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'Nice' TV reduces child aggression

19th February 2013

Children have long been known to imitate what they see on television, but an in-depth study into television viewing habits has found a link between less aggressive behaviour in children and pro-social programming.

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Television programmes that show people cooperating and being kind to each other were linked to improved behaviour on the part of young children, in a study published in the journal Pediatrics.

The researchers describe the results of a scheme designed to limit the exposure of pre-school children to on-screen violence and increase the amount of time they spend watching more educational programming with an emphasis on empathy.

Those children who took part in the experiment showed reduced aggression towards others, compared with a control group that watched whatever it wanted.

According to Stanford University paediatrics professor Thomas N. Robinson, the experiment was an innovative one, because it also proposed a solution to the problem it studied.

He said that while the impact on the children's behaviour had been described as "small-to-moderate," he said there could be a meaningful lesson for public health.

In a randomized trial, researchers at the University of Washington and the Children's Research Institute in Seattle divided 565 households containing children aged 3-5 into two groups.

Both groups were told to track their children's viewing habits and analyse it for violent behaviour or for content that showed people cooperating and solving problems without violence.

The positive intervention group was given advice on which television shows to avoid and which to encourage, as well as information on better dietary habits. The control group received only the dietary advice.

The intervention group was also given advice by e-mail on discussing television shows with their children, and a monthly phone call helping them plan their children's viewing.

The parents were surveyed six months and one year after the start of the experiment, and asked about their children's social behaviour.

Those in the positive intervention group reported generally better behaviour with less aggression and higher social competence than the control group, at both junctures.

The impact of the positive viewing intervention was most marked in boys from low-income families.

The researchers said the reason for this was unknown, however.

The groups did not differ in the total amount of time spent watching television and videos.

According to study lead author Dimitri A. Christakis, parents should not just limit the amount of television their children watched; they should actively control the content of their children's viewing.

The study showed that a change in media diet is a good way to influence behaviour, he said.

The researchers admit that their study had limitations, in particular the reliance on parental assessment of good behaviour and faithful reporting of what was viewed.

Experts also said that just limiting children to "prosocial" programming might not work if the content was inappropriate for the child's age group.

 

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