New research shows that parent-child TV viewing changes kids’ brain-body connection

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New research shows that without saying a single word, the mere presence of a parent while a child watches TV affects kids in a striking way—it changes their body’s physiological response to what’s on TV.

For years researchers have known that children learn better from TV (for good or for ill) when they watch with their parents. Conventional wisdom suggests that parent-child conversations during such “coviewing” activities are the driving force behind altering the media’s effect on children. But, a small body of research suggests that parents don’t need to say anything to influence how their children learn from TV. This actually makes sense if you think about it. If a child sees a parent watching TV with them without saying anything, it’s almost as if the parent is telling the child that they approve of the content. But, to understand how children’s bodies actually respond differently to TV content when they watch with a silent parent, we need to understand a thing or two about the connection between the human body and brain.

Social psychologists in the mid-1900s found that cyclists tend to ride faster when they compete against someone, compared to when they race against the clock. Similarly, researchers found that people can wind up a fishing reel faster when somebody is in the room with them versus when they do it alone. Funny how the human mind and body are connected, isn’t it? Just the awareness that somebody is watching you do something changes how well your body performs at an easy task like riding a bike, winding a fishing reel, or now, watching TV.

The study, which I and fellow researchers at Texas Tech University authored and that was just accepted for publication in the journal Communication Monographs, involved 88 parent-child pairs. The design was simple—some children watched a TV show with their parent in the room (the parent was instructed to be silent), and some children watched the show alone. We measured children’s skin conductance and heart rate while watching. Skin conductance is a measure of physiological arousal (think the body’s level of readiness for an activity), and heart rate is an indicator of how much mental energy is devoted to processing a message. Results showed that children who watched TV with a silent coviewing parent had high levels of skin conductance (greater arousal) and lower heart rate (higher mental resources devoted to processing the show).

In other words, the mere presence of a coviewing parent while watching TV altered children’s mind-body connection. It made children more ready and willing to pay attention and to try to understand the content of the TV show.

You can probably see how this phenomenon can be both good and bad. If a child is watching an educational show with mom or dad, the child may learn more from the show. Similarly, however, if the show is violent or otherwise “negative,” the child may learn more from that show too.

So, what’s the moral of this story? It’s this—parents have an effect on their children, in a quite astounding way, even when they are doing nothing except sitting there watching TV with them. This makes it ever more important that parents are aware of what children are doing right under our noses, because whether we like it or not and whether we know it or not, just being “there” influences our kids.

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