Exposure to violent media does not definitively lead to violence in real life, so far as existent studies show. President Obama wants to give the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention more funding to further study that link, but what research exists hasn't yet proven causality.
A new study out this week looks the other direction: Does exposure to positive media encourage positive behavior? Or rather: Will Big Bird actually cause children to improve at caring and sharing?
The study suggests such an effect may exist. A group of researchers at the Seattle Children's Research Institute and the University of Washington conducted the study on preschool-aged children from 565 Seattle families. To qualify, families already had to consume at least three hours of television weekly. Mothers comprised 88 percent of respondents, and roughly 8 out of 10 respondents had a college or advanced degree.
In the experiment, the intervention group and the control group continued to watch the same number of hours of television as before. But the intervention group changed the content of what it watched. Over the course of a year, families replaced standard fare with shows that model positive behavior like "Sesame Street" and "Dora the Explorer." In addition, the intervention group received monthly calls with case managers who acted as media advisors. The families also received pamphlets detailing positive television-programming options.
The results showed a small but positive effect in the intervention group, though the authors included some caveats. Chief among them is that even though parents weren't told the purpose of the study, they might've figured it out and biased the results. The study authors note that their results don't show a significant impact of such bias, however.
The other chief caveat is that the study's authors aren't sure whether the positive effects they see stem from increased positive programming or decreased negative programming. But there might be a third option: Perhaps parents in the intervention group, made more aware of the available programming options, and encouraged to watch with their children, engaged their children more often on the content of programming; parents who provide context for their children may hamper the negative effects of violent media.
And, of course, there are policy implications. It might just get that much harder to defund Big Bird if he's playing a demonstrably positive effect on child behavior.
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