The PA-IMH breakfast seminar on Sept. 11, 2015, featured Dr. Wanjiku Njoroge presenting on the topic “What are young children watching? Exploring the cultural determinants of early childhood viewing practices”. The presentation included Dr. Njoroge’s own research as well as a review of much other work on the subject of young children’s use of television and DVDs.
Dr. Njoroge began with a critical point: yes, television is educational; the question is, what does it teach? From this, she continued to the basic question of her research: how do cultural attitudes influence the television experiences that parents mediate for their young children? What are the beliefs and goals that lead parents of color to permit or encourage more use of television for their young children than is the case for non-Hispanic white parents? Given that television and other screen experiences are not going to go away, how can we shape children’s use of television in a beneficial way while working within the parameters established by parents’ beliefs and wishes?
The American Academy of Pediatrics in 1999 and again in 2011 advised against television viewing for children under the age of two, and minimal viewing for preschool children. But, Dr. Njoroge, asked, how did that advice work in the context of parents’ beliefs and goals for their children? There is no question that there are risks connected with extensive television use in early childhood; these risks include compromised executive functioning, increased aggression and disruptive behavior, and delayed language and reading skills. But are there also benefits that parents are seeking? Yes, there is evidence of early learning and the development of prosocial behaviors as modeled in appropriate television programming. When parents mediate by watching with children and interacting with them about what they see, developmentally-appropriate, educational, prosocially-oriented programs can lead to those benefits. It’s the type of program and the context that makes the difference, not just the amount of viewing time. Guidance to parents needs to stress these issues, not just to prohibit television use for young children.
Many Hispanic parents are reported to see television and other communication technology as beneficial for their preschool children’s reading skills. Lower-income families in general are more likely than high SES parents to turn to television as a way to enrich and supplement their children’s early learning, with a view to helping them prepare for school success.
Research done in Seattle suggests that in fact family income is a more significant factor in determining young children’s television use than race is. Children in the Seattle study watched more educational television when their parents believed there were positive effects of watching. African-American and Asian-American parents were more likely than non-Hispanic whites to think that television can encourage prosocial behavior in preschool children.
Recommending that parents co-view television with their children, and intervening to help parents learn to interact with the children over material viewed, seem to be ways to help reduce the risks and increase the benefits associated with television-watching by young children. These approaches may be more effective than attempting to get all parents to minimize television use, when we know that the parents may believe that television benefits their children. In addition, parents may be helped to identify good television for children by groups such as the Fred Rogers Institute and commonsensemedia.org.