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How Do Children Use Television?, How Are Children Affected by Television?

Since the middle of the twentieth century, television has grown from a novelty to a fixture in 99 percent of American households. Over time, the character of the medium also changed dramatically. Once offering only three principal broadcast networks, viewers' choices now may extend to more than a hundred channels. By 1999, 78 percent of homes with children and adolescents received at least basic cable, enabling children to grow up with a wide variety of general audience and child-oriented programming.

Television's introduction was accompanied by excitement and optimism, followed almost immediately by criticisms and concerns about its impact on children's development. Critics linked television to every ill effect from hyperactive toddlers to violent youth, prompting consideration of regulations for children's television. Regulations have varied over the years and have come to focus on requirements for educational programming, limitations on commercial time in children's programming, and implementation of a content rating system. Changes in regulations have been fueled not only by political shifts but also by ongoing research on children's use of television and television's influences on children's development.

To understand television's potential impact on development, one must consider how much children watch television, how they direct their attention, and what they comprehend.

How Much Do They Watch?

Children are consumers of a variety of media, including computers, video games, print media, videotapes, music, and television. Although television is the most commonly used medium, viewing time varies with age. From two to seven years of age, children's viewing time is about two hours per day. Increasing through childhood, it peaks at about three and a half hours per day during middle school before dropping off to about two and a half hours per day during adolescence. The family environments of those who view more television tend to share certain characteristics: parents who watch a lot of television, television left on as background noise, and a television in the child's room.

How Do They Watch?

Children often have been characterized as "zombie" viewers who stare mindlessly at television for hours. Instead, naturalistic and laboratory studies of how children watch television indicate that children typically divide television viewing among a variety of activities. At all ages, children primarily monitor television content with short looks and only occasionally engage in extended looks at the television. Just as total viewing time changes across age, the percentage of time children spend actually looking at the television increases through middle school then drops slightly during adolescence.

Another common misconception is that the changing sights and sounds of television passively "capture" young children's attention. Certain formal, noncontent features of television production do sometimes cause children to orient automatically (e.g., a sudden loud noise, a rapid movement). Nevertheless, many features that attract or hold children's attention are informative, signaling content that children are likely to find relevant or entertaining. For example, the presence of children's voices, peculiar voices, sound effects, animation, and puppets cue children to the child-relevance of the content. Children's ongoing comprehension also influences their attention. If children are making sense of a program and judging it to be "for them," they are more likely to keep attending to it than if it seems confusing or adult-oriented.

What Do They Understand?

Many have claimed that until late in elementary school, children make little sense of most programs because they are poor at selecting important events, connecting events, and inferring causes of events. Nonetheless, if plots depend on concrete action sequences, if dialogue and action support one another, and if story events relate to children's experiences, even preschool children can understand relatively complex stories.

To comprehend a televised story, one must understand information that is conveyed by production techniques. For example, a viewer needs to infer that a cut between a shot of a house's exterior and a shot of characters at a kitchen table conveys the exact location of the characters. Young children are capable of making such inferences, if they comprehend simple Displacement theory suggests that time spent with television leads to a decrease in more valuable activities, such as reading and imaginative play. While evidence supporting this proposal is mixed, children who view television most heavily seem to spend less time engaged in activities that encourage cognitive development. (Robert J. Huffman/Field Mark Publications) relations in time and space. Another component of effective comprehension is appreciating that not all story events are equally important to the plot. Some of the most important events are those that can be connected as causes or consequences of other events. Contrary to claims that young children are unselective and insensitive to such connections, events with many connections are remembered best as early as the preschool years.

There are, of course, limits on young children's comprehension of television programs and considerable development in comprehension skills during middle childhood and adolescence. Not until later in elementary school do children become consistent at understanding complex production techniques (e.g., flashbacks) and characters' emotions, intentions, and motivations. Older children and teens also become more skilled at connecting groups of events to an overall theme. With age, children add to their store of world knowledge and so become capable of appreciating a wider variety of situations.

Television may influence children's development in a variety of ways. Two broad areas for consideration are effects on children's cognitive development and academic achievement and effects on children's social development and relationships with others.

Does Television Affect Thinking and Achievement?

Parents and teachers have long voiced concerns regarding television's potential effects on children's thinking and school achievement. A basis for these concerns is displacement theory, which proposes that time spent with television takes time away from more valuable activities, such as reading and imaginative play. Evidence supporting this proposal is mixed. Children who view television most heavily do seem to spend less time engaged in activities that encourage cognitive development and in turn show the lowest achievement. For light to moderate television viewers, program content, family interaction, and opportunities for other activities moderate television's effects on children's achievement and creativity.

Does Television Affect Behavior with Others?

Concern regarding television's effects on children's social development has been most apparent in the longstanding debate over the link between televised violence and children's aggression, but extends to other areas such as development of stereotypes, understanding and expressing emotions, and problems such as substance abuse and eating disorders. Several overlapping theories offer reasons why television may exert effects.

Arousal theory emphasizes physiological responses that can be produced by television programs. Programs causing emotions also produce bodily responses, such as increased heart rate from excitement during a violent or suspenseful show. The excitement of shows that produce physical arousal will attract many children. This theory, however, also predicts that with increased exposure, children need stronger stimulation to reach the same level of arousal and emotional reactions, and so they can become desensitized to violence and other themes that provoke emotions. Perhaps the most compelling evidence for this perspective is that children show reduced responses to real-life aggression after viewing televised violence.

Social cognitive theory, developed by psychologist Albert Bandura, stresses that children learn many social behaviors by observing those modeled by others. Children are more likely to try a behavior if they can identify with the person modeling the behavior and the model is successful at achieving a goal or obtaining a reward. Heavy exposure to television characters who succeed by behaving in aggressive, violent, or stereotypical ways may encourage children to use similar strategies in their own lives. Numerous studies provide evidence that heavy exposure to televised violence is linked to increased aggressive behavior in children and adolescents.

Script theories address ways in which television influences the development of children's knowledge and beliefs about the world. Based on experiences with real and media events, children build representations of what to expect in certain situations or of certain people. In turn, children's expectations may guide their behaviors. Children who observe frequent aggressive solutions to conflict situations are more likely to expect others to behave aggressively. One specific version of script theory, cultivation theory, proposes that heavy viewing leads people to see the world as it is portrayed on television. For example, television programs overrepresent the occurrence of violence and exaggerate the presence and the power of white males. Consistent with cultivation theory, heavy viewers are relatively likely to see the world as mean and threatening and to develop ethnic and gender stereotypes.

Some evidence supports each of these theories. Results from any single study, however, cannot establish a clear causal link from television to a particular behavior. The strongest argument is possible when multiple sources of evidence converge, as is the case for the conclusion that viewing televised violence contributes to aggressive behavior. Even here, heavy viewing of violent television is only one contributor to the development of aggressive behavior, and is most likely to affect children who are prone to aggressive behavior for other reasons (e.g., children from families or cultures in which aggression is an acceptable response to conflict).

Parent activism has spurred the development of broadcasting regulations, which in turn may exert some influence on children's viewing. Direct parental involvement, however, may have the greatest potential to affect the nature of television's impact on children's development. When children are young, it is relatively simple for parents to provide guidance concerning the amount and kind of viewing children do. Such guidance can help establish viewing habits that will continue to exert an influence as children get older and exercise more independent choice. If pre-schoolers learn to be selective about program choices and understand that there are many ways to spend their time, they may be less apt to fall into uncritical heavy viewing later in childhood. As children get older, parents can assist them in viewing critically and can avoid creating an environment that assigns television undue importance (e.g., a television in the child's room). Together, federal regulations and parental vigilance may help television contribute positively to children's development.


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Elizabeth Lorch

Clarese Lemberger

Additional topics

Social Issues ReferenceChild Development Reference - Vol 8