Preschoolers get lessons in ‘mean’ from kids TV

IOWA STATE / U. BUFFALO (US) — Kids may be picking up more than good lessons from children’s television programming, new research suggests.

“Children who spent more time watching educational programs increased their relational aggression toward other children over initial levels,” says Douglas Gentile, a professor of psychology at Iowa State University. “This study shows that children can learn more than one lesson out of a given program. They can learn the educational lesson that was intended, but they’re also learning other things along the way.”


TV and movie producers often incorporate an element of bad behavior in order to teach children a lesson at the end of a program. But since children between the ages of 2 and 5 do not typically understand the plot of shows, they don’t know how the beginning of a story relates to the end.

“Even though educational shows like Arthur have pro-education and pro-social goals, conflict between characters is often depicted with characters being unkind to each other or using relational aggressive tactics with each other,” Gentile says.

“Preschool children really don’t get the moral of the story because that requires that they understand how all the parts of the show fit together. You need pretty complicated cognitive skills and memory skills to be able to do that, which are still developing in young children.”

For the study, published in the Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, researchers observed how children interacted with others in the classroom and on the playground at day care centers. They also relied on behavior reports from teachers and parents. They found that children exposed to educational programs were more aggressive in their interactions.

Each child was observed for approximately 2.5 hours throughout the study. The aggression generally was not physical and often mirrored those incorporated in children’s programming, says Jamie Ostrov, a professor of psychology at the University at Buffalo.

“The most common relationally aggressive behaviors were children saying, ‘I won’t be your friend anymore unless you do what I say,’ or ‘You can’t come to my birthday party’ as well as socially excluding a peer from play,” Ostrov says. “From our viewing, this type of relational aggression is much more common in young children’s programming than physically aggressive behavior.”

Lessons for parents

The findings don’t mean parents should completely pull the plug on TV and movies for their children. There is a benefit to educational programming, but it could also teach undesirable behaviors, Gentile says.Parents may already limit the content and the amount of media their children consume, but they can also be more involved when their children are in front of the TV.

“Parents can watch with their kids and help them to understand the plot. Parents can comment along the way and then explain the message at the end. They can explain how the insulting behavior or the ignoring behavior was not appropriate. This will help children interpret and get the message and help them learn to watch it for those messages,” Gentile says.

Researchers asked parents about the specific media their children were exposed to during the study. Most programs were educational or informational in nature with an emphasis on social and emotional issues.

The PBS programs Arthur, Curious George, and Reading Rainbow were among those most often mentioned by parents. The researchers say more analysis of the content is needed to fully understand the issues presented in the programs.

Source: Iowa State University