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The right TV shows can improve young children’s behaviour: study

Parents, no matter how sick you are of your preschooler's love affair with Caillou, Dora the Explorer or other earnest, saccharine fare, don't touch that dial.

The message in a new study released today by the American Academy of Pediatrics: Kinder, gentler content may steer your child away from aggressive, anti-social behaviour.

Dimitri Christakis, a pediatrician and researcher at the Children's Research Institute in Seattle, Washington, and his team devised what they call a "media diet intervention," in which parents of preschoolers were helped to substitute high-quality "pro-social" and educational programming - such as Sesame Street and Dora the Explorer - for shows depicting aggression and violence, such as Power Rangers.

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The randomized control trial of 820 families included behaviour evaluations of the kids at six months and a year after the intervention.

Before the study, all the kids had about an hour and a half of TV, video or computer game watching a day. Aggressive content made up about a quarter of the children's media diet, according to the Associated Press.

At six months, the children in the intervention group demonstrated "significantly less aggression and more pro-social behaviour" compared to the control group whose parents were given advice about healthy eating, and the effect lasted throughout the 12 months, according to the online statement. The effects on the behaviour of low-income boys was substantial.

All the kids watched a bit more TV by the end of the study, but those whose parents were coached on content choices added pro-social shows to their media diet, whereas the control group added more violent programming.

Until now, much of the advice to parents has centred on limiting the number of hours a child watches. Children under two should have no television and children two and older should watch no more than two hours a day, goes the standard expert advice. Recent data suggests that preschool children in the United States are watching about 4.4 hours a day. A 2010 study put that number at about 19 hours a week, or 2.7 hours a day for Canadian children two to six years old.

In Christakis' conclusion, he says that despite his study's limitations - participating parents may have cottoned-on to the reason for the pro-social message, for instance, and been more inclined to report children's good behaviour - content, rather that viewing time, deserves more attention.

"Although television is frequently implicated as a cause of many problems in children, our research indicates that it may also be part of the solution," he writes.

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The study's findings might not come as a surprise to any parent who has witnessed their child imitate Sponge-Bob-style violence after watching a single episode (as I have), but they could be a handy reminder to audit our children's viewing habits every now and then.

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About the Author

Tralee Pearce has been a reporter at The Globe and Mail since 1999, starting as a writer in the paper’s Style section. She joined the new Life section for its launch in 2007. She covers parenting and family issues for the daily section. More

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