Tuesday, June 9, 2015

How much does TV affect children? Not much

The idea that television can influence children's behavior for the worse is popular. Conservative Christians, feminists, public health crusaders and culture warriors of every other stripe are very fond of arguing that there is a link between TV and [insert your favorite bad behavior/ disease/disorder here].

Though very influential today, the "Hollywood causes our problems" trope has always struck me as intellectually lazy, especially since there is solid evidence that the association runs the other way. The media we consume is merely a reflection of the ideas and behaviors we already embrace, even the anti-social ones.

Put another way, society's problems have more complex, I would argue biological, causes that science hasn't completely explained yet. So blaming TV for, say, depression in children in light of this information is just pointless.

Nonetheless, the studies investigating this issue are not unanimous. The only way to get a conclusive answer, then, is to survey all the available research to determine if a consensus can be established. This is precisely what two researchers from the University of Sussex did last month. 

The pair conducted a meta-analysis to see what the science says about how scary TV shows impact children's emotions. Writing in Human Communication Research, they conclude:

Scary television has a relatively small impact on children's internalizing emotions ... The overall result contrasts with the dramatic effects found for individual children within studies, suggesting that research is needed to unpick the factors that moderate the effect that scary television has on children. 
There's a couple of points worth making based on this review. First, despite watching ample amounts of TV, the authors report that children in the UK watch a little more than 17 hours per week, and American children watch even more, whatever effect TV has on children's emotions is minimal. So nobody, the FCC for example, is justified in arguing that universally restricting kids exposure to scary programming will improve their emotional health.

That being said, the authors also explain that

Although at the group level the effect of scary TV on children's anxiety is small, it is nevertheless present. This finding has implications for policy-makers because TV guidelines focus on violence but, for some children, scariness will matter and TV can be scary without being violent.
This comment suggests, at least to me, that children differ from one another in a variety of ways, their tolerance for scary programming being just one example. The proper approach to this problem, like so many others we face as a society, is to quit pushing oversimplified, politically-motivated solutions, because they don't work.

If we dig a little deeper, we may figure out which kids are prone to anxiety and depression and actually be able help them lead healthier lives as a result.

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