Notes on Parenting

Insights for parenting babies, toddlers, teens, and young adults.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Just Fun or Too Fast?: Fast-Paced TV Shows and Kids' Self-Control

Have you ever really paid attention to the fast-paced nature of many TV shows targeted at children? As adults, we may not pick up on how fast-paced the edits and scenes really are since we are still able to follow the story line. Kids' brains, however, cannot process these images as quickly as our adult brains and research has begun to explore what effect this may have on children's behavior and development.

A new study on this topic was all over the news this week. You may have seen the headlines that implicated SpongeBob Squarepants as the culprit in making kids unable to focus in school. Of course, as with most social science, the real science behind the story is not as flashy as the headlines make it out. Specifically, the study considered the relationship between children's exposure to fast-paced TV shows (i.e., SpongeBob) and their subsequent self-control. The complete study included three groups of 4-year-old children: one group watched nine minutes of SpongeBob, another group watched nine minutes of a slow-paced cartoon, and a third group were given crayons and paper to draw for nine minutes. The children were then asked to do a task that tested their self-control, such as wait for a piece of candy. The results showed that the children exposed to the SpongeBob show were less able to practice self-control compared to the drawing group.

So what does this really mean for parents? Should we immediately ban all SpongeBob and similar programming from our houses? Well, as with any study of this kind, I think it is important to look closely at the details of the study and its results. This study does have several limitations. First, the study included only 60 children and they were mostly from well-educated, upper middle-class backgrounds. In social science, it is generally advantageous to have samples that are somewhat larger and more representative to the general population (if that is to whom you intend to extrapolate the findings). In other words, if the findings of this study are accurate, they may not be applicable to the larger population since the sample of the study was limited.

Secondly, the study only considered the immediate impact of the TV shows on children's self-control. The study did not consider if exposure to fast-paced shows had any long-term effects on children's ability to control themselves. Personally, I think that while this is a limiting aspect of the study, it is also helpful in some ways. If these results are indeed accurate, it is helpful as a parent to know that these shows may have an immediate impact on children's self-control. This may help a parent decide when it may or may not be appropriate to allow their child to watch such shows by taking into consideration what activities they may be planning to do afterward.

As with all social science, one study never really provides the complete story. Research on the impact of children's media use is still relatively new and is constantly needs to be updated as new forms of media emerge. Over time, more and more research will hopefully illuminate the role that media plays in children's development. In the meantime, I think the best we parents can do is to simply try to read the research with a critical eye and take it for what it is--informative, but often limited. Sometimes I think parents read research such as this as an indictment of their parenting--that is, if you allow your child to watch SpongeBob then you are ruining them forever. This is not the goal of such studies and it is unfortunate if some parents read them this way. These studies are meant to add more information to the growing body of knowledge regarding children's media use, but ultimately, parents make decisions based on what they know about their individual children, their needs, abilities, and  personalities.

ResearchBlogging.orgAngeline S. Lillard, & Jennifer Peterson (2011). The Immediate Impact of Different Types of Television on Young Children's Executive Function Pediatrics

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