Could the shows your children watch on television improve their behavior?

Whenever a child displays aggressive or anti-social behavior, experts are quick to jump on the bandwagon and blame television for the negative behavior. But never before has a study attempted to show that television might also be responsible for good behavior in children who have learned to share, compromise, or in other ways play nicely with their friends via the shows they have watched on the tube.

In a new study published in the journal Pediatrics, researchers found that by limiting the exposure of preschool children to aggressive television shows and increasing their time with educational programming, the children displayed less aggression and more empathy toward others, compared with a group of children who basically watched whatever they wanted.

For the study, researchers, at Seattle Children’s Research Institute and the University of Washington, divided 565 parents of children ages 3 to 5 into two groups. Both groups tracked what their children watched on television each day in a diary that researchers later assessed for aggressive and prosocial content.  They also documented their children's behavior in a daily journal.  In the control group, parents were given advice about better dietary habits for children, but nothing else.  But the second group of parents were sent information about positive television shows for young children as well as newsletters encouraging parents to watch television with their children and talk to their kids during the shows about the best ways to deal with conflict. Recommended shows included "Sesame Street," "Dora the Explorer" and "Curious George." The second group of parents also received monthly phone calls from the researchers, who helped them set television-watching goals for their preschoolers.

"It's not just about reducing the exposure to on-screen violence, it's about promoting pro-social programming," said Dr. Dimitri A. Christakis, the lead author of the study and a professor of pediatrics at the University of Washington. "We're actually giving them examples of good behavior, of how to cooperate, how to share," Christakis said.

The researchers evaluated the results at six months and again at one year after the study began and found that after six months, the parents in the group receiving advice about television-watching reported that children were less aggressive with others compared with those in the control group. The children who watched less violent shows also scored higher on measures of social competence, and continued to score higher after one year.

It's not surprising, but it is interesting. And it brings up a whole slew of questions about whether or not television could actually be used prescriptively to help children who display anti-social behavior.  

"It's not just about turning off the television, it's about changing the channel," said  Christakis. "What children watch is as important as how much they watch," he added.  

He explains more in this video:

What shows do your children watch?  Do you think the shows that they watch each day could actually be helping to improve their behavior?

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