"Sweeping condemnations of television ignore the obvious fact that television contains an enormous variety of forms and content," says lead study author Aletha C. Huston, Ph.D., of the Department of Human Ecology at the University of Texas at Austin. "The findings of this study provide strong support for the notion that the effects of television viewing depend on program content and genre."
In the study published in the September/October issue of Child Development, Huston and colleagues analyzed the television-viewing habits of nearly 200 children aged 2 to 7 over a three-year period. The children, all from low- to moderate-income families, were also given periodic tests of their reading, math, vocabulary and school-readiness skills.
The researchers focused on low- to moderate-income families for several reasons: these families have been underrepresented in previous research, they tend to watch TV frequently, and many educational programs are targeted at them.
Very young children who spent a few hours a week watching educational programs such as Sesame Street, Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, Reading Rainbow, Captain Kangaroo, Mr. Wizard's World and 3-2-1 Contact had higher academic test scores 3 years later than those who didn't watch educational programs, the researchers found. Also, children who watched many hours of entertainment programs and cartoons had lower test scores than those who watched fewer hours of such programs.
Because the average child watched just 1 to 3 hours weekly of education programs, compared to an average of 10 to 16 hours of general-audience programs, and 5 to 8 hours of cartoons, the researchers couldn't test whether watching many hours of educational TV would also have exerted a negative effect.
The positive effects of educational programming were strongest for children aged 2 and 3. "Good educational programs can provide lasting benefits to children at many ages, but it may be especially important to provide such fare for very young children because they are less likely than older children to be exposed to formal preschool instruction, and because stable habits of viewing may be formed in the first few years of life," Huston says.
More research is needed on how television may affect intellectual development, say the researchers, who offered several suggestions. TV watching may reduce the time children have to spend engaging verbally and socially with others. Also, while educational TV challenges children with age-specific techniques designed to enhance learning, general-audience programs they can't quite follow may have the opposite effect. "A child with prolonged exposure to such content may have few experiences of engaging successfully with the material and solving problems," Huston says.
"Children are most likely to become actively engaged with television content that is neither too easy nor too difficult to comprehend, that is, content that provides some challenges, but also allows a child to gain a sense of mastery," the researcher adds.
This research was supported by the Children's Television Workshop, using funds awarded by the John D. and Katherine T. MacArthur Foundation.
Child Development is the bimonthly peer-reviewed journal of the Society for Research in Child Development. For information about the journal, contact Jonathan J. Aiken at (734) 998-7310.