Where the Science of Psychology Meets the Art of Being Human

Kids and Television – How to Influence What They Learn

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Kids and Television - How to Influence What They Learn

Television can be a wonderful source of information for our children, but it can also be a gap filler that does little to nurture their hungry minds. Whether we like it or not, screens are here to stay. The challenge is to find ways to make television work for our kids and nourish their curiosity, their wisdom, and their growth, rather than letting it turn them into couch-dwelling little screen huggers. Fascinating new research has found something that can make the difference.

There’s little doubt that too much television, or the wrong type of television, can do damage. It can make young bodies too still and fill hungry minds with too much nothing, or too much of the wrong thing. The right type of television though, can feed those growing minds and encourage adventure, learning, and curiosity. Television is powerful, so we need to find a way to use that in positive ways, and take charge of the influence we have with our kids while we have it.

The research has shown how to make television work harder to help our children spark even brighter, and it’s as simple as sitting with them while they watch tv, rather than leaving them to it. When parents watch television with their children, the capacity of those children to learn from what they see increases. (And before you start thinking, ‘Nup. Tap me out. I love Phineas and Ferb but I love it more when I don’t have to watch it,’ – don’t worry –  none of this means we can never leave our kids alone with their favourite shows. Sometimes we all need a gentle break from the world where our minds can take a rest for a while – and if Phineas and Ferb does to them what, say, US Bachelor does to me some people, there’s nothing wrong with that. Everything in moderation.)

“Researchers have shown that kids are more interested in activities in which the parents are involved, whether that’s at school or reading or whatever. It makes sense then that kids would be more interested in TV if the parent is more interested in that as well. I think parents being involved in a kid’s life means a lot to kids whether they know it or not.” -Eric Rasmussen, assistant professor and co-author of study, Texas Tech University.

Kids, tv, and learning. The research.

For the study, 88 children aged 6-13 years were shown either an exciting clip (Man vs Wild) or non-exciting one (a whale documentary). Each clip was about 11-12 minutes long. The children either watched the show with one of their parents sitting beside them on a couch, or on their own with the parent out of the room and out of sight of the child.

When a parent watched the show with the child, the child showed physiological evidence that they were investing a greater amount of effort to learn and understand. The evidence included higher skin conductance (indicating higher arousal) and a lower heart rate (indicating a greater allocation of cognitive resources.

Assistant Professor Eric Rasmussen, one of the researchers and an expert in children and the media, has pointed out that this generation of children is often tagged as the generation that has become a little lost to media and the influences of it. He’s quick to point out that this thinking is flawed – parents actually have a lot of influence over their children, they just need to know how to engage it.

“Parents parent. The more I learn the more I’m convinced of that. It’s about helping kids know what to do with that content once they encounter it and how they process it.” – Eric Rasmussen

This research is consistent with other findings on the ways parents can influence the ability of children to learn from tv. Research with children aged 5-7 and 10-12 has found that children’s reactions to shows change when their parents speak to them about what they are watching. Another study found that when 2-6 year olds watched ten episodes of Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood over a two-week period, those children who watched the shows with their parents showed higher levels of empathy and self-efficacy and a greater ability to recognise emotion, than those whose parents didn’t talk to them about the shows.

For kids, spending time with their parents would be up there with their favourite things to do (even if they don’t always let us know!). Because of this, parents have enormous capacity to influence what their children learn from television and the messages they take from what they see.

Research has found that this influence can also nurture a child’s emotional and social intelligence. When small children are exposed to more background television, or when they have a tv in their rooms, they tend to show a poorer ability to recognise that other people sometimes have different thoughts, feelings, needs or wants to their own. On the other hand, when parents engage with children about what the children see on tv, those children show a greater capacity to see that what they are feeling and thinking isn’t necessarily the same for everyone else. 

Being able to recognise that other people might think and feel differently to you is a key component of empathy and positive social relationships. Young children tend to view the world from the inside out. This is a great thing for little people – it’s how they come to understand the world and their place in it. First they have to understand how they work, and then they can start to think about everyone else. Even though this is something that all kids do, parents can help to shift this heavy focus on the self and nurture the development of social and emotional intelligence when they speak with their children about what they are watching on television. 

And finally …

As with so much of parenting, if not all of it, it’s never enough to set the rules and let the rules take care of things from there. If only it was that easy, but then it would be called magic, and not rules. Setting rules is important, but there are ways for parents to increase their influence and have screen time work harder more for them and their children. Sitting with kids while they watch tv, and chatting to them about what they seem, is a powerful way to help kids learn and expand your influence. This becomes more important as kids get older. As they move through adolescence, we will have less control (kids will do what they want if they want it enough), but what we can have is influence. 

It’s important to do what we can to protect our kids from certain things they see on tv, but even with our best efforts, we won’t be able to protect them from all of it. What we can do though, is empower them. We can influence the messages or the information they take in, or the way they make sense of what they see. By speaking with them about what they see in shows, in commercials, in the news and in the way people are represented on tv, we can start to have a powerful influence. It can be an important opportunity to share our values and to start empowering them with important information. Whether it’s heavy stuff like what they see in the news, or how you feel about the latest burger in the fast food commercial, your children want to know what you think, and they need to know.

Young children love time with their parents. They especially love it if you’re meeting them where they are and doing something they want to do. It seems like such a small thing, but it’s these small things that can make a big difference for our kids. Watching tv with them and chatting about what they see can help to lay solid foundations for the way they read the world, relate to it, and establish their very important place in it.

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11 Comments

Nicole

I’ve just signed up to your emails having found an old link I’d saved some time back on an “Age by Age guide of what to expect” which I keep coming back to each time one of my boys does something I don’t quite know how to manage (which is reasonably often – currently we’ve got 7 year old rage!) I’m a single working mum with 2 feisty boys and like most single, working mothers, beat myself up relentlessly about what I’m doing that’s not good enough. My time and energy is so stretched it’s sometimes painful. These posts feel like a practical, non-judgmental way I can actually help myself feel like I’m doing a good job and connect to my boys. It’s smart stuff without making the reader feel stupid. Thank you so much. You’re really making a difference.

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Karen - Hey Sigmund

Thanks so much Nicole. I’m so pleased they’re able to give you some comfort about what you’re doing. Parenting is hard! One of the things that makes it so difficult is the way it’s so easy to doubt ourselves and whether or not we’re doing the right thing. You sound loving and open to your gorgeous boys – that’s the most important thing. It sounds as though they are in wonderful hands.

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Skeeter Buck

Such a great reminder of quality time with your child. I will no longer bring my laptop or iPhone to the couch when I agree to watch a movie with my son.

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Anne

I have family game night with my 10 year old twins. We play board games that they want to play, then make pizza together and sit down to watch a movie that we all agree on. They love this time together, and we have great conversations about school, friendship, and what’s going on with their lives that otherwise we wouldn’t have the time to get around to

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Karen

Thank you for these little reminders Karen! Each of your articles is like a bit of nutrition for my parenting brain!

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Ian Anderson

Been doing this for years. We tend to do about a 60/40 split between shows and nature/science stuff.

Children spend so much time away from home these days (school, after school, sports, hobbies, friends houses, birthday parties, etc. etc.) why would you waste what precious time you have with them? Plus, you can’t control what they’re exposed to during all that time away. Even more important then, that you teach them how to make sense of what they see.

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Jean Tracy

Great article, Karen. Thanks for researching the stats. The results make so much sense. I’ll be sharing this on my social media sites.

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