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Another inconvenient truth: what kids see on TV affects them

Posted by Dr. Claire McCarthy  August 5, 2012 03:03 PM

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My 6-year-old, Liam, has watched all sorts of things on TV I wish he hadn't.

Liam is the youngest of our children; the others are 21, 19, 15 and 11. All of them like to watch TV. They come by this honestly; my husband loves to channel surf. It's how he relaxes. Whether it's nature or nurture, my kids take after him.

We have rules and limits, of course, and mostly they land on good stuff when they surf (well, not my eldest, who tends to land on things like the Kardashians). But sometimes they land on a violent documentary or Lord or the Rings battle scene or something else their little brother shouldn't watch. And every once in a while, Liam wanders in and watches.

This week, a study came out showing that when parents of preschoolers were encouraged to have their children watch educational shows meant for preschoolers (like Sesame Street or Dora the Explorer), the preschoolers slept better. Watching shows that are violent or not meant for preschoolers, it turns out, has a way of interfering with sleep.

This makes sense (and I don't think the shows put them to sleep, although Dora could do that to me). Children are affected by what they watch, especially young children whose brains and world views are still very much developing. 

That's what worries me, as a parent and a pediatrician. When young kids don't sleep well, we know that it can cause behavior and school problems that may not show up until later. A study by the same researcher last year showed that when kids watch fast-paced cartoons it can mess up their executive function, skills that are crucial for academic and social success (and success in life overall). Being exposed to a lot of violence in the media, in shows or movies or video games, can lead to more aggressive behavior--and kids who are exposed to more sex in the media may be more likely to start having sex early. The decisions we make now about what our kids see can affect the rest of their lives.


We need to pay attention to these studies. More and more, media is part of life. It's not all bad--in fact, there are ways in which it's great. But we need to be thoughtful and careful when it comes to our children and what they see.

There needs to be some plain old-fashioned censorship, at least when kids are really young. There is some stuff that kids just can't handle--anything really violent or frightening or sexual, for example. In our house, that stuff is only supposed to be watched (if at all) in the den where the door can be closed tight, or after the younger kids go to bed. Mostly, that works.

But sometimes it doesn't. And sometimes shows have a way of being unexpectedly violent or sexual (like the Glee episode that our 11-year-old watched while my husband was giving Liam a bath, that turned out to be entirely about sex, leading to some rushed birds-and-bees discussions)--and you never really know how any child will react to anything. That's why we need to talk with our children about what they see (we've done a lot of that with Liam). Even better, we need to watch things with them so we can gauge their reactions, process with them--or just shut it off.

This isn't easy, with busy lives and a media landscape that is rapidly growing and changing. Two great websites that can help are Common Sense Media and the Center on Media and Child Health--they have lots of practical advice for parents.

So far, Liam is a good sleeper--and I guess time will tell whether those not-so-kid-friendly things he watched affected him in a way we'll regret. As with everything in parenthood, all we can ever do is keep trying to do better--and hope for the best.

This blog is not written or edited by or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About MD Mama

Claire McCarthy, M.D., is a pediatrician and Medical Communications Editor at Boston Children's Hospital . An assistant professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School and a senior editor for Harvard More »

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