UW Today

This is an archived article.

November 9, 2006

Researchers: TV’s influence on kids isn’t all bad

Television is not going away. So, parents might as well learn how to live with it and learn how to use it. That’s the advice authors Dimitri Christakis and Frederick Zimmerman offer parents in their new book, The Elephant in the Living Room: Make Television Work for Your Kids.

Christakis and Zimmerman are directors of the UW’s Child Health Institute, which gives parents alternatives to mindless television viewing and the associated guilt surrounding it.

“We have built a culture of guilt and shame around television,” Christakis said. “Television is not inherently good or bad. It’s a tool that, when used appropriately, can produce wonderful things.”

Some of the parental angst surrounding television viewing can be blamed on a plethora of books that point out the negative impact of television viewing, including obesity, aggression, early sexual expression, and use of drugs.

“For example, many books have linked too much television viewing to childhood obesity because television is a sedentary activity,” Zimmerman said. “Reading is also sedentary and it’s not linked to childhood obesity. What is unhealthy about television viewing is mindlessly eating too many calories in front of a screen that advertises and promotes the buying and eating of unhealthy foods.”

Christakis is a UW associate professor of medicine and a pediatrician at Children’s Hospital and Regional Medical Center. He is the author of original research and a textbook of pediatrics. Zimmerman, a UW associate professor in the School of Public Health and Community Medicine, studies developmental economics and child health.

The Elephant in the Living Room offers parents strategies to take control of television viewing and make it work for their kids.

The book encourages parents to ask themselves what they want to achieve during the viewing time. Are they using it to entertain the child while they do some household chore, to educate or enhance the child’s emotional or cognitive development, or to bring the family together?

“When parents select programming for their children, they should ask themselves does the programming match my goals and my family values,” Christakis said, adding that parents need to be mindful of how they select programs for viewing and how they watch.

Television and other electronic media have evolved drastically since television first emerged on the cultural landscape, Christakis said. “Fifty years ago, families gathered together to watch television in a central location. Today, more and more children watch television alone. Parental presence changes the viewing experience. For example, research shows that children learn from TV better when parents are in the room.

“Even when the program is less than ideal, it can offer opportunities to talk about family values around such issues as aggression, drugs, sex. It can be a catalyst for dialogue between parent and child,” Christakis explained.

Zimmerman said parents often make the mistake of not knowing what their kids are watching when they are away from home, when they are visiting other kids, or when they are with the babysitter. “Parents should keep tabs on television viewing under these circumstances, as well,” he said, noting that parents often don’t know the effects television has on children. “A research study showed that two-thirds of kids interviewed said they had nightmares or had trouble sleeping for a week or more because of something they had seen on television, and that this happened ‘sometimes.’ Yet parents said that their children ‘rarely’ had such nightmares.”

The quantity of television viewing, the quality of programming content, and how we view television are the keys to reaping the many potential benefits of television, the authors report.

“Television offers many opportunities to pique children’s interest and curiosity, but it should be used as a means and not an end,” Christakis said. “There are more ways to engage the world than just through the screen. Programming, such as documentaries, travelogues, sports, and nature shows, can help children and families engage in many events and activities that are educational, entertaining, and inspiring. But afterwards, that excitement should segue into real world activities. If children get excited about lions from a nature show, they should go to the zoo and learn about them. If they are made curious about the civil war from a documentary, they should get a book about it.”

“We need to rethink this tool and how we use it,” Zimmerman said. “Television is the elephant in the living room. It is such an invasive force that has a huge impact on childhood. We can’t blow this off any more; we need to address television in its totality.”

The Elephant in the Living Room: Make Television Work for Your Kids, published by Rodale, is available at local bookstores. For more information, visit the Web site, at www.maketvwork.com.