Talking to kids while they watch TV reduces effects of too much screen time

ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Want something constructive to come out of all that time children spend watching television? A new study suggests making better use of the commercial breaks while kids watch their favorite programs. Researchers from the University of Michigan find starting a conversation with children as they watch TV appears to mitigate some of the developmental drawbacks that come from too much screen time as an adolescent.

Prior studies indicate that kids who watch tons of television lag behind in certain developmental areas, such as curiosity. This latest work reports the more parents talked with their preschoolers during shared TV time, the more likely those kids were to display high levels of curiosity by kindergarten. The team adds this is especially true for socioeconomically disadvantaged children.

“Our findings reinforce the importance of parent conversation to promote early childhood development and curiosity, especially for children from under-resourced families,” says lead study author Prachi Shah, M.D. M.S., a developmental and behavioral pediatrician at Michigan Health’s C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital, in a university release. “We know that more frequent parent-child conversation is promotive of several areas of early child development, and this could be true for promoting a child’s curiosity as well.”

Study authors assessed the TV-watching and conversational habits of 1,500 preschoolers and their parents. From there, they measured subsequent early childhood curiosity in kindergarten.

Why is curiosity so important?

Earlier research by Dr. Shah found that higher curiosity levels as a child show a connection to stronger learning skills and higher academic scores in both math and reading, as well as additional behavioral and developmental benefits.

Curiosity is an important foundation for scientific innovation, joy in learning and numerous positive outcomes in childhood,” Dr. Shah explains. “We want to better understand what fosters curiosity in early childhood, which could potentially identify ways to help mitigate the achievement gap associated with poverty. Parent-child conversation facilitates children’s thinking, learning and exploration – all behavioral indicators of curiosity.”

The team also measured each child’s curiosity using a series of surveys given to their parents inquiring about various aspects of curiosity such as eagerness to learn new things, openness to new experiences, adaptability to new scenarios, and imagination. It’s no secret kids (and adults) have access to far more screens than just the TV, but study authors note that the television still accounts for 72 percent of all adolescent screen time.

“TVs are in 98% of all homes, keeping television exposure a relevant developmental context in young children,” Dr. Shah comments.

The average American child watches one to four hours of TV per day, with economically disadvantaged children usually watching even more.

“Our findings suggest the importance of parents finding opportunities to foster conversational exchanges in daily routines with their young children – including while watching television,” Dr. Shah concludes.

The study is published in the journal PLoS ONE.

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