It has been suggested that watching television may do more harm than good to a child's developmental skills. But a new study says that it all depends on what children watch — some educational programs on TV can actually enhance children's intellectual development. Until now, television viewing has been blamed consistently for having a negative effect on children's developmental skills. But the authors of a new study, which was published in the September/October issue of Child Development, argue that not all television programs are created equal. "All TV is not alike," says co-author Aletha Huston, PhD, professor of child development at the University of Texas at Austin. "Educational television can have a very positive impact on young children." For the study, researchers recruited more than 200 children in the Kansas City area who were from low- to moderate-income families. About 40% of the children were African-Americans, and the rest were Hispanic and Caucasian Americans. During the 3-year study, which followed children from ages 2 to 4 years, researchers tested the children and visited their homes every year. The tests included reading, vocabulary, math, and school readiness. "Children who watched educational programming — particularly at age 2 and 3 — performed better on tests of school-related skills than children who did not watch educational television," says Huston. "Watching a lot of general audience programming was related to poor skills." After controlling for the family environment, which included parents' education and family income, researchers found that watching educational programs on television may indeed translate to better skills. Daniel Anderson, PhD, professor of psychology at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, says that the findings highlight the importance of the type of content that is viewed. "What children watch on television is the key," says Anderson. "When the television programs are designed to teach, children learn good things. If they are not designed to teach, and especially if they include violence, children learn things that end up being bad for their behavior." Anderson points out that for children from low- to moderate-income families, such educational programming is filling in parts of their childhood experience that they might not otherwise get. "These children very often don't have other educational resources available in their homes, such as age-appropriate books, and parents often don't understand the importance of reading to their children and encouraging their children to read," says Anderson. Researchers say that it is heartening to see that educational programming has become a regular, if small, part of broadcast offerings. Children can learn cognitive and social skills from such programs if parents supervise what they watch. "Television is a powerful tool to teach things good or bad," says John Murray, PhD, professor in the school of family studies and human services at Kansas State University. null
But he cautions that too much television for school-aged children may have the opposite effect. "The rule of thumb is two hours per day," says Murray. "Watching too much television takes away time children spend on exercise and other school-related activities." A related study, released this week in the September issue of Ambulatory Pediatrics, found that easy access to television, such as having a TV in a child's room, leads to more time spent in front of the tube. The study author, Jean Wiecha, PhD, says her study backs up that 2-hour rule. "Parents should limit the time children spend watching television," says Wiecha, deputy director of the prevention research center on nutrition and physical activity at the Harvard School of Public Health in Boston. "More than 2 hours of viewing time may have health consequences for children, such as obesity."
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