Television plays a dominant role in our society: studies show that the average family watches about 25 hours per week. Ten years ago, we had a handful of channels to choose from; today we can select more than 50 stations with the promise of many more to come in the near future. The very nature of traditional television is changing — from a static provider of programming to a medium that can be used in many different ways. Children have quickly adapted to the new reality of television, by using it to play video games, manipulate programming with a VCR, and interact with media in increasingly complex ways. At the same time, parenting pressures have increased, community resources have been stretched to the limit and more children are being left to manage on their own before and after school. Television has stepped in to fill this social vacuum by becoming parent, teacher and playmate for our children.
On its own, television is neither good nor bad. Television can provide education, relaxation, entertainment and an awareness of issues. However, it can also can promote passivity, consumerism and violence. Television can distract kids from normal childhood activities like reading, playing, spending time with families, socializing with friends and daydreaming. How television affects us depends on how we use it.
There has been a great deal written about the effects of television on children. Most of this information has focused on the connection between television violence and violent behaviour. In general, the studies show that the more violence children see on television, the more likely they will think it is a normal, acceptable part of life. Watching violent programs also makes children and adults more likely to act in aggressive ways, including shouting, bullying and fighting. Television violence may have a more negative impact on children who have experienced violence, poverty, abuse or neglect in their lives. Violence makes children think the world is a very scary, dangerous place. News programs are especially frightening because children often think that the events being shown are taking place very close to home. Even adults have a difficult time making sense of complex world events; for children, this task is almost impossible and tends to foster a sense of helplessness in the face of overwhelming world disasters such as massacres in Rwanda and Bosnia or the famine in Ethiopia.
Children are not miniature versions of adults; the way they process information depends on their age and stage of development. For example, children between the ages of two and five tend to have trouble following and remembering stories. They cannot distinguish between a television commercial and a program. They are also very imitative. Although parents frequently complain about children acting out violent scenes from television programs, they are actually displaying normal behaviour. Understanding that imitation is a normal part of the learning process can help parents make choices about the programs they will allow their children to watch. As children mature they gain a deeper understanding of television. By the age of eight, they begin to understand that the television world is not real. They know that commercials are designed to persuade viewers to buy something. While we may applaud the insight they have acquired, they have also learned something else: how to be cynical about the world adults create.
Although the public seems to be very concerned about television violence, there are other aspects of the medium that can have a negative impact on children. Although television can open up a range of possibilities for children, it can also narrow their perception of careers along the lines of gender, race and age. In one study (Williams, 1986), a community in British Columbia was studied before and after the introduction of television in the 1970s. As the children began to watch television, researchers found that they began to limit the roles they felt were appropriate for each other. For example, girls expected to become nurses rather than doctors and boys expected to go to work while the girls stayed at home. Keep in mind that this was not an isolated community, only an area that could not receive television signals for a number of years.
On the positive side, television can open the door to a large and exciting world. It has the potential to educate millions of people. Shows such as Mr. Dressup and Mr. Roger’s Neighbourhood promote prosocial behaviour by encouraging children to share, ask questions and resolve conflicts peacefully. Television shows can also help parents talk to their children about difficult subjects, such as drugs, smoking or sexuality. Discussing feelings can seem less risky when they are focused on characters in a favourite TV show.
One of the most interesting findings to emerge from the research is the impact that talking about television has on children. The more children talk and think critically about television, the less it seems to affect them. Understanding how television works can give viewers a sense of control, thereby lessening the impact of violent programs. In a recent study, children who normally watched a lot of violent programs were allowed to make their own videos, show them to classmates and discuss them. Prior to the study, these children exhibited aggressive or violent behaviour in social situations. At the end of the study, there was substantial improvement in their behaviour, even though they continued a steady diet of violent programming. Allowing the children to learn about television, experiment with their own shows and discuss their work critically, mitigated the negative effects of television violence.
Caregivers and parents are responsible for directing children’s attention to programming that is suitable for them. Viewers should express their opinions in writing to broadcasters, the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission, advertisers and politicians. Or, join an organization like The Alliance for Children and Television, a national advocacy group that works to improve television programs for children and helps educate parents, caregivers, broadcasters, regulators and governments about the impact of television on children. The best way to shield children from the negative effects of television and give them a sense of control is to encourage them to think and talk critically about what they are viewing.
Tom Perlmutter is executive director of the Alliance for Children and Television. He is also a television documentary producer. His show Distress Signals examined the impact of American television on cultures around the world and was nominated for a Gemini award in 1992.
Williams, T.M. (1986). The Impact of TV: A Natural Experiment with Three Communities. U.S.: Academic Press.