Preschoolers love to pretend. They play dress up or imagine they’re pirates or “cook” for you. They “fly” and “drive” and even are able to become “invisible. “Their powers are endless. Often they find it difficult to differentiate what is real from what is not, but by early grade school, most children have a pretty good understanding of reality and fiction.
It makes sense that what preschoolers hear and see in books and media can influence greatly how they play. It is fodder for their imaginations and feeds it. If they see certain types of behaviors over and over they begin to think that those behaviors are normal or at least desirable. It can be tricky as parents to choose content that is both interesting and imaginative but not scary or full of conflict, either physical or verbal, for preschoolers to watch. Many cartoons and other programs ostensibly geared for young children show “‘good guys” and “bad guys” or kids bad mouthing or putting another child down as part of the dynamic. Even if the “good guys” or “good kids” end up winning, the images viewed and words heard are those of conflict and/or aggression and that can affect behavior.
In a recent study published in Pediatrics, researchers in Seattle tried something new. Instead of just asking parents in one group to turn off their TVs or significantly limit the preschoolers’ screen time in the study (the AAP’s recommendation for children in this age group) they asked instead for half of the parents to change the content the children watched, leaving the amount of time the children were in front of a TV the same as it always had been. The other half of the study participants did not change the amount of time or the content they watched. The two halves were very similar in both the content and amount of TV watched prior to the intervention as well as other family characteristics, amount of time in daycare, etc. The intervention group was instructed to replace their content with the following shows: “Dora the Explorer,” “Sesame Street,” and “Super Why” and to a lesser extent “The Mickey Mouse Clubhouse,” “Sid the Science Kid,” and “Curious George.” These shows were chosen because of their prosocial behavioral messages. The first three shows strongly so and the latter three somewhat less strongly so. The study groups were then assessed 6 and 12 months later and the differences were significant between the two groups. The group exposed to prosocial TV had better social interactions and behaviors at home and in group settings. The preschoolers were less apt to be described as anxious, depressed, withdrawn, oppositional, aggressive, or angry compared to the control group. Low income boys were particularly likely to show a benefit.
To be honest, I’ve never been a big fan of TV for kids. I feel that there’s a whole bunch of other things that are more productive and creative that children can be doing with their time but I realize that most kids will be spending a couple of hours a day (at least apparently) watching television. These pediatricians did a great service then to investigate what content is best. If you’re going to have your preschooler watch TV, at least have him watch something prosocial at this age rather than something more pro-aggressive like Cartoon Network’s “Star Wars” or even more neutral like Nickelodeon’s “SpongeBob Squarepants.”