Getty Images/Peter Macdiarmid In this photo illustration, two young children watch television at home, January 27, 2005 in London, England.

Changing your child’s behaviour may be as simple as flipping the channel of your television set.

As most parents of preschoolers know, it’s common for young children to imitate what they watch — be it violent, loving or something in between.

Now, in what is believed to be the most definitive study of its kind, researchers from the U.S., led by Dr. Dimitri Christakis, director of the Center for Child Health, Behavior and Development at the Seattle Children’s Research Institute, have found that children who watched shows with “prosocial” and/or educational content demonstrated significantly less aggression than children who were permitted to watch a range of shows, including those considered violent.

Christakis acknowledges that the principle of “you become what you watch” isn’t new. But his research, conducted between 2009 and 2012, involving a large number of subjects and a tightly controlled experimental design, offers proof positive.

“A lot of the earlier research was observation on small populations,” he says. “But this is the largest and the most thorough.”

For the study, titled Modifying Media Content for Preschool Children: A Randomized Controlled Trial (to be published online on Feb 18 at Pediatrics) researchers studied 820 families with children aged 3 to 5 who were regular TV watchers.

Half the families participated in an “intervention” in which they replaced aggression-filled programming with “prosocial” shows such as Franklin, Clifford The Big Red Dog and Dragon Tales, productions in which characters help, share and comfort one another.

The other half of the families were the control group and were permitted to watch whatever they pleased, including police shows and intense feature films such as Batman. Christakis said that it may have been the parent watching the show in the child’s presence, but the child was an active observer.

A case manager followed up with families regularly for one year.

Both the intervention and control groups increased their television viewing slightly over the course of the study, with the control group opting for more violent content while the children in the intervention group chose more prosocial programming.

And through observational testing — a checklist of 20 questions including “How often does your child throw objects in anger” and “How often does your child yell and scream in frustration” — it concluded that the children in the intervention group demonstrated significantly less aggression than the control group.

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