"The Elephant in the Living Room:" Dr. Dimitri Christakis on Children + Television

November 22, 2013

Explo faculty alumnus, Dimitri Christakis, is a pediatrician and the Director for the Center of Child Health, Behavior, and Development at Seattle Children’s Hospital. His research centers on the impact that television viewing has on child development. He is the author of more than 100 original research articles, as well as the 2006 book, "The Elephant in the Living Room: Make Television Work for Your Kids."

Dimitri Christakis believes that when it comes to our children “if we change the beginning of the story, we change the whole story." Himself a parent, Christakis's interest in researching the correlation between television and child development was born of a common parenting experience—spending many hours holding, soothing, and bouncing a fussy infant in front of the television. Since that time, Christakis has spent more than a decade researching television’s impact on children and advising parents on how to use television in healthy ways.

The Christakis research shows that poor programming choices for young children have real and quantifiable consequences for school-age children. For example, his research highlights a link between watching violent cartoons as a preschooler and aggression in a 7- to- 10 year-old child. He further concludes that early television viewing (age 3 and under) can impact a school-age child’s cognitive function and attention span.

Christakis concludes that young children who watch violent or purely entertainment-oriented (not educational) television are at greater risk for problems with attention span and cognitive development. However, he also states, “TV can be as bad as has been feared but also better than ever thought possible.” That is, the right programming—coupled with parent interaction—can have a positive impact.

Substitute quality educational programming for violent programming just as you would substitute carrots for chips in your child's lunch.

Christakis does not intend for parents to feel guilty about the amount of time their child is exposed to television or even the age at which the child started watching television. (Though, he does highlight an alarming fact: the average child in 1970 began watching television at 4 years old. Today, the average age is 4 months old.) Rather, his goal is help parents gain control over the television viewing practices within the home by focusing on “pragmatic” and “actionable strategies.”

He recommends that parents enforce a “media diet” in much the same way they do a nutritional one. His advice: substitute quality educational programming for violent programming just as you would substitute carrots for chips in your child’s lunch.

 

The average child in 1970 began watching television at 4 years old. Today, the average age is 4 months old.

Christakis also has advice for parents of teenagers. He calls the technological chasm that exists between many parents and their teens the “21st Century Divide.” He asserts that many parents are uninformed about social media sites. He encourages parents to stay informed and ahead of the curve.

Christakis came to teach at Explo while he was a college student on a pre-med track. He loved being a part of the Program and was "extraordinarily impressed" with the quality and sophistication of the courses.

My first year I taught evolutionary biology and medical ethics. And to be honest, I don't know who had more fun at the Program, the students or the faculty.

In a few summers on the faculty, Christakis had a transformative experience as a teacher and administrator, and made lifelong friends. He even met his wife Danielle at Explo--she is also a pediatrician in Seattle. He enjoyed the creativity and collaboration of Explo and punctuates his telling of the experience with humor, appreciation, and incredible fondness.

Learn more about Christakis’s research on his website. To see Christakis deliver his compelling research, watch his Ted Talk here.

By Lauren Frazier

Tag: Alumni News

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