February 19, 2009 12:00am
Professor Dan Anderson, psychologist and children’s TV consultant, helped design Nick Jr’s Dora the Explorer, Blues Clues and the original Sesame Street.
Research shows that educational television, such as Sesame Street, helps children learn the alphabet, learn to count and teaches them about good social habits (such as waiting your turn) and broadens their vocabulary and understanding of the world, says Professor Anderson.
But there are no such benefits for infants and toddlers under the age of two because they have not developed the ability to understand and process information off a television, he says.
Not only is there no benefit, his research shows, but watching TV may actually be harmful for infants and toddlers.
“Most of children’s exposure to TV – particularly infants and toddlers – really comes from exposure to TV watched by other members of the family,” Professor Anderson says.
“Or sometimes, the TV is switched on in the morning and stays on all day even when no one’s watching it. For children under two what we’ve found is that their play is substantially disrupted by having TV on in the background.”
“The distraction means they have trouble organising themselves, they don’t pay attention to what they are doing, they pick up one toy and move on to another activity without completing the first activity. Parents would not notice this unless they were really paying attention. Children spend less time with a toy and they’re less engaged when they are playing when the television is on in the background.”
This is the kind of research led the American Academy of Pediatricians (AAP) to recommend in 1999 a TV ban for children under the age of two.
See: Effects of electronic media on children ages zero to six – Kaiser Family
By 2005, researchers found that (in America) infants and toddlers still watched at least two hours of TV and 74 per cent had TV’s in their bedrooms. Professor Anderson says today many children’s toys are just mini-computers so their exposure to electronic media has increased.
Media is a health issue: Games Industry.biz article: Video game violence has “no discernable impact | Lots of TV and internet harms kids’ health
“What we have is a very great uncontrolled experiment with our children and we just don’t know what we are doing to them,” he says.
“Research and science agencies don’t consider TV or media to be a health issue because it’s not a disease – can’t get funding to do the research. They see it as a matter of entertainment not science and if you are not studying educational TV then the education agencies don’t consider it educational.”
“There’s no information about how computers and interactive media affects very young children,” he says.”Studying computer games is a kind of orphan in research funding. Growing research (on computer games) on adults shows mostly that it affects cognitive skills in a positive way and appears to be helpful in slowing down the onset of dementia among the elderly.”
What needs to be researched is the effect it has on the wiring of a developing brain.
The Royal Australasian College of Physicians Children and the Media policy – recommends a similar ban on TV for under 2’s: RACP policy.
Optimise brain development with educational media
Professor Anderson says children aged two and over may benefit from watching television but it depends on whether the content of the program matches the age of the child.
“It’s very clear that from the age of two-and-a-half TV can be effectively used for educational purposes,” he says. “Once they begin to understand it and if the program is well designed and has a basis for social or emotional as well as academic curriculum development.”
Not all TV bad for kids Professor Anderson’s major concern is the amount of time children spend with media.
“For many children there is not much balance in their lives so they spend too much time watching TV, in front of the computer, playing electronic games and so on without spending nearly enough time engaged in other activities that are creative, constructive and positive for social development.
“The second thing I’m concerned about is the content of programs. My research has shown children really learn from the media but they learn bad things as well as the good things.
“They aren’t very good at judging what’s real and what’s not real and what should be part of real life and what should not be part of real life.”
How violence in the media affects children
“The research is clearest on the issue of violence,” Professor Anderson says. “They can really absorb the lesson that violence is considered a way of solving social problems, maybe even the preferred way of solving social problems.
“Plus they are learning the skills of violence. The military now is quite aware that they learn tactics and ways of killing people through video games. The research is quite solid on this. Almost all the research points in the same direction.
“The effect of media exposure happens over a long period of time. It’s very difficult for anyone to actually see the cause and effect relationship because it’s cumulative.
“It plants ideas in children’s minds, as well as knowledge. By the time they become adults and are engaging in serious violence they are not thinking about what they watched when they were children.
“But when they are put into some sort of stressful situation, when they are consuming alcohol (and they lose their inhibitions) all these kinds of lessons about violence from the media about how to behave when they have been disrespected.
“They are much more likely to interpret the situation as requiring a violent response. That’s when the course of action seems to become easy. The violent person is the one who gets respect and accomplishes their goals.”
Research papers: Effects of Background TV on parent-child interaction Effects of Background TV on children’s play