Kids and TV: tuning into the benefits


Lots of parents blame television for turning their children into glassy-eyed couch potatoes, but a recently released study says TV can be a good thing, too, especially for bright kids.

Parents who turn off the television may actually be depriving high-IQ children of an important source of learning, says a study published by a center for gifted children, based at the University of Connecticut.

"Gifted children . . . enjoy learning tasks that are often unstructured and flexible," the report says. "Television seems to fit the bill and should be considered a viable learning tool rather than as the detractor of attention, literacy and learning skills."

The study, "Some Children Under Some Conditions: TV and the High Potential Kid," criticizes much programming as inappropriate for children but says some television viewing can benefit young viewers.

"The catastrophic impact of television on youth, as depicted in the popular press, is . . . fictitious," says the study released by the National Research Center on the Gifted and Talented.

"For some children, under some conditions, some television is harmful. For other children under the same conditions, or for the same children under other conditions, it may be beneficial," the study says.

"That's the bottom line -- it depends on the child," said the study'sauthor, Robert Abelman, a professor at Cleveland State University in Ohio who has worked as a consultant for the Children's Television Workshop and commercial television networks.

"I think the study is right," said Peggy Charren, a nationally known children's television activist who has pushed for more choice of programs and less commercialism on TV.

"People who blame TV for children not doing well in school are using TV as a scapegoat," she said. "When TV is nifty, it's really very good for kids if they don't watch too much of it." With good programs, she said, "I think TV can be as productive for children as good movies, good games."

The study, which includes a review of decades of research findings on television viewing by children, is based in part on findings used in Mr. Abelman's 1992 book "Television and the Exceptional Child: A Forgotten Audience."

The 72-page study cites research showing that gifted preschool children typically watch two to three more hours of television per week than do other children of the same age. However, gifted children reduce their TV viewing sharply once they reach school age, generally watching less television than do other school-age children, the study reported.

It also said that gifted children:

* Are more likely to be involved in plot and story line and less likely to be confused by TV programs.

* Quickly outgrow educational and instructional programs such as "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood."

* Are less likely to be influenced by television violence, which studies have shown to have more effect on low achievers or naturally aggressive children.

Another prominent television researcher, however, cautioned against generalizing from the study, saying its conclusions seem skewed because it focuses only on high-IQ children.

"It's the average kid and the below-average kid we have to worry about," said professor Jerome Singer of the Yale University Family Television Research and Consultation Center.

"There is no question one can learn useful things from television," said Mr. Singer, who had not seen the Abelman study. "It depends on what the program is and if parents play a mediating role."

Mr. Singer said television's potential harm to children is a serious matter.

"I do think heavy television viewing of commercial TV, particularly, by the average preschooler, can displace the likelihood of reading and learning how to read."

Mr. Abelman's study was based on more than a decade of interviews, experiments and surveys with intellectually gifted children from Hartford, Conn.; Austin, Texas; Washington; and Cleveland.

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