Somehow I don't think that's the headline preferred by Dimitri A. Christakis, professor of pediatrics at the University of Washington and the lead author of a new study. Most everybody talks it up as evidence watching better television makes kids less aggressive. Even Christakis thinks so:
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
Only the study didn't find changing media improved behavior. We'll get to that in a minute.
Christakis and the media also call this a randomized controlled study, a rarity in so many social science circles so let's milk it. It must be terribly valuable then, right?
Is it a true randomized study?
Sure, Christakis randomly assigned families to two groups but it's unclear exactly what he randomized here. Did he randomized whether kids watched more prosocial, educational tv (e.g. Dora the Explorer, Sesame Street) versus adult tv? Not exactly, he randomized the specific intervention the families experienced (either focusing on tv or diet info):
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, which they defined as showing empathy, helping others and resolving disputes without violence. Certain Television Fare Can Help Ease Aggression in Young Children, Study Finds, New York Times
Guess what happened? Kids in the "good tv" intervention according to their parents acted much better over the next year. The parents reported both the tv habits and the eventual behavior, not so great. Let's take a peek into a phone call from the GOOD TV Study.
Researcher: Studies show television turns kids mean, fat and possibly brain damaged. Decades of research have documented the adverse effects of violent television. We cannot stress enough the importance of choosing quality shows for your child. We 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 (head nodding): Uh-huh, uh-huh....
Researcher: So, what has your kid been watching?
Parent: Um, Sesame Street?
The real issue here?
The parents in the good tv group also got a few extra touches. The researchers bestowed more time and attention on these folks from additional media training to encouragement to watch with the kiddies and talk about the shows. They also had monthly chit chats with the good tv group. Don't know about you but if Dr. So and So were checking up on me every month I might be on my best behavior too which means I'd be modeling acts of thoughtfulness and empathy.
So in the end it's unclear if it was the limited bad tv, the intervention or increased parental involvement and education that resulted in the supposed better behavior. The researchers randomized the intervention and not tv. Sorry if this sounds technical but if you care about changing actual behavior then it is important. The intervention might have led to changes in the kind of shows the kids watched that in turn improved their behavior. It's also possible the intervention also led to parental behavior that in turn influenced the kids.
I'm not the only one skeptical about the potential of Dora the Explorer to save our social graces.
What's that? A skeptical voice from academia?
Christopher Ferguson, a psychologist from Texas A(and)M International University in Laredo, said not all studies have shown violent programming leads to aggression and behavioral problems in children, and the new study doesn't shut the door on that question.
"There's not much here for parents to take home," Ferguson, who wasn't involved in the research, told Reuters Health. Reuters Health, Educational TV Tied to fewer behavioral problems
Ferguson then muttered "big whoop" before downloading Sons of Anarchy.
Of course keep in mind there's also a new study showing even educational television can make kids aggressive.
Modifying Media Content for Preschool Children: A Randomized Controlled Trial.