Feb 19 (Reuters) - Upping the educational value of what young children watch on television and choosing to avoid violence-prone programming may help improve their behavior, according to a U.S. study that looked at several hundred preschoolers.
It can be hard to encourage families of preschoolers to turn off the television, but there are plenty of high-quality shows that promote learning and positive relationships rather than violence, researchers wrote in Pediatrics.
"Although clearly kids watch too much, equally concerning is that they watch poor quality shows," said lead researcher Dimitri Christakis, from the University of Washington in Seattle.
His initial survey of parents of three- to five-year-old children showed the children often watched everything from aggression-laden cartoons to full-length violent movies that are "totally inappropriate," Christakis told Reuters Health.
For their study, he and his colleagues randomly split 565 preschools into two groups. In one group, parents recorded notes about the children's normal TV viewing, without receiving any guidelines to reduce or change those habits.
In the other group, researchers made visits and calls and sent monthly newsletters encouraging parents to replace violent TV with educational programming - including specific program schedules and recommended shows, such as Sesame Street, Dora the Explorer and Curious George.
"It's not just about reducing the exposure to on-screen violence, it's about promoting pro-social programming," Christakis said. "We're actually them examples of good behavior, of how to cooperate, how to share."
After six an 12 months, parents reported their children's angry, aggressive or anxious behaviors on a questionnaire. At both time points, children in the TV intervention group had slightly fewer problems than those in the comparison group.
Low-income boys seemed to benefit most from the change in programming.
"The point is, this is something that is as effective as other things we do to try to modify behavior in children, and it's fairly simple," Christakis said.
But other researchers said that not all studies have shown violent programming leads to aggression and behavioral problems, and that the new study doesn't shut the door on that question.
Another study published in Pediatrics found that the more television that children and teens watched, the more likely they were to have a criminal conviction or be diagnosed with antisocial personality disorder by age 26.
Researchers led by Lindsay Robertson from the Dunedin School of Medicine in New Zealand said children may imitate or internalize violence they see - or that more time in front of the television could simply mean less interaction with peers and families, and worse performance in school.
However, it was unclear from that study whether the television watching itself caused the problems.
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children watch no more than one to two hours of high-quality programming each day, and researchers agreed that parents should be mindful of exactly what their children are watching.
"It's not just about turning the TV off, it's about changing the channel," Christakis said. SOURCE: bit.ly/Vr8wqt and bit.ly/Xkt5Ct (Reporting from New York by Genevra Pittman at Reuters Health; editing by Elaine Lies)