shows that content is as important as quantity."
Preschool-aged children are likely to imitate what they see on TV, according to the researchers, whether it's loving and affectionate or violent and aggressive behaviors. To find out the impact of what they were watching, researchers tracked 565 families with kids ages 3 to 5 years old. Half of families were asked to replace the aggressive programming with "prosocial" educational shows or DVDs geared towards children, while the other half, which served as the comparison control group, were not asked to change their habits.
Prosocial shows are ones that encourage kids to be kind to others and share, and portray adults as dependable, such as "Sesame Street" and "Dora the Explorer." The researchers did not try to influence the amount of time children watched TV.
Case managers followed up with the preschoolers for a year, and found both groups increased the amount of total TV time, but the intervention group watched more educational content while the control group increased its minutes of violent content. At six months, researchers reported kids in the study group had significantly less aggression and demonstrated more prosocial behaviors compared to kids in the control group. The effects lasted throughout the 12 month-study but reached statistically non-significant levels by the end. The strongest effect of prosocial television was seen in low-income children.
"That's important because they are at the greatest risk, both for being perpetrators of aggression in real life, but also being victims of aggression," Christakis told the Associated Press.
Christakis called on parents to put their kids on a "media diet" by keeping a diary of the shows and movies their child is watching, choosing better shows for kids with the help of sites like Common Sense Media and watching shows with children so they become more aware of the content.
"It isn't just about turning off the TV," Christakis said in the statement, "it's about changing the channel."
One expert not involved with the study commended that the research looked at the effects of positive programming on children, instead of just focusing on the effects caused by violent television.
"I think it's fabulous that people are looking on the positive side. Because no one's going to stop watching TV, we have to have viable alternatives for kids," Dr. Michael Rich, director of the Center on Media and Child Health at Children's Hospital Boston, told the AP.
Others experts agreed, adding the findings could have a public health impact.
"Here we have an experiment that proposes a potential solution," Dr. Thomas N. Robinson, a professor of pediatrics at Stanford, who was not involved in the research, told The New York Times. "Giving this intervention -- exposing kids to less adult television, less aggression on television and more prosocial television -- will have an effect on behavior."