How Television Images Affect Children

by Ron Kaufman
"[A nursery school teacher told me] her children were crudely bopping each other much more than previously, without provocation. When she remonstrated with them, they would protest, "But that's what the Three Stooges do." This attitude did not signify a serious undermining of character. But it certainly showed me that watching violence can lower a child's standards of behavior. Recent psychological experiments have shown that watching brutality stimulates at least slight cruelty in adults, too."

-- Dr. Benjamin Spock, from the book Baby and Child Care, 1968


Fifty-seven percent of television programs contain "psychologically harmful" violence, according to a study funded by the cable television industry. The study, released February 7, 1996, tracked 2,500 hours of television programming. This was the largest sample ever analyzed by researchers.

Oh, that's ridiculous! Television is not harmful, it's just entertainment.

But can the steady flow of images watched nightly from television screens across the country be so easily dismissed as simply entertainment? If the sheer volume of absorbed images is considered, how can what is shown on television have no effect on one's own mental images? And if new mental images are created, shouldn't it be logical to say that they can have an effect on behavior?

But the argument that television has a significant effect on children should not rely on studies alone, but on common sense. When a child is placed in front of the television his focus cannot be diverted and his gaze cannot be broken. That child only has eyes for the video screen. The bright colors, quick movements and sudden flashes capture the child's attention. Only the rare child finds the television completely uninteresting. Even if only cartoons are watched, most children find the images presented on the television set mesmerizing.

Television programs have the power to influence a child's entire daily schedule. "They say they that they go to school "after Huckleberry Hound," eat a TV dinner "during Gilligan's Island," and go to bed "after Charlie's Angels," writes Kate Moody in the book, Growing Up On Television. Unsupervised, a child could watch TV constantly -- endlessly.

A widely quoted figure is that, on average, a child watches between four and five hours of television each weekday, and ten hours on Saturday and Sunday. In a July, 1996 speech, President Bill Clinton noted that, "a typical child watches 25,000 hours of television before his or her 18th birthday. Preschoolers watch 28 hours of television a week." In the life of children, watching television is a significant sensory experience. Many children easily spend more time with the box than they do with any other form of entertainment.

"Each year children read less and less and watch television more and more. In fact, Americans of all ages watch more television each year," writes Moody. "The typical child sits in front of the television about four hours a day -- and for children in lower socioeconomic families the amount of time thus spent is even greater. In either case, the child spends more time with TV than he or she spends talking to parents, playing with peers, attending school, or reading books. TV time usurps family time, play time, and the reading time that could promote language development."

Watching TV is a passive event. Children -- and adults -- remain completely immobile while viewing the box. Most viewing experiences, at least among Americans, are both quiet and non-interactive. All attention is given to the images.

"Just like the operating room light, television creates an environment that assaults and overwhelms the child; he can respond to it only by bringing into play his shutdown mechanism, and thus become more passive," states a pediatrician quoted in the Moody book. "I have observed this in my own children, and I have seen it in other people's children. As they sat in front of a television that was blasting away, watching a film of horrors of varying kinds, the children were completely quiet. . . . They were hooked."

Looking at a television screen does not magically remove a child's energy from within him. A highly active child will remain inactive while watching TV because that is what the medium requires. In order to receive stimulation from the television, the child must be passive, and accept the predetermined flow rate of the images. Both mind and body are passive (called an alpha state) allowing the child to concentrate on the vast, and often fast, array of bright pictures.

"The picture on the TV changes every five or six seconds, either by changing the camera angle or cutting to an entirely new scene," writes Moody. "One researcher refers to these events as jolts per minute, noting that as time is cut up, the brain is conditioned to change at the expense of continuity of thought.

"Adults and children are conditioned to instant gratification and crisis at many levels."

Children absorb millions of images from the TV in just one afternoon's viewing session. And what are they watching? If the child's TV set has cable, his choices can range from between 50 and 70 different channels; all of them showing different programs.

But if the most recent survey is accurate, the odds are that what children are watching is probably violent. With funding from the National Cable Television Association, a group of researchers at the University of California at Santa Barbara reported in February, 1996 that 57 percent of TV programs contained violence.

The researchers warned that "the risks of viewing the most common depiction of televised violence include learning to behave violently, becoming more desensitized to the harmful consequences of violence and becoming more fearful of being attacked."

This is an important point. Viewing large amounts of TV violence does not necessary cause a child to act more violently, but it can contribute to promoting a view that violence is commonplace in everyday life as well as creating a heightened fear of being assaulted on the street.

The UCLA report also concluded that television shows:

Violence on television is not a new phenomena. In 1968, Action for Children's Television (ACT) was formed to try and convince the FCC to limit violence and force the networks to show more educational programs for children. Despite the prodding of ACT, Congress and FCC did nothing to promote children's television. In fact, in 1983, the FCC ruled against providing any provision for children. One response to this ruling was CBS canceling the popular Captain Kangaroo and replacing it with the CBS Morning News.

Finally, 22 years after the creation of ACT, Congress passed the Children's Television Act of 1990 which directed the FCC, in reviewing TV broadcast license renewals, to "consider the extent to which the licensee. . . has served the educational and informational needs of children." Congress also prohibited indecent broadcasts outside of "safe harbor" hours (10 p.m. to 6 a.m.), the hours when it is least likely that unsupervised children will be in the audience.

And with the passing of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, Congress requires television manufacturers to install "V-chips" into new sets. With a ratings system designed by the networks themselves, the chip would block out violent programming. FCC Chairman Reed Hundt said he is prepared to force the networks to adopt a system to rate programs. "Instead of fighting the tide of scientific and lay opinion, broadcasters and cable operators who want to show violent material at times when large numbers of children are in the audience should label their shows for violent content. If they adopt such an approach now, they will avoid losing in the Supreme Court and the court of public opinion," he said in February, 1996 speech.

In July, 1996, the White House, the four major broadcast networks (ABC, NBC, CBS, FOX) and the National Association of Broadcasters agreed to support a new proposal to require broadcasters to air three hours of quality educational programming each week.

With the government finally taking steps to improve children's television, the focus then must turn to parents. Awareness that excessive TV viewing is not benign and can have serious effects on a child's behavior and attitude is important. Obviously, turning off the set is the best solution.

Otherwise, TV programs should be discussed within the family. Does the violence, sexual attitudes, stereotypes, and advertising methods shown on television benefit or hinder the way you want your child raised?

FCC Chairman Newton Minow called television a "vast wasteland." Thirty years later, he spoke of the medium again: "In 1961 I worried that my children would not benefit much from television, but in 1991 I worry that my grandchildren will actually be harmed by it. In 1961 they didn't make PG-13 movies, much less NC-17. Now a six-year-old can watch them on cable."

 

© 1996 by Ron Kaufman @ TurnOffYourTV.com


For further reading:


Please check the bibliography section of this site for full citations of the books mentioned above.