tv watching when 4Television programming for children is abundant. Screens are a luxurious fixture in most of our lives and I’m not here to tell you to turn them off. Well, at least not today. In fact, that tactic, the one where we pediatricians urge families to turn off the TV, really isn’t working. Children tend to increase their TV viewing time as they age and preschool-aged children in the United States spend over 4 hours per day watching television at home and in day care. My good friend, Dr Claire McCarthy, offers up her opinion in this week’s Pediatrics.

Television viewing is only on an upswing over the past 5 years as more and more devices interdigitate into our children’s lives. I’m a perfect example. When my first son was born 6 years ago we had one television in our home and one computer. Today, we have a smartphone, an iPad, a computer, and a television. The screen choices continue to grow, the television shows continue to become more alluring, and the opportunities for viewing with new convenience is abundant. It’s true: some of the stuff out there designed to delight our children is awesome.

But not all of it.

So as our children continue to tug on our sleeves and hang on our pant legs asking for the iPhone just after they beg for TV time before dinner, we need to think clearly about an action plan. We need to make a thoughtful “media diet.” We need to think ahead of time what time we’ll offer up the devices and what content we want them to see. We should care–it really changes how they think and what they do. When we use a media diet, I suggest we’ll improve both our own satisfaction as parents and our children’s lives. Dr Dimitri Christakis, a pediatric researcher here at Seattle Children’s suggests:

We often focus on how much kids watch and don’t focus enough on what they watch

New research out today by Dr Christakis finds that our time and energy working to improve what our children watch, not just how much they watch, can have a positive impact on their behavior. Even for children as young as 3 years of age.

Modifying Media Content For Preschoolers:

  • Researchers in Seattle studied 565 English-speaking parents of preschool-aged children ages 3 to 5 who reported that their children watched TV or videos each week (that’s most of us). They randomly assigned families to two groups: one in which families received training on a “media diet,” and one in which families received information about eating healthy (the control group). Families kept media diaries–what and how much their children watched while being followed by a case manager who supported them. Researchers then evaluated children in these families at 6 and 12 month time intervals on their social competence and behavior. Of note, there were no attempts in the study to decrease the total number of hours children used screens. The intervention from case managers focused more on encouraging positive media use such as watching TV together as a family and substituting violent shows for more friendly ones.
  • Parents who learned about the “media diet” learned about prosocial programming. Prosocial programming is that kind of TV show that promotes children acting in kind ways or shows children sharing. In prosocial shows, adults are portrayed as dependable and helpful.
  • Results proved exciting. At 6 months, children with the “media”diet” had significant improvement in their overall social competence and behavior scores. Over the months, the children in the “media diet” group demonstrated significantly less aggression and more prosocial behavior compared to the control group, and the effect lasted throughout the 12 months. At six months and 12 months, the children in the media diet intervention group were spending significantly less time on violent programming than they did at the start of the study.
  • “Media diets” helped change what children watched. Although both the intervention and control groups increased viewing time during the study, the control group increased its minutes of violent content while the media diet group increased its minutes of prosocial and educational content.
  • Parents liked the intervention and “media diet.” Overall 77% said they would recommend the program to other families.
  • Researchers concluded that a “media diet” can reduce exposure to violent screen time by replacing it with prosocial programming and that this may really impact how our children behave.

5 Tips On Making A “Media Diet” For Your Young Child

  1. Make sure you’re aware what your child is watching. Dr Dimitri Christakis suggests keeping a media journal, documenting what they watch and how much time they are in front of a screen. Try it for a week. Use your smartphone to track how long they’re viewing what content. 
  2. As you make the plan, sit down with your children and watch shows together. Not only will this improve your insight, this will allow you to help them understand the benefits of the shows when goodies like kindness are offered up. Continue to check in with your children and watch shows as their interests change.
  3. Remember that the channel (or app) is just as important as the clock. Make rules for your child about which shows are acceptable ahead of time. If you have challenges keeping your child on the pre-selected channels, allow viewing on the device or TV only when you’re in the room. Don’t make exceptions.
  4. Take a few minutes to read-up on what your child wants to watch. Like I’ve said before, I think Common Sense Media is a fantastic guide to help you make decisions about media and apps that are right for you and your family. I often tell parents of teens to use Common Sense Media as a back-up supporter for the rules they make. They have an app, too.
  5. Prosocial programming may really enhance your child’s behavior proving not all TV is bad. The study with preschoolers highlights opportunities for using TV to improve our children’s lives. And while we’re likely never going to get rid of our screens, Dr Christakis reminds us that, “While too many children watch too much TV, this study shows that content is as important as quantity. It isn’t just about turning off the TV, it’s about changing the channel.”

Kill the TV if you like or toss out the iPhone. But if you’re as attached to your screens as I am, consider making a “media diet.” Let’s march forward with our screens and our more delightful children…