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NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - Upping the educational value of what young kids watch on television may help improve their behavior, a new study suggests.
It can be hard to encourage families of preschoolers to turn off the TV, but there are plenty of high-quality shows that promote learning and positive relationships rather than violence, researchers noted.
"Although clearly kids watch too much, equally concerning is that they watch poor quality shows," said Dr. Dimitri Christakis, the lead researcher on the new study from the University of Washington in Seattle.
His initial survey of parents of three- to five-year-old children showed the kids 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 preschoolers into two groups. In one group, parents recorded notes about kids' 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. Christakis's team gave those parents specific program schedules with recommended shows, based on each family's available channels.
Recommended shows included 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 giving them examples of good behavior, of how to cooperate, how to share."
After six and 12 months, parents reported their kid's angry, aggressive or anxious behaviors on a questionnaire. At both time points, children in the TV intervention program had slightly fewer problems than those in the comparison group.
Low-income boys seemed to benefit the most from the change in programming, the researchers found.
"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.
Christopher Ferguson, a psychologist from Texas A&M International University in Laredo, said not all studies have shown violent programming leads to aggression and behavioral problems in children, and the new study doesn't shut the door on that question.
"There's not much here for parents to take home," Ferguson, who wasn't involved in the research, told Reuters Health.
"Parents certainly should be aware of the media content that their kids are consuming, be informed, put some effort into playing video games with their child or watching the TV shows with their children, and make individual decisions that they think are right for themselves or right for their families," he said.
But, he added, they should also "be wary that there's going to be lots of other people telling them what to do."
The new findings were reported Monday in Pediatrics.
TV AND ANTISOCIAL PERSONALITY?
Another study published in Pediatrics found the more TV that kids 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 more time in front of the TV could simply mean less interaction with peers and families, and worse performance in school.
However, it's unclear from that study whether the TV watching, itself, caused future problems.
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends kids watch no more than one to two hours of high-quality programming each day.
Researchers agreed parents should be mindful of what exactly their young kids are watching on TV, as well.
"It's not just about turning the TV off, it's about changing the channel," Christakis said.
SOURCES: bit.ly/Vr8wqt and bit.ly/Xkt5Ct Pediatrics, online February 18, 2013.