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The impact of media violence on preschool children

Robin Wulffson MD's picture
media violence, preschool children, sleep problems, delayed sleep-onset latency

The recent shootings in Wisconsin and Colorado are two recent examples of the violence we are subjected to on our TV screens.

The violence is disturbing to all who view it—even small children. Although being apprised of daily events is a part of the daily routine of many of us, we need to take precautions to prevent the exposure of small children to violence reported by the media. A new study has reported that exposure to violence impacts the sleep patterns of preschool children. The report was published on August 6 in the journal Pediatrics by researchers affiliated with the Center for Child Health, Behavior, and Development and the University of Washington, both in Seattle Washington.

The authors noted that observational studies have consistently reported an association between media use and child sleep problems; however, it is unclear whether the relationship is causal or if an intervention targeting healthy media use can improve sleep in preschool-aged children. Therefore, the researchers conducted a randomized controlled trial of a healthy media use intervention in families of children aged three to five years. The intervention encouraged families to replace violent or age-inappropriate media content with quality educational and pro-social content, through an initial home visit and follow-up telephone calls over a period of six months. Sleep measures were derived from the Child Sleep Habits Questionnaire and were collected at six, 12, and 18 months after baseline.

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The study group was comprised of 565 children and their families; they were randomly divided into two groups. In one group, the parents of 276 children were encouraged to change their children’s viewing habits over six months by substituting only “healthy media.” After evaluating each family’s situation, the researchers provided channel guides and suggested appropriate shows, such as Dora the Explorer, Sesame Street, and Curious George. In the comparison group, the parents of 289 children were sent healthy eating information instead.

The investigators found that among the 565 children analyzed, the most common sleep problem was delayed sleep-onset latency (38%). Children in the intervention group had significantly lower odds of “any sleep problem” at follow-up in the repeated-measures analysis (average: 0.36), with a trend toward a decrease in intervention effect over time. Although there was no significant effect modification detected by baseline sleep or behavior problems, gender, or low-income status, there was a trend toward an increased effect among those with high levels of violence exposure at baseline.

The authors concluded that the significant effects of a healthy media use intervention on child sleep problems in this study suggest that the previously reported relationship between media use and child sleep problems is indeed causal in nature.

Take home message:
This study stresses the need to avoid exposing children to violence on the media, which is an everyday occurrence. It is also important to avoid discussing violence in their presence.

Reference: Pediatrics