Did you know that when Sesame Street came out, it was so popular that researchers had a hard time studying the impact. They could not find groups of children who were not watching the show to compare with the groups of children who were watching Sesame Street regularly? Researchers were finally able to compare children from households without access to the show because public television was not available in all parts of the country to children in households with access. What they found was that Sesame Street raised the achievement standards for kindergarten readiness. In other words, the entire population of very young children had a higher level of knowledge of the alphabet, numbers, and other basic concepts.
The research shows that TV can have a postive impact. For example, a study published in 1974 data collected n Mexico City (Diaz-Guerrero & Holtzman, Jr. of Educational Psychology, 66, ppg. 632 – 643) tested the impact of the Spanish version of Sesame Street Plazo Sesamo. The gains in vocabulary were greater for 4-year-olds than 3-year-olds. Pre-schoolers had other gains beyond vocabulary: children, who watched Sesame Street, had a better understanding of the meaning of informatation they heard — they had better oral comprehension. Another study (1990) by some of my former professors at the University Kansas (Mabel Rice, Althea Huston, Rosemarie Truglio, & John Wright in Developmental Psychology) looked at long-term outcomes for preschool-age children (3 – 5 yrs.) and young children (5 – 7 yrs.). The learning effects were more likely for the younger group. This makes sense because that is the age at which children are making very rapid gains in vocabulary.
At the same time, research has shown that for children age 2 and under there is typically more lost when the TV is on. In part, this is because the more time spent on screens the less time spent interactively communicating with adult speakers. All things in moderation and at the right time.
What about older kids? I came across a very good description of research on prosocial TV for older children. The authors were testing out the impact of watching TV shows that model generous self-sacrificing behavior, postive social interactions, and acceptance of differences. The research is summarized and described by the Future of Children organization.
One of the most important things to note in the article that I have linked is that children were more likely to practice positive behavior when it was reinforced by role-play activities with an adult. In other words, behavior that is modelled on TV can have a positive impact on child behavior but learning is greater when someone practices the new behaviors.
It is also necessary to watch with your children — EVEN THE TEENS. If you are not watching, you do not know what they have been exposed to or how they understand it. A quick example: I was talking with a pre-adolescent fan of Glee Club and the show appears to have had an impact on her sense of self. The show is good in that it has a lot of prosocial messages but the characters are characters. They can be one-dimensional and have roles that are in many ways far more mature than their peers in the real world with outcomes are unrealistic. The child with whom I was speaking is at the early stages of puberty and not interested in any sexual behavior. Still, she felt tremendous amount of presure to decide her sexual identity.
Just like the kids: most of the information that you are reading here will only have so much of an impact becuase exposure is not as good as practice and interactive learning. All learning is more powerful, if you talk with someone about it and practice. For example, talk with a friend, your co-parent, or the adult who takes care of your child about media and your goals for that child. Together you will make a world of difference.
The Future of Children website is at : http://www.princeton.edu/futureofchildren/publications/article-summaries/