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Children and Media Consumption: Quality Not Quanitity

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If you're a news junkie, like I am, chances are that sometime last week you came across a headline that screamed "Study finds children who watch 'excessive' amounts of TV more likely to have criminal convictions...". This headline reported on a study that was conducted in New Zealand, and published in the February 2013 Pediatrics journal.

Actually, this month's Pediatrics published two studies about children and TV. The other one found that it's not necessarily the overall amount of time kids spend watching TV that can be problematic, it's in fact what they are watching. And these researchers, from the University of Washington, found that when parents swapped out TV shows with aggressive content for shows that had positive and pro-social messages, their children demonstrated less aggression and more positive behaviors. So why did the first study get so much media play?

To me, as someone who conducts research and teaches about issues of children and media, and just as importantly, as the mother of four children, the fact that news media often pick up a study that seems to connect media use with negative behaviors is no surprise. We see this time after time. What surprises me is that most of the studies that seem to show more positive associations between media use and children get so little coverage.

Take Sesame Street, for example. This is undoubtedly the most thoroughly researched children's television show of all times. There have been over 1,000 studies published about the effects of this show and its international co-productions, now in close to two dozen countries around the world. The majority of these studies have found that children who watch this show learn both cognitive/academic and social/emotional skills. But how much do we ever hear or read about this kind of work?

In the super-competitive world of media, with a 24/7 news cycle and more digital outlets all the time for delivering news, it's the attention-grabbing negative and more sensational things that snatch the headlines. I worry about this kind of thing with regard to children and media issues because the headlines don't even suggest the whole story. In that New Zealand study, for instance, researchers did find that children who watched more TV when they were young tended to be associated with anti-social traits and some violent behaviors as they got older --more so than kids who did not watch a lot of television. But what we didn't find out from most of the news reports about this study is that while researchers observed what's called a correlational association between these two things, they did not find a causal relation. In other words, they could not conclude that watching television was the root cause of the negative or criminal behavior. There might have been something else, like poverty, or growing up in a single parent household, that could have been a more significant cause or factor in leading kid to anti-social behavior than watching a lot of TV.

Conversely, consider that other study in which researchers found that it was not the time spent watching TV but the content that could positively affect children's behavior. This got reported under headlines like "Swapping violent shows for educational TV may boost children's behavior." This report on cbs.com was a pretty good summary of the study, which was an experimental design with one group of parents directing their kids towards shows with pro-social messages about sharing and empathy, and a control group that watched other kinds of shows. But the video piece from "CBS This Morning" that goes along with this report focuses on the amount of TV the researchers found kids viewing -- almost four and a half hours a day -- rather than the main take-away of the study. It's not that we shouldn't care about the number of hours kids spend with media. We should. But the whole point of this study was that content matters. "'We often focus on how much kids watch and don't focus enough on what they watch'study author Dr. Dimitri Christakis" is quoted as saying. To me, that's the most important point. It's just not the one that gets the headlines often enough.