Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

TV can improve literacy

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The long-held belief that television is detrimental to child development, emotional health and overall literacy has been a stubborn one in North America. The opinion, largely fuelled by anecdotal evidence, and poorly constructed studies has, however, proven not only unfounded, but the bulk of research has actually demonstrated the opposite.

In our media-rich culture today, with children spending more and more time looking at screens of all sizes, parents are likely to find themselves concerned that so much "entertainment" from such an early age will impact their children's overall development in a negative way.

Parents can take some measure of comfort, however, in a recently published literature review on the topic of television viewing and child development. "Moderate amounts of television viewing were found to be beneficial for reading," states Annie Moses in the Journal of Early Childhood Literacy, further stating that "programs that aim to promote literacy in young children have been found to positively impact specific early literacy skills".

Moses found in a broad review of past studies and publications in the field, that children with a moderate amount of age appropriate exposure to television (even from a very young age) actually have better literacy outcomes, with no detectable difference in emotional stability or overall development.

In spite of our cultural belief that children who watch TV will suffer academically, especially in literacy, a belief almost as old as television itself, the review done by Moses has found little solid evidence in the past 50 years of research to support any negative effects of moderate, age-appropriate television viewing whatsoever.

Moses found the studies that did seem to support a negative impact of television viewing either focused mainly on extremely high levels of viewing, or were considered inconclusive due to other factors that likely contributed to the poor literacy results (low income families, low family literacy rates, etc).

The key, of course, is age-appropriate programs and moderate amounts of viewing -- when young children watch excessive amounts of television (more than three to four hours a day), or adult-oriented or violent programs, the same studies reviewed by Moses showed definite negative effects on learning, aggressiveness, and literacy.

It's clear that, as with most things in the world of parenting, moderation and parental involvement will determine whether this particular activity will prove to be an enriching one, or a negative one. In this age of digital cable, satellite TV, and public television programming ripe with educational programs, parents have a large variety of material to choose from when selecting programs for their children.

Moses goes on to clarify that "in general, studies have shown that the programs that have set out to promote young children's development, such as their literacy skills development, do so. However, programs categorized as entertainment programs and programs targeted for adult audiences... have not been shown to promote literacy skills."

Such educational programs focused on reading development are not difficult to find on television or video, and are increasingly appealing to children as producers recognize their relevance in today's culture.

The success of programs such as Dora the Explorer, Diego, Sesame Park, Between the Lions, Super Why and a large force of other educational cartoons speaks to the growth in a field once dominated by only two or three programs.

In the end, parents do not need to be terribly concerned about their young children watching television, even for moderate amounts of time.

If the scientific and psychological research reviewed in this study has demonstrated anything, it's that television, like all forms of entertainment, is healthy in moderation and with some level of supervision.

Further, if parents are particularly careful about program choices, research shows that they may even improve their young child's future literary development.

Keely Schellenberg lives in Winnipeg Beach with her husband and two sons while she completes her degree in cultural anthropology.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 8, 2010 A11

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