Does “Age Appropriate” Media Help Kids Learn Self-Regulation Skills? Probably Not

I’ve long been baffled by the concept of “age appropriate” media for children.

My bafflement is due, in part, to my own childhood. According to my parents, “age appropriate cartoons” was a null set (and a contradiction in terms) once I hit age 10. Yet “age appropriate books” was defined as “did she finish it or not?”

Recently, I had cause to seek out an objective definition of “age appropriate” media for tweens. I’d been part of a conversation in which it was asserted that we, as the family, needed to limit a tween’s media consumption to “age appropriate” books, television and/or video games. By putting her on a diet of “age appropriate” media only, her parents and school counselor believed they could (or that media could) teach her how to self-regulate strong emotions like other tweens do.

On a purely anecdotal level, this plan seemed fishy to me. After all, I grew up with no television at all and unfettered access to my parents’ extensive book collection . If exposure to age-appropriate media is necessary and sufficient for the development of self-regulation skills, how did mine develop at all?

Or, to put it in a less navel-gazing fashion: Where is the research indicating that exposure to “age-appropriate” media guides child development?

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One research question eventually became several:

  • What do we mean when we say a piece of media — such as a book, TV show, or video game — is “age appropriate”?

The short version: Not only does restricting a child’s media consumption to what is “appropriate” for their chronological age fail to teach them typical social skills for that age, it may actually have the opposite effect.

What do we mean when we say a piece of media is “age appropriate”?

My first trouble was to find a definition of “age appropriate” that was (a) not circular, (b) sufficiently objective to be useful, and (c)actually used by researchers in the field of child development, pedagogy, and/or counseling (or similar enough that researchers in these fields would be likely to accept said definition).

This turned out to be a tall order.

Most definitions of “age appropriate” are circular — that is, they define the term by referring to the term they attempt to define. The Cambridge Dictionary, for example, gives “suitable for persons of a particular age” as a definition. Something is age appropriate if it’s appropriate to one’s age. Splendid!

Wikipedia tries to avoid this problem with an appeal to authority:

Age appropriateness or child-friendly is the progression of behavioral norms largely agreed upon within a society or among sociological and psychological authorities to be appropriate to a child’s development of social skills.

Which authorities or norms apply in any given case, however, isn’t mentioned.

The Encyclopedia of Autism Spectrum Disorders does slightly better at avoiding circularity:

Age appropriate refers to a developmental concept whereby certain activities may be deemed appropriate or inappropriate to a child’s “stage” or level of development.

Yet this definition still suffers from subjectivity. “We know what’s age appropriate when we see it,” ‘we’ being anyone from the well-meaning adults in a child’s life to a huddle of psychologists.

Media classification systems for movies, television shows, and video games either appeal to what “we know when we see it,” or they abandon appeals to “age appropriateness” entirely in favor of a more granular rating that breaks down what audiences can expect to find in a particular piece of media.

The MPAA Classification and Ratings Administration (CARA), for instance, is a panel of 8 to 13 parents who assign film ratings based on what they believe a “majority of American parents” would consider the right rating for a film. Meanwhile, Common Sense Media offers information about the typical physical, cognitive, and social-emotional development of children at various ages, as well as an estimate of their technological savvy. But the ratings themselves focus on individual features of a piece of media, such as its educational value, portrayal of positive relationships, and violence content.

In other words, even organizations that exist to determine whether media content is “age appropriate” either defer to “common knowledge” or focus on the particulars. As a result, they create rating systems that describe how a child already experiencing a certain stage of development might respond to a certain piece of media, but they do not explain (and, I think, do not intend to explain) how a certain piece of media will affect that child’s development.

The lack of a clear definition of “age appropriate” does have the benefit of making “is this media age appropriate?” an easy question for parents to answer: Age appropriate media is whatever media you think your child should consume at the age they are. If you believe Blue’s Clues is fine for your 16 year old to watch, you’re right; if you believe that by age 9 your child should be enjoying Madame Bovary (as my own mother did), you’re also right.

Does providing “age-appropriate” media affect how children learn social skills?

Wikipedia and the Encyclopedia of Autism Spectrum Disorders agree that “Lack of exposure to age appropriate activities and experiences is commonly thought to prevent a child from gaining the skills necessary for their current and thus their next stage of development.”

But note that is commonly thought to.

In other words, it’s not at all unusual for parents and teachers to assume that if they limit their kid’s media consumption to “age appropriate” media (whatever that means), the child will learn the social-emotional skills that attend that age — and that if the child is allowed to consume media that is “too young” for them, they’ll stay “stuck” with the social-emotional skills that attend the age for which the media was intended.

The research, however, tells a different story.

Without requiring a clear definition of “age appropriate,” it is possible to draw certain conclusions from research on the effects of media consumption on children’s social-emotional learning. A fair amount of this research already exists, particularly in the area of aggression and its connection to violent movies, television shows and video games.

Research on violent media depictions and aggression has been going on for decades. In 1986, L. Rowell Huesmann published an article in the Journal of Social Issues that found that a link between aggression and exposure to violent media in children was likely situational. Children, Huesmann stated, generally develop “a characteristic level of aggressiveness” in childhood, which stays more or less static through adulthood.

Huesmann was careful to note, however, that “this does not mean that situational factors are unimportant. Certain circumstances make aggression more likely for anyone, and at different ages different forms of aggression become more likely.”

In particular, Huesmann notes, children seem to learn aggression from their parents, and depictions of violence in media have not only a long-term effect on children “by providing examples of aggressive scripts” but also a short-term effect on both parents and children “by cueing the retrieval of already-learned aggressive scripts.”

A study by Karin M. Fikkers and fellow researchers in Societies, published in 2013, came to a similar conclusion about the role of parents in shaping children’s ability to self-regulate in the face of aggressive impulses:

In families with higher conflict, higher media violence exposure was related to increased subsequent aggression. These findings underscore the important role of the family in shaping the effects of adolescents’ media use on their social development.

In the case of a tween struggling with self-regulation, violence depicted in TV shows, movies or video games seems more likely to cause an increased struggle with self-regulation than to teach self-regulation — particularly if one or both parents struggle with self-regulation as well.

Does providing “age-appropriate” media affect how children progress through the various developmental stages?

To answer this question, I turned to research on how children watch television and how they learn from it.

An article by Heather L. Kirkorian, Ellen A. Wartella and Daniel R. Anderson explored research on how children watch and understand television as they age.

Studies of eye movement patterns found that children watch the same programs differently as they age. For instance, infants’ focus tends to bounce around more than the focus of older children, and the “bounce rate” doesn’t change when the content does (such as when a commercial appears).

The differences in how children of various ages watch the same program indicate that differently-aged children may be learning different things from the same show, regardless of the age group for whom the show was intended.

Kirkorian et al. also found that children who viewed more prosocial content — such as cartoons that show characters sharing or helping others — had better self-regulatory skills, particularly when it came to regulating aggression.

For parents particularly concerned about their child’s development relative to similarly-aged peers, however, the best answer may be to remove screen time entirely.

First: It appears that children learn social-emotional skills more effectively from real-life experiences than from television, even when those real-life experiences are viewed passively (such as at a live performance).

For example, Kirkorian et al describe a study in which young children saw someone hide an object, first through a plate-glass window and then via closed-captioned television. The children found the hidden object more quickly if they’d watched its concealment through the window than if they’d watched it on the monitor.

Older children appear to learn better from real-life exposure than from screens as well. For example, in a 2014 study in Computers in Human Behavior, the ability of children to read nonverbal emotional cues was tested before and after they spent five days screen-free at a nature camp. The campers performed better at reading nonverbal emotional cues at the end of the five days than a control group who didn’t go screen free during that time.

Finally, a study published in Computers in Human Behavior in 2015 found an inverse relationship between technology use and overall health for tweens and teens, even when factors like diet and exercise were factored out. In other words, the more screen time tweens and teens had, the worse their health was likely to be — regardless of what types of shows they watched.

Some Tentative Conclusions

Little to no research explores the question “If a child consumes media aimed at their particular age group, will they develop social-emotional skills typical to that age group?” Nor does research address the question “If a child consumes media aimed at a younger age group, will it prevent them from developing social-emotional skills beyond those typical to that younger age group?” We think the answers to these questions are obvious; in fact, the answers are neither obvious nor supported by data.

Data does seem to show, however, that exposure to media with pro-social messages improves social-emotional skills in children, regardless of their age or the age of the media’s intended audience.

Similarly, exposure to media with depictions of violence (including fantasy violence) tends to diminish social-emotional skills in children, regardless of their age of the age of the media’s intended audience.

The vast majority of television shows and similar media aimed at preschool-age children tend to offer prosocial messages. Fantasy violence is rare in media deemed “age appropriate” for preschoolers; in fact, the mere presence of fantasy violence in a cartoon may be enough to bump the show’s rating from TV-Y (suitable for all ages) to TV-Y7 (not suitable for children under age 7).

The Y vs. Y7 decision is based not on the assumption that older children should be taught fantasy violence, but rather that older children already possess the developmental capability to handle fantasy violence. In other words, the “age-appropriateness” expressed by the rating seeks not to educate or train children, but to meet them where the majority of the audience already is.

For children who lack the developmental capability to handle fantasy violence (for instance, because they lack the self-regulation skills to handle media that might provoke feelings of aggression), cartoons rated TV-Y7 may not be developmentally appropriate, regardless of the child’s chronological age. Exposing the child to the prosocial messages in TV-Y programming, however, might give that child the tools needed to continue developing self-regulation skills — regardless of the chronological age of the child or the age for which the cartoon is intended.

In any case, the research also indicates that media — in any form — is not a substitute for in-person, real-life modeling and practice of healthy self-regulation from the adults responsible for a child, at any age.

Kids can learn to regulate their emotional states without access to television, and in fact did so for thousands of years prior to the invention of TV. They are less likely to learn these skills, however, if raised by parents who do not exhibit strong self-regulation skills themselves, who outsource their child’s social-emotional education to the TV, or both.

As seen in The Atlantic that one time. Freelance writer, sci-fi author, pageantry arts nerd. Tweets @danialexis. See also http://danialexis.net

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