Children who watch educational TV are more aggressive toward other children, according to a study conducted by researchers from Iowa State University, the University of Buffalo, and published in the Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology.
"This study shows that children can learn more than one lesson out of a given program," researcher Douglas Gentile said. "They can learn the educational lesson that was intended, but they're also learning other things along the way."
The American Academy of Pediatrics advises that children not be allowed to view any screen-based media, including television or computers, until at least the age of two. Research has demonstrated that such media exposure in toddlers can lead to worse mental, physical and social health later in childhood. The new study was conducted on children between the ages of two and five; however, it demonstrated that TV viewing carries risks even past the toddler years.
The researchers observed children interacting with each other in both playground and classroom settings for approximately two and a half hours, and also collected behavioral reports about each child from parents and teachers. They compared this with information collected from parents about how much television each child watched, and which programs they viewed.
Almost all of the programming viewed was either educational or informational in nature, and the majority focused on social and emotional concerns. The most popular shows included Arthur, Curious George and Reading Rainbow.
The researchers found that children who watched the most educational TV were the most aggressive in their interactions with their peers. This aggression was typically social rather than physical in nature.
"The most common relationally aggressive behaviors were children saying, 'I won't be your friend anymore unless you do what I say,' or 'You can't come to my birthday party' as well as socially excluding a peer from play," researcher Jamie Ostrov said. "From our viewing, this type of relational aggression is much more common in young children's programming than physically aggressive behavior."
Five-year-olds too young for educational TV
The problem with educational TV, the researchers said, is that children under the age of six are simply too young to understand it. Because children of this age are unable to follow a plot, they take in each part of the story as a separate piece. So, if they watch one child bullying another, it doesn't matter if the bully apologizes later in the episode. Young children simply learn the bullying behavior without understanding that it is supposed to be wrong.
"Even though educational shows like Arthur have pro-education and pro-social goals, conflict between characters is often depicted with characters being unkind to each other or using relational aggressive tactics with each other," Gentile said.
"Preschool children really don't get the moral of the story because that requires that they understand how all the parts of the show fit together. You need pretty complicated cognitive skills and memory skills to be able to do that, which are still developing in young children."