A provocative new study suggests some television shows may hamper a child’s readiness to learn.
University of Virginia psychologists found that fast-paced, fantastical television shows may impart a negative effect immediately after watching the show on the learning and behavior of young children.
Researchers tested 4-year-old children immediately after they had watched nine minutes of the popular show “SpongeBob SquarePants.” The producers of the show, Nickelodeon, note the show is targeted toward 6-to-11 year olds, and is meant as an entertainment show — not an educational program.
They discovered executive function — the ability to pay attention, solve problems and moderate behavior — had been severely compromised when compared to 4-year-olds who had either watched nine minutes of “Caillou,” a slower-paced, realistic public television show, or had spent nine minutes drawing.
“There was little difference on the tests between the drawing group and the group that watched ‘Caillou,'” said lead investigator Angeline Lillard, Ph.D.
Lillard said there may be two reasons that a fast-paced and fantastical show would have a negative effect on the learning and behavior of young children.
“It is possible that the fast pacing, where characters are constantly in motion from one thing to the next, and extreme fantasy, where the characters do things that make no sense in the real world, may disrupt the child’s ability to concentrate immediately afterward,” she said.
“Another possibility is that children identify with unfocused and frenetic characters, and then adopt their characteristics.”
All children in the study, whether they watched the television shows or drew, were tested immediately afterward for how well they solved problems and followed rules, remembered what they had been told, and were able to delay gratification.
Lillard advises parents to consider the findings when making decisions as to which television shows to allow their young children to watch — if they watch television at all.
“Parents should know that children who have just watched ‘SpongeBob Squarepants,’ or shows like it, might become compromised in their ability to learn and behave with self-control,” she said.
However, the study did not test longer-term learning, only short-term learning immediately after watching the program. No conclusions could be drawn from this small study about the more generalized effect of watching TV programs of this nature. The researchers did not study whether the effects wear off in 2 minutes or 20 minutes.
Lillard said that 4-year-olds are in an important development stage of their lives and that what they watch on television may have lasting effects on their lifelong learning and behaviors. Their study, however, focused on the immediate effects.
“Young children are beginning to learn how to behave as well as how to learn,” Lillard said.
“At school, they have to behave properly, they need to sit at a table and eat properly, they need to be respectful, and all of that requires executive functions. If a child has just watched a television show that has handicapped these abilities, we cannot expect the child to behave at their normal level in everyday situations.”
Parents are advised to use creative learning activities, such as drawing, using building blocks and board games, and playing outdoors to help their children develop sound behaviors and learning skills.
“Executive function is extremely important to children’s success in school and in everyday life,” Lillard said. “It’s important to their psychological and physical well-being.”
The research findings are published in the October issue of the journal Pediatrics.
Source: University of Virginia