TV-MA: Violent Television Puts a Hamper on Bedtime

If your young kids are having trouble sleeping at night, you may want to take a look at what television programs are watched right before bedtime. In a recently released report, researchers from the Seattle Children’s Research Institute found that violent or intense content could significantly affect a child’s sleep pattern, including their ability to fall asleep. The study is set to be published in the September issue of the medical journal Pediatrics.

Even as adults, it is hard to argue against the effects late-night television or movies may have on an otherwise restful night. But as the study’s lead author, Michelle Garrison, set out to find, changing these habits could mean the difference between sweet dreams and nightmares. “Making a relatively simple change in what kids are watching is a change worth the effort,” explained Garrison. And unlike other options, this does not require a trip to the doctor’s office.

For the study to begin, Garrison and her colleagues sought families in the Seattle area who had children between the ages of three and five: eventually, 565 children and their families signed on. This group was then divided into two groups. In one group of 276 children, parents were asked to change their nightly viewing habits, switching regular broadcasts with “healthy media.” Information on healthy eating and nutrition was sent to the other 289 children and their families. All families were asked to keep diaries and take surveys to log programing and sleeping habits. Input was collected on three separate occasions after six month intervals.

After examining results, Garrison concluded that “when kids in this age group watched violent or age-inappropriate media, they were more likely to have nightmares, have a hard time falling asleep and wake up during the night.” Children that abstained from this type of media, and instead watched material considered healthy, were much more likely to have better sleeping habits. For the group of children that stuck to “healthy media,” 64 percent were less likely to have problems sleeping or falling asleep over the group that was only provided with nutritional information.

For Dr. Sangeeta Chakravorty, the director of the Pediatric Sleep Evaluation Center at the Children’s Hospital in Pittsburgh, these results were not surprising. “Clearly, children process information while they sleep,” Chakravorty explained. “If it’s the last thing they do before bed, they’ll be processing that as they sleep.”

Judging what type of programming is “healthy” may be harder than it sounds. Kid-centric shows like Spongebob Squarepants may be more violent for young children than they seem. Children as young as three tend to have a much different interpretations of these shows than slightly older children.

“An 8-year-old can watch superheroes and understand that it’s not what happens in real life,” said Garrison. “But the same content can be overwhelming and scary for a 3-year-old. The idea that people might just explode is scary for a 3-year-old.” So, what do experts suggest? A simple switch of nighttime shows should certainly help.

According to Garrison, shows like Sesame Street, Dora the Explorer, and Curious George “can be beneficial for preschool children to watch, because they emphasize things such as literacy, numbers and social skills.” The best fix, however, would be to get rid of nighttime television altogether, and instead swapping it with an educational activity like reading or playing with toys. These activities allow children to take charge of their own pace and not get riled up by the shows they are watching. In this way, bedtime could be a much better experience: for both children and parents alike. Hopefully.


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