I was 7 years old when my family got its first television. I can’t recall the year, but I know that we were one of the last houses in our neighborhood to have a color TV. As parents, my wife and I kept our children on a moderate viewing diet, mostly “Captain Kangaroo” and “Sesame Street” when they were young. Until they were teenagers, they believed that only televisions in motel rooms received cartoons. Now, as parents, they are more restrictive with their children than we were with them. One family doesn’t even own a television.
A few years ago, my wife and I cut back our cable service to “basic” and, other than a few sporting events and a rare show on PBS, our TV sits unused in our living room. Five months out of the year, we have no television at all – when we’re in our cottage by the ocean.
Our trajectory from being enthusiastic viewers to television abstainers seems to be not that unusual among our peers. At dinner parties, I often hear, “There is nothing worth watching on television. It’s all junk and commercials.” Could the same condemnation be voiced about television for young children? Could there be some benefit for preschoolers in watching an “educational” show such as “Sesame Street”? Or is it all garbage, even for the very young?
A recently and much ballyhooed study by two economists suggests that, at least as “Sesame Street” is concerned, television can have a positive effect on young children. You may have read the headline: “Study: Kids can learn as much from ‘Sesame Street’ as from preschool” ( Washington Post, June 7, 2015 ).
The researchers exploited a quirk of the precable landscape when some markets could not tune into some shows, including “Sesame Street,” because they were receiving only a UHF signal. Analyzing the data over several years, the economists found that, in communities where children had the opportunity to watch “Sesame Street,” those children had a “14% drop in the likelihood of being behind in school.” That association appeared to fade by the time the children reached high school. To claim that “Sesame Street” is at least as good as preschool based on these numbers seems to me to be a bit of a stretch. It may be that UHF-watching kids watched more professional wrestling, and this encouraged them to be more disruptive in school.
We must remember that these researchers are economists, and we should take anything they conclude with a grain of salt. But let’s say that there may be something to their conclusion that there is an association between “Sesame Street” viewing and school readiness. Does this mean that we should be developing more shows on the “Sesame Street” model, and that young children should be watching educational television several hours a day? Is there a dose effect? Or does this apparent association simply suggest that we should be improving preschools?
For decades, pediatricians and the American Academy of Pediatrics were focused on content and giving too little attention to the amount of screen time. This has improved slightly in the last few years, but the fact remains that television is a passive and sedentary activity that is threatening the health of our nation. It is robbing millions of Americans of precious hours of restorative sleep. It is giving even more millions an easy and addictive way to avoid doing something else. Instead, the addicts spend hours each day watching other people doing something. I always have suspected that the introduction of color to television is the culprit. Black-and-white TV was interesting to a point, but I don’t recall it being addictive. Most of us will watch for hours anything that is colorful and moves.
“Sesame Street” is and has been a wonderful show, and I suspect it has helped millions of children learn things they may not have been exposed to at home. But in one sense, educational programming could be considered a gateway drug. Once the set goes on, many parents don’t have the fortitude to shut it off. We should think twice before claiming that it is on a par with preschool.
Dr. Wilkoff practiced primary care pediatrics in Brunswick, Maine, for nearly 40 years. He has authored several books on behavioral pediatrics, including “Coping with a Picky Eater.”