April 19, 2000 -- A new study finds that children's TV programs often show characters defying safety rules and getting away with it: running into a street without looking, riding in a car without a seat belt, bicycling without a helmet.
Accidents are the leading cause of death and disability among children in the U.S. And an earlier study found that kids who watch lots of television are far more likely to end up in a hospital with injuries than kids who don't.
Could watching TV characters do dangerous things lead children to behave the same way? It's not yet clear, according to authors of the new study, published in Archives in Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine. But, they say, it's an issue that needs to be explored further.
The researchers analyzed 200 children's programs that aired in Philadelphia over one week. The analysis focused on TV depictions of unsafe behavior, without any consequences, that children could imitate.
They found that 47% of the children's shows contained one or more acts of unsafe behavior, and 33% had more than three such acts. Fifty-seven percent of these depictions aired on cable stations, compared to 23% on public television. And 60% of all such depictions were in cartoons, compared to 33% in action shows.
The study's author says most kids spend more time watching TV than in the classroom. "By the age of 18, the average American child has spent more time watching TV than receiving formal classroom instruction," says Flaura Koplin Winston, MD, PhD, director of TraumaLink at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia and an assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of Pennsylvania.
She tells WebMD that children's understanding of the world is shaped by what they see on television. "Research suggests that kids incorporate television depictions into their perceptions about the world," Winston says. "And a recent study showed that kids who watch four hours of TV per day are four times more likely to be hospitalized for injury than kids who don't watch TV."
Behavior that's learned early is likely to last, she says. She suggests that future studies examine the effectiveness of messages aimed at preventing accidental injuries, especially in light of the findings in this study.
More than half of all accidental deaths among children are caused by motor-vehicle accidents, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Drowning and burns are other leading causes of death. The CDC estimates that for every child who dies from an accidental injury, there are about 20 hospitalizations, 230 emergency room visits, and 450 physician office visits.
For these reasons, the study's authors say, their findings are only a first step. "The benefits of safety education could be outweighed by unsafe television messages," Winston says. "And so the data might have policy implications for children's programming. But more studies are needed to explore the effect of safe television messages during prime time as well."
- Children's television programs often depict characters behaving in an unsafe manner with no negative consequences.
- Because kids spend so much time watching television, and because behaviors learned early in life are likely to last, researchers say that safety education may be overridden by these TV messages.
- Further studies are needed to examine the effects of preventive messages about accidental injury.