Most everybody talks up a new study as evidence watching better television makes kids behave better. The media claimed educational television could make a difference:    

Certain Television Fare Can Help Ease Aggression in Young Children, Study Finds, New York Times

TV Can Improve Kids’ Behavior, Study Finds, ABC News

Better TV Habits Can Lead to Better Behavior Among Children, Time

Educational TV Tied to Fewer Behavioral Problems, Reuters

The study's lead author, Dimitri A. Christakis, professor of pediatrics at the University of Washington, also claimed cutting out bad tv could make a difference:

The take-home message for parents is it’s not just about turning off the TV; it’s about changing the channel...We want our children to behave better...and changing their media diet is a good way to do that. Certain Television Fare Can Help Ease Aggression in Young Children, Study Finds, New York Times

Sounds great but this particular study didn't show that a healthy media diet caused anything. That study would entail researchers controlling how much bad tv children watched. This study didn’t randomly assign kids to watch a certain type or amount of tv. The researchers didn’t manipulate tv at all. They didn’t have parents lug their little media consumers into the tv lab and expose half the kids to Sponge Bob and the others, Sesame Street. Researchers didn’t go into homes and mess with any remotes.   

Instead they randomly controlled whether or not the parents were lectured about the importance of choosing quality television shows for their preschoolers. Guess what happened? Kids in the tv intervention according to their parents acted much better over the next year. The parents reported both the tv habits and the eventual behavior. Researchers also chatted with those in the tv group every month by phone. To see why this different treatment might matter let's take a peek into one of those calls.

Researcher: Numerous studies have linked television to childhood obesity, aggression, stunted cognitive development, attentional deficits, criminal behavior....I cannot stress enough the importance of choosing quality shows for your child. I will help you make good choices. Did I mention you should be monitoring your child's viewing behavior for the sake of his future health and safety? 

Parent: Uh-huh

Researcher: So, what has your kid been watching?

Parent: Um, Sesame Street?

In addition to the monthly chit chats, the tv families also had media training which included encouragement to watch and discuss tv shows with their kids. So it’s unclear what led to the supposed better behavior. It could have been the media diet. Increased parental involvement or other parental behavioral changes stemming from the intervention could have produced the better behavior.

I do know one thing. Soon you will hear another study documenting the dangers of tv. Look, it's already here. If it's right, you might want to think twice about turning on Sesame Street because this new study claims even small doses of educational television make kids meaner.

About the Author

Polly Palumbo, Ph.D.

Polly Palumbo, Ph.D., is a former research psychologist and founder of Momma Data, a non-profit organization that tracks and fact-checks parenting media.

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