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Children, TV, Computers and More Media: New Research Shows Pluses, Minuses

— National Science Foundation
Updated on Jul 1, 2008

A consortium of researchers has reported that very young children's interactions with TV and computers are a mixed bag of opportunities and cautions, while teenagers' Internet use has changed so much that the myths of several years ago need to be debunked.

Said Amy Sussman, program manager for the National Science Foundation (NSF), which funds the five-site Children's Digital Media Center (CDMC), "Reaping the benefits of various media while avoiding pitfalls is no easy task. Parents and policymakers need to inform their decisions about whether and how to guide their children's media use through scientific knowledge. Different developmental stages call for different strategies. These and other research studies can help create needed guidance for children at all ages."

Scientists affiliated with five locations of the center reported the results of 14 research studies in special issues of The American Behavioral Scientist and the Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology. Editors for the special issues included Sandra L. Calvert from Georgetown University, who heads up the CDMC; Patricia M. Greenfield, who leads the research at UCLA; Elizabeth A. Vandewater, who heads the research at the University of Texas-Austin, and Ellen Wartella, who leads the research at the University of California-Riverside. Barbara J. O'Keefe, who heads the research at Northwestern University, contributed to the research articles.

In the case of very young children - up to 6 years old - research fills an important gap in our knowledge of how TV and computer use affect these developing human beings. Several individual studies support the 1999 recommendation by the American Academy of Pediatrics that parents do not expose children to electronic screens until they are 2 years old.

One important distinction is between "background TV" and "foreground TV" - that is, TV programs that are playing when young children are around (for example, because the TV is always on in the house) or TV programs designed for young children (for example, Teletubbies). Over a third of the households with children from birth to 6 years old had the TV on most or all of the time, in a study reported by Vandewater and colleagues. Children in these "heavy-television households" watched TV more and read less than other children. In addition, research summarized by Daniel R. Anderson and Tiffany A. Pempek indicates very little evidence that children younger than 2 years old learn much from even so-called "educational" programs and videos, and, furthermore, that background TV may be associated with poorer cognitive outcomes.

In the study led by Vandewater and funded by NSF and the Kaiser Foundation, two-thirds of the parents limited the time their children from birth to 6 years old were allowed to watch TV, but more (88 percent) regulated what programs their children could watch. Children whose TV time was limited tended to watch less TV, as one might expect - but children who watch only certain programs tended to watch with their parents and to spend more time playing outdoors.

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