The Children’s Media Foundation (CMF)

Research Categories – Experiments

Experiments and randomized controlled trials do not take fully into account the day-to-day realities of family life or consider the social and cultural dimensions of use because they are often carried out in controlled conditions. They tend to emphasize the dangers rather than the benefits of digital media.

How would you conduct a study into the effects of watching television? Even if you could find enough families without a tv, for comparative purposes, you couldn’t control for all the other variables, ie all the things that make one study situation and one family different from another. For instance, whether tv is seen primarily as a form of entertainment, or information, or both. These days, this also includes whether it is digital and interactive. How much is playback used and how much tv is watched in real time? What counts as ‘watching’ television? Does that include programmes on laptops and tablets? Size of screen, location. If they are being compared to families without tv, how representative are they? Not having tv is unusual – what else marks them out as different?

Even if we could control variables and get a number of roughly similar families, how would you look at effects over time? The children might also be watching tv at friends’ houses, or at relatives, or at school.

This isn’t the same as trials for new drugs where participants are matched as far as possible. Some get the drug and some don’t. The ones who don’t get the new drug get a placebo – they don’t know if they’ve got the drug or not. And in ‘double blind’ trials, the researchers don’t know which ones have got the drugs either – all the families are pre-coded.

It’s not possible to organize a trial on the effects of television or computers in this way. RCTs are randomized and controlled – there is no equivalent in assessing media use.

The Children’s Media Foundation (CMF)