The name for a child’s ability to attribute mental states such as beliefs, intents, desires, pretending and knowledge to themselves and others is called “Theory of Mind.” These cognitive abilities typically develop around the age of 3 or 4 yeas old and help children function in different social environments. One of the milestones in theory of mind development is when a child can gain the ability to recognize that others can have beliefs about the world that are incorrect.
Studies have been done about whether excessive television viewing may have an effect on preschooler’s behavior, now a new study from the Ohio State University, looks at too much television and cognitive development. Oftentimes cognitive development and social behavior are linked.
The researchers report that preschool-age children who are exposed to too much TV may have impaired cognitive development, which could be related, at least partially, to disruptive social behaviors.
The Ohio State team tested 107 children and their parents to establish the relationship between the preschoolers' television exposure and the theory of mind. Parents were asked to report how many hours of TV their preschoolers were exposed to each day, including background TV, in which the screen was on but was not necessarily the dominant object of attention, such as having the TV on during a meal.
Researchers gave children tasks that tested whether the children could understand or acknowledge that others have different beliefs and desires, that beliefs can be wrong and that behaviors are a product of beliefs.
The results were interesting. The preschoolers who had TVs in their bedrooms or who were exposed to lots of background TV did poorer on the tests assessing theory of the mind, even after the researchers factored in controls for age and socioeconomic status of the parents. Children whose parents talked with them about TV performed better on the theory of mind tests.
Researchers concluded that TV exposure may impair a child's theory of mind development, which can lead to disruptive social behaviors.
"When children achieve a theory of mind, they have reached a very important milestone in their social and cognitive development," said lead researcher Amy Nathanson. "Children with more developed theories of mind are better able to participate in social relationships. These children can engage in more sensitive, cooperative interactions with other children and are less likely to resort to aggression as a means of achieving goals."
Children mental health experts have long suggested that TVs not be in children’s bedrooms and that a limit be given to the hours that children are allowed to watch TV.
Television programming has changed over the years. Classic family sitcoms and cartoons have been replaced with reality shows and commercials that anything but wholesome. Violence as well as drug and alcohol story lines are much more evident in family primetime viewing. Fantasy TV is more aggressive than the older versions of “Wonderful World of Disney” that many of us grew up with.