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Is Screen Time Making Our Kids Less Empathic?

charloladolls“Charlie and Lola,” the BBC Kids TV show, spun-off from Lauren Child’s books, is one of the few kids TV shows that I legitimately like. I think Charlie is a very caring older brother and demonstrates a great deal of patience with his younger sister. I’ve told myself for years that the show is a great show for kids, full of lessons on dealing with sibling problems and being inclusive and kind. At the very least, I’ve told myself, it is as harmless a TV show as you could hope to put your children in front of for the 11 minutes it takes to get through one episode (or even for the hour my children sometimes get away with when I’m not paying close attention).

But a new study out this week has me wondering if there really is such a thing as “harmless TV” when it comes to our little ones. The Ohio State University has found that children — particularly preschoolers who are exposed to a lot of television have a hard time developing “theory of the mind,” or the ability to recognize that other people do not see and feel the same things that they see and feel. The children did not even have to be watching the TV for it to have an impact. Simply having it on as background noise was enough to make a difference.

The researchers discovered this by surveying the families of 107 children between the ages of 3 and 6 about their television habits. Did the child have a TV in his room? Was the TV on during the day? How many hours does she watch? What networks does he watch? The children were then given various tests to measure their understanding of others’ thoughts and feelings. The results showed that “both background television exposure and having a TV in the child’s bedroom were significantly and negatively related” to their ability to read others’ emotions. 

The study notes that the results may be an indication of the fact that many characters on children’s television are one-dimensional and the situations superficial meaning they don’t require a lot of understanding from their young viewers. But it may also indicate that children who are left to watch television for hours at a time may not be getting the interaction with their parents needed to help them develop those empathic skills. And while there are actually some networks, apparently, that do a decent job of exposing children to more complex characters and situations (ABC Family was mentioned by name), it seems clear that children do best when the television is not a constant companion.

We’ve been hearing for years, of course, that TV is not meant to be your kid’s best friend. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends having screen-free zones in your house and limiting the amount of time your child spends in front of screens to two hours a day. Parents are told to monitor media consumption and discuss with their children what they are watching. But I wonder how much we really do rely on TV not only to entertain, but to teach our kids. If there’s anything I’ve gained from this study, it’s that I can’t assume that TV shows will teach my children anything even if I hand-pick the shows they watch based on what I hope they learn. “Charlie and Lola” may be a fun show with no objectionable material, but unless I spend some time with my kids talking about what it is they’ve seen and heard once the show is over the set is off, it really is just junk TV.

 

photo credit: Lizzie Heiselt

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