Category Archives: Preschoolers

How kids watch TV

One of the goals of this blog was to bring child development research to the hands of parents, child care professionals, and others that are just interested in knowing what is happening with kids and research!    Well today I have some fun and interesting (and really well done) child development research!

In the most recent journal of Child Development there is a fabulous article about how people (infants, preschoolers, and adults) watch TV.  This study is fascinating!

Drs. Heather Kirkorian, Daniel Anderson, and Rachel Keen used eye-tracking software to examine where infants, preschoolers, and adults were looking on a television screen when watching a video. Their finding is pretty interesting- infants, kids, and adults do NOT watch TV in the same ways.  Maybe not surprisingly, parents are much more focused when they watch TV- they follow the cues from the program, like sound effects and various cuts and zooms very well and are able to direct their attention quickly and easily to the part of the screen that really is providing the most essential information.  This is not too surprising.  Adults have been watching TV for their whole lives and like everyone’s parents always say, “practice makes perfect.”  This seems to be true with TV viewing.  It takes time and practice for us to get used to the medium and how the information is presented.

That’s interesting, but generally very few people are concerned about adults’ TV viewing.  The hot topic issue (still!) is exposure to screens in infancy (see the NYT article about the American Academy of Pediatrics recent recommendation).  The questions about whether infants and toddlers can learn anything from a screen and whether they should be watching at all are important and challenging questions (that I’m not going to attempt to answer here).  Instead lets focus on the data!  This study shows that when infants (1-year-olds) watch TV their eye movements are more scattered and less focused than the movements of older children (4-year-olds) or adults.  (Preschool children’s eye movements seem to fall in between infant and adults- they are less focused than adults but more focused than infants!)

The authors also found that when there was a cut from one scene to another, adults and older children adjust and orient their eye gaze almost immediately to the new content whereas infants take a few seconds to get oriented to the new scene.  This is an important concept for parents and media creators to recognize.  If infants take a few extra seconds to just get their eyes in the right place on the screen when a program has cuts to new scenes it likely will take them a few more seconds to process what they are seeing on the screen.  By this time many programs have already changed to another new scene, causing this process to repeat! Therefore programs that have very rapidly changing scenes are likely going to be very difficult for these youngsters to follow both visually and in terms of learning.

Tip for Parents: Next time you are watching TV (either with or without your children) focus on scene changes.  See if you can count or keep track of how frequently the screen cuts or changes to a new scene.  It’s amazing when you stop and focus on this, you realize how complex TV viewing is and how challenging it might be for a very young brain to follow!


Age Differences in Online Processing of Video: An Eye Movement Study (pages 497–507)
Heather L. Kirkorian, Daniel R. Anderson and Rachel Keen
Article first published online: 30 JAN 2012 | DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-8624.2011.01719.x

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