TV ‘damages child language skills’ Edinburgh research finds

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New university research has shown that more than three hours of TV viewing a day can have a negative effect on the language skills of 11 year olds.

The study specifically found that watching more than three hours of TV each day has a greater negative effect on children who were already classed as poor performers.

A research team from Queen Margaret University, Edinburgh and Newcastle University used data from thousands of children in the UK’s Millenium Cohort Study.

It found that, while less is generally better than more when it comes to TV viewing, TV has a different effect depending on the children’s language skills at 11 years.

In particular, while it appears to make little difference to children with better language scores, the negative impact of too much TV viewing when younger, is strongly associated with the performance of those who have poorer language skills when they reach the age of 11 years old.

The researchers looked at the impact of parental involvement with children when they were aged three and five-years-old, and then examined how well they were able to communicate their ideas at 11.

They asked parents how often they: read to their children; told stories; visited the library; took then to the park and watched television – for three hours a day or less.

Reading to young children was, on average, associated with better performance, but again, it had much less of an effect for children with the best language scores at 11 years and correspondingly much more of an effect for those who were doing less well.

The study also found that poverty, and the more siblings a child had, were both negatively associated with language development at age 11.

Robert Rush, from Queen Margaret University, explained: “The analysis was a novel approach to investigating the effect of various early factors on later child language performance. The findings of this study confirm that too much TV can have a negative impact on the language development of children. Importantly, this new information about language skills can be used to help parents and agencies modify TV viewing to improve the language performance of those who need it the most.”

Lead researcher James Law, Professor of Speech and Language Sciences at Newcastle University’s School of Education, Communication and Language Sciences, said: “As researchers, we’re really interested in looking at the things which parents can do which can make a positive impact on helping their child develop good language skills.

“The television effect was a very interesting finding and we saw it had a bigger impact for the children with lower language skills, but made little difference to those who had higher levels of language.

“It suggests that the Government and local authorities might want to consider how they get messages about setting limits on television and reading to children across to families who may need support in issues such as delayed language development.

“Television isn’t the enemy. My personal view is that it’s how you watch it that’s important. If you’re actively watching a programme with your child and you’re talking about what’s happening, you’re asking and answering questions, then I think that’s fine and will be a positive experience for both of you. It’s when children are sat in front of it for hours with no input – in effect an electronic babysitter - that I think it becomes problematic.”

The study was conducted using a different way of analysing data which could lead to more targeted approaches in helping children with delayed language development. The researchers found that this method could help target areas which needed particular attention - something which would have been impossible from traditional models that only use average findings for the whole population.

Robert Rush confirmed: “Essentially, this research helps to identify important factors that could be used to improve the performance of children who need the most help, rather than a blanket approach for all children.”

The research was carried out using the Millennium Cohort Study, a cohort of children born in the UK between September 2000 and January 2002. The research looked at the language development of 5,682 children, measuring their language abilities using the British Ability Scales assessment.