Dimitri Christakis on Media and Children at TEDxRainier (Transcript)

Now if our hypothesis was right that it’s based on the pacing of the programs, then you might imagine that what children watch actually is important. And so content would be key. And I’ll give you two examples of content to illustrate that point.

The first is The Powerpuff Girls Movie, the right mix of sugar and spice for satisfying rush. I don’t know how many of you have seen that but here’s a scene from that.

[Video clip]

Okay. So that was again — you can see a lot of rapid sequencing. In fact, this was the first movie that was ever rated PG for non-stop frenetic animated action. I’m not — I’m not making it up, that’s the back of the box there. I want to contrast that with something that I’m sure you’re all very familiar with, really needs no introduction but this is a clip from Mr. Rogers for you to watch.

[Video clip]

So Fred Rogers invented reality TV, he’s not credited with. Actually it’s not reality, right? It’s even slower pace than reality. But the waitress says ‘I’m awfully busy’ but she doesn’t seem the least bit hurried. So you can see that there are very very real differences in pacing and when we followed up our study with a subsequent experiments to look at what children actually watched; what you see is that educational programs like Mr. Rogers posed no increased risk of attentional problems. Entertainment programs like The Powerpuff Girls Movie increased the chances by about 60%, and violent programs and which I didn’t show you increases it even by more than 100% and violent programs are typically even more rapidly sequencing.

Now in the last year we’ve been building actually a mouse model of television viewing in my lab and you are now watching Now TV — the sounds are from the Cartoon Network and the lights are basically photo rhythmically generated by those sounds. This is what it looks like. These are the TV lounges here that the mice live in and they have speakers above and lights around them and what we do is we start about 10 days of life and these mice watch TV six hours a day for 42 days. It’s basically the entire childhood spent in front of the television which is not uncommon these days for some children even. And then ten days later we actually assess their behavior in a few ways I want to show with you.

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The first test we do measures their activity and risk-taking. Now we do what’s called the open field test. Now mice have two kind of competing instincts, you’ll see them here. One is to avoid being in the middle of anything, because of course mice have very few friends and being in the middle of this open field is risky. But of course, they have a competing interest — instinct to forage for food. So at some point they do need to go into the middle and explore their environment.

Now we put these mice in here and test them and we exploit the fact that it’s a white mouse on a black background and with a computer above we can actually track their movement. And you can see it on the left is sort of a normal mouse spending most of its time around the perimeter. But look at the one on the right, notice how much time it spends in the middle but also notice just how much general activity this mouse is actually exhibiting. So this is both a hyperactive and a risk-taking mouse.

And when we look at our over-stimulated compared to our controlled mice, we find that the over-stimulated mice spend more time in the center and they enter the center more than the regular mice do.

The next test we do is what’s called a novel object recognition and this tests short-term memory and learning. We put a mouse in a box with two objects, and the mouse will explore both of them, get to know them, if you will. And then we take the mouse out and an hour later we replace one object with a novel object. And we see how much time the mouse spends on each object.

Now the mouse that is learning that has good short-term memory will spend more time on the novel object, and you can see that here, as opposed to the one on the right which is spending the same amount of time with both objects.

And what did we find? Well, we found that our controlled mice, our normal mice, spent 75% of their time with a novel object. But look at what our TV viewing our over-stimulated mice did. They spent the exact same amount of time. It was as if they couldn’t distinguish the two objects or they didn’t care but one way or another they were not learning, they were not acting like normal mice.

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And I want to talk a little bit about a study we did with children as a building block study. It was a randomized trial here in a low-income clinic in Seattle. We took 200 children who were 18 to 24 months of age and we gave half of them blocks at the beginning of the study and half of the blocks at the end. And their parents got, we call, blocktivities monthly. These were ways to play with your children with blocks, sort the blocks, stack the blocks, count the blocks, really simple things that come naturally to a lot of parents but what a lot of low-income parents don’t do with their children regularly.

And here’s what happened. The children who got the blocks, 59% of them played with them on a typical day, as opposed to 13% who didn’t get the blocks initially. They played for about 20 minutes a day, about one-and-a-half episodes a day and about 65% of the time was with their parent.

And then six months later, we assessed their language, and see on the right here that the kids who got the blocks late scored in the 42nd percentile which is below average but unfortunately not uncommon in low-income populations in Seattle and for that matter around the world. And the kids who got the blocks, they actually scored 56 percentile, significantly better and slightly above average. So promoting that kind of interactive play actually promoted language development in these young children.

So I want to conclude by impressing on you that early childhood is very important for children — and for mice — and it’s critical to their development. And we need more real-time play today and less fast paced media particularly for young children. It’s vitally important that we have that, because if we change the beginning of the story, we change the whole story.

Thank you very very much.