By Alexandra Sifferlin Nov. 22, 2013
Too much time in front of the television can blunt young children’s ability to accept and understand others, says the latest research.
Theory of mind is something that children typically develop during the preschool years — it’s the ability to start teasing apart individual mental states, like beliefs, intents desires, and pretending, and understand that others may not have the same views. Child development experts say that this ability is critical for social development and that without it, it’s difficult for children to understand morality and recognize deception. If it’s not fully developed, for example, a child may think that everyone prefers a cookie over a carrot because that’s his personal preference.
How does television, with its depictions of fantasy worlds and reality, influence such development? To find out, researchers from the Ohio State University School of Communication studied the relationship between preschoolers’ TV viewing and their grasp on mental states.
The team interviewed the parents of 107 children between ages three years to six years old about how many hours a television was left on in the house, regardless of whether anyone was watching it, during three time periods on an average weekday and during an average weekend. The parents were also asked about whether the kids had TVs in their bedroom — 20% did.
The children were then given a variety of tasks that tested theory of mind, such as showing them a photo of a woman they named Mrs. Jones. The researchers told the children it was snack time, and that when given a choice between cookies and carrots, Mrs. Jones preferred whichever option the child did not. The researchers would then ask the child what snack Mrs. Jones would choose, to see if the child understood differing desires.
Even after accounting for differences based on the children’s age and socioeconomic status, the researchers found that kids in homes with more background TV and who had TVs in their bedrooms had lower understanding of differing mental states. According to the study authors, previous studies showed that television did not help kids to develop an appreciation for how people might have different views and beliefs. Books, on the other hand, could nurture such distinctions, since they often include explanations of how a person is feeling. Viewing a television scene, however, may not be as useful for gleaning what a person is thinking or feeling. Kids can learn and understand mental perspectives from a face-to-face conversation, but it’s harder for them to comprehend them when observing a two-dimensional scene.
It wasn’t simply the medium of television that blunted this ability. The preschoolers whose parents who watched TV with their them and talked about what they saw performed better on theory of mind assessments than those whose parents didn’t discuss the content.”Other research has found that parent-child communication in general is related to more advanced theory of mind, so that might be one explanation for our finding,” says lead study author Amy I. Nathanson, an associate professor at Ohio State, in an email response to TIME. “When parents talk with their children, they might discuss people’s thoughts, beliefs, intentions, goals — and they might use the terms “know,” “think,” etc. Exposure to these kinds of conversations helps children understand that other people have unique mental states that drive their behaviors.”
The findings suggest that watching television with young children may help them to understand and become more tolerant of views and beliefs that are different from their own, says Nathanson, and that could have implications for how they interact with friends, peers and colleagues as they get older.