Only the study didn't find changing media improved behavior. We'll get to that in a minute.
Christakis and the media also call this a randomized controlled study, a rarity in so many social science circles so let's milk it. It must be terribly valuable then, right?
Is it a true randomized study?
Sure, Christakis randomly assigned families to two groups but it's unclear exactly what he randomized here. Did he randomized whether kids watched more prosocial, educational tv (e.g. Dora the Explorer, Sesame Street) versus adult tv? Not exactly, he randomized the specific intervention the families experienced:
Guess what happened? Kids in the "good tv" intervention according to their parents acted much better over the next year. The parents reported both the tv habits and the eventual behavior, not so great. Let's take a peek into the Bad TV Study.
Researcher: Studies show television turns kids mean, fat and possibly brain damaged. Decades of research have documented the adverse effects of violent television. We cannot stress enough the importance of choosing quality shows for your child. We will help you make good choices. Did I mention you should be monitoring your child's viewing behavior for the sake of his future health and safety?
Parent (head nodding): Uh-huh, uh-huh....
Researcher: So, what has your kid been watching?
The real issue here?
The parents in the good tv group also got a few extra touches. The researchers bestowed more time and attention on these folks from additional media training to encouragement to watch with the kiddies and talk about the shows. They also had monthly chit chats with the good tv group. Don't know about you but if Dr. So and So were checking up on me every month I might be on my best behavior too which means I'd be modeling acts of thoughtfulness and empathy.
So in the end it's unclear if it was the limited bad tv, the intervention or increased parental involvement and education that resulted in the supposed better behavior. The researchers randomized the intervention and not tv. Sorry if this sounds technical but if you care about changing actual behavior then it is important.
I'm not the only one skeptical about the potential of Dora the Explorer to save our social graces.
What's that? A skeptical voice from academia?
Christopher Ferguson , a psychologist from Texas A&M International University in Laredo, said not all studies have shown violent programming leads to aggression and behavioral problems in children, and the new study doesn't shut the door on that question.