“It is easy to overlook a deceptively simple fact: one is always watching television when one is watching television rather than having any other experience” (Winn, 1985, p. 3).
Unlike an adult who turns to television after a mentally taxing day at the office, or the homemaker who flops down needing a break from a busy day of errands, when children turn on the television they are doing so “to do” something, not to “stop doing” something else. “As the adult watches television, his own present and the past relationships, experiences, dreams, and fantasies come into play, transforming the material he sees, whatever its origins or purpose, into something reflecting his own particular inner needs” (Winn, 1985, p. 10). Children have no such vault of vocabulary, experience, social and cultural references, or value codes to draw from in order to interpret what they see. For them, the viewing itself is the “primary activity” (p. 11).
This primary activity has the potential of playing a starring role in the child’s development and, if left unchecked, could take him or her in a direction not intended by the parents, teachers, peers, and the rest of the social team that normally nurtures this growth.
This paper does not advocate the absence of electronic media (like television and video games) from a child’s developmental experience completely. Indeed, television’s educational opportunities can fill the void where social opportunities leave off. “For more than 35 years, Sesame Street has used puppets, animation, stories, parodies, and numerous other formats to entertain and the educate children, both across the United States and around the world” (Fisch, 2005, p. 10). Yet, care must be taken as to the amount we allow ourselves and our child to watch. The content and adult interaction that children get before, during, and after experiencing television activities should be a normal part of the television (or video game) entertainment routine.
The amount of time lost to television by Americans is shocking. “Children spend more time consuming entertainment media than engaging in any activity besides school and sleeping (Anderson, Berkowitz, Donnerstein, Huesmann, Johnson, Linz, Malamuth, Wartella, 2003, p. 100). The data on how much we watch is as varied as the programs our children are watching and is based on interviews and self-admission, so prone to irregularity. Perhaps embarrassed that it has become such an important part of their day, people speak of “their television viewing so ruefully, so apologetically” that getting true figures is difficult (Winn, 1985, p. 25).
Winn (1985) goes on to report that preschoolers spend one-third of their lives in front of the television (p. 4). Aronson (1999) credits television with taking seven hours per day, 30 hours a week, and 1500 hours per year from our children. He claims that “the average high-school graduate has spent much less time in the classroom than in front of the television” (p. 107). “25% of sixth graders watch more than 40 [hours] of television per week… more time than they spend in school. At 10am on any Saturday morning, about 60% of the 6- and 11-year olds in America are watching television… [C]hildren ages 0 to 6 spend more time on entertainment media than on reading, being read to, and playing outside combined” (Anderson, et al., 2003, p. 100). “By the time a typical child finishes elementary school, he or she will have seen approximately 8,000 murders and more than 100,000 other acts of violence on TV” (p. 101). “The average 15-year old has viewed over 13,000 television killings (Aronson, 1999, p. 109).
With this level of violence, the cognitive functioning and development of our children has to be effected. “[R]epeated presentation of the same stimulus usually results in smaller and smaller neurophysiological responses to that stimuli” (Anderson, et al., 2003, p. 96).
“For grown-ups, nonverbal mental activities carry connotations of relaxation from the ardors of normal logical thinking and promise a much-sought-after achievement of peace and serenity.” There is little harm in this compared to children since, as previously discussed, adults have a deep well of experience to counter the violent and maladaptive value-judgment behaviors they see on television, in video games, or movies. “But for young children in their formative, language-learning years, an extended regression into nonverbal mental functioning such as the television experience offers must be seen as a potential setback” (Winn, 1985, p. 55).
The suburban father and his suburban son watching a violent movie set on the streets of New York are watching the same movie but are in fact experiencing a different one. Even if the father feels he is not seeing anything new, it is up to him to recognize that his son may be and talk about what he might be “learning” by watching the film. If he does not, who will?
With all this television watching going on, where are the enriched activities necessary for healthy physical and cognitive development? When a child flips on the television set the manipulation of thoughts and ideas comes to an effective halt. “Not unlike drugs or alcohol, the television experience allows the participants to blot out the real world and enter into a pleasurable passive state (Winn, 1985, p. 24). We can find ourselves “living in a holding pattern, as it were, passing up” enriching activities, chores, reading, or other pastimes that “lead to growth and development or a sense of accomplishment” in favor of TV (p. 25). The blue-glow of the television lights up the faces of our children, but not their minds.
Studies on the brains of animals reared in mundane or enriched conditions show significant brain development for the active ones. “The brains of the enriched animals weighed more, had thicker layers, had more neural connections, and had higher levels of neurochemical activity” (Santrock, 2008, p. 143). There are significantly more mental processes involved in everyday activities other than what television demands.
Unlike reading, for example, where the user is expected to use a complex system of vocabulary and mental imagining creating pictures of the actions and words inside their head, for television this is all done for you. If you do not understand a word in a book, you must infer it from context, or look it up. Hopefully, if you are a child you pause and ask a parent or teacher for help. An uninterrupted stream of television does not allow for this.
This is not to free written media from scrutiny for supplying and enforcing social dogma. Shepard (1990) reports on a study by Deane Gersoni-Stavn found less than half included pictures of women. “Of these books, 80% included a picture of women wearing an apron” (p. 231).
Children are able to develop the scheme that there is an imaginary world and a real world through reading’s necessary by-product of mental picture creation and their subsequent control of it. Television does not require this. However, “in contemporary society, much [of Bandura’s concept of modeling previously covered by books] occurs through the media” (Pervin, Cervone, and Oliver, 2005, p. 441).
Television does not pause for that question, or to take a breath. Television does not stop if you do not understand something in language or context. Television invites you to continue on without full explanation whether or not you understand what is happening.
Perhaps it is the “television-bred children’s reduced opportunities to indulge in this ‘inner picture making’ [that] accounts for the curious inability of so many children today to adjust to nonvisual experiences” (Winn, 1985, p. 59). “A young child watching television enters a realm of materials completely beyond his control – and understanding. Though the images appear on screen may be reflections of familiar people and things, they appear as if by magic” (p. 65). Piaget emphasizes that parents and “teachers need to interpret what a student is saying [and watching, hearing, and experiencing] and respond in a way that is not too far from that student’s level.” He also directs that “children learn best when they are active and seek solutions for themselves” (Santrock, 2008, p. 325). Television is constantly on, constantly moving forward, and will stop to make sure you understand what is happening, or are ready to receive what will happen next. Piaget stressed that “children should not be pushed and pressured into achieving too much too early in their development, before they are ready” (p. 325). Television may not be geared toward the cognitive learning level of its audience. That is, an average 3-year old watching math problems on Zoom does not qualify as watching educational programming anymore than if she were watching cartoons since she cannot recognize and manipulate the integers on the screen, or keep up with the newly introduced vocabulary from the first moment the program starts.
“Observational learning and imitation are often thought of as conscious processes, but that need not be the case” (Anderson, et al., 2003, p. 95). The importance put on modeling and observational learning by Bandura (Boeree, 2006a, p. 4) and the social and cultural influence expanded on by Erikson (Boeree, 2006b, p.3) can also be imitative behaviors. These are or can be “automatic, nonconscious” observations and create “complex scripts, schemes, beliefs, attitudes, and other types of knowledge that guide perception,, interpretation, and understanding” that “occur outside of awareness, even with no immediate imitation of behaviors” (Anderson, 2003, p. 95). This attitude disposition can take hold without the tangible reinforcement as reported by Bandura as normally necessary.
This can take its toll on developmental growth in mental and social areas.
In a study of the brain activity of children (ages 8 to 13) through the use of Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) unit, Dr. John Murray (2008) discovered evidence that viewing violence changes the way we think about it. The children watched violent video clips of the boxing movie “Rocky IV” while being scanned. “The study demonstrated that there were very distinct patterns of brain activation when the children watched violence, contrasting [their] viewing [of] nonviolent scenes from other TV programs” (Murray, 2008, p. 1). As if the children were actually experiencing these events, and just as found in Post Traumatic Stress-Disorder (PTSD) sufferers, the amygdala and the posterior cingulate both were activated by the violent clips. “In addition, there was evidence of activation of the premotor cortex, indicating that the children were attempting to imitate the boxing scenes while viewing the movie (p. 1).
In another study, 5- to 6-year old Finnish children were exposed to violent and non-violent films them evaluated while playing in a room together. “Compared with the children who had views the nonviolent film, those who had just watched the violent film were rated much higher on physical assault (hitting other children, wrestling, etc.), as well as other types of aggression” (Anderson, et al., 2003, p. 85). Another study of 396 7- to 9-year old boys had them view either violent or nonviolent movies “before they played a game of floor hockey in school.” “[T]ripping, kneeing, pulling hair, and other assaults” were primarily associated with the violent film viewers. To measure the effect of visual queues, Anderson (2003) reports that a walkie-talkie was also added in the movie during violent scenes, and again on the hockey floor in the hands of the referee. “[T]he combination of seeing a violent film and seeing the movie-associated cue stimulated significantly more assaultive behavior than any other combination of film and cue (p<.05). The effect size was moderate (r=.25)” (p. 85).
A study at Columbia University Neurological Institute “found that repeated exposure to violent media led to diminished activations in the right hemisphere, frontal cortex along with increased activation of the amygdale while viewing the violent material.” These patterns were also indicative of being more willing “to attack when provoked” and a reduction of control over aggressive behavior (Murray, 2008, p. 2).
Another MRI study Murray (2008) explains took place with young males (18- to 26- years old). The outcome was a suggestion “that the repeated playing of violent video interactions leads to a desensitization to the infliction of pain and suffering as a portrayed in the violent video game (p. 2).
“Developmental theory suggests that younger children, whose scripts, schemas, and beliefs are less crystallized than those of older children, should be more sensitive to this influence (Anderson, 2003, p. 96).
Electronic media is not just creating young, angry, citizens though. Media has both positive and negative “consequences for societies, groups, and individuals” (Shepard, 1990, p. 376). The mass media provides important information regarding events inside and outside our society. Media can warn of natural disasters, military invasion, provide social continuity, entertainment, mobilize a society for elections and change, and hopefully is available to provide meaning to national and world events (p. 376). However, media can also “foster panic while delivering information, increase social conformity, legitimate the status quo and impede social change” (p. 376). That is, by controlling what you see and hear media can control what you think and feel. In a way, left unchecked, media can change who you are, and who you are cognitively developing into.
Advertising, for example, “gives children ideas about the values in their society” (p. 116). Attention paid to certain lifestyles, races, genders, body shapes, and attitudes, carve out, as a sculpture does clay, the mental postures of the audience. Without adult intervention through explanation, correction, and discussion, the warped society we see on TV can become the baseline reference point for our children.
Piaget’s suggestion that society and culture play a major role in development should come to mind. Children acquire skills at a rate and related to how much importance “their culture provides these skills” (Santrock, 2008, p. 324). They must not only see the material success on television in the form of flashy cars, pricey jewelry, and other cultural icons rewards from instant fame, “they must learn the feeling of success, whether it is in school or on the playground, academic or social (Boeree, 2006b, p. 10). To do this, they have to actively participate in something they can succeed or fail in. Television alone does not give this kind of feedback. In fact, just the opposite. Television gives the impression that fame and fortune are easily attainable. The bad guys always lose, investigative work (like CSI) is always fascinating, or all Navy pilots are Tom Cruise in a leather jacket and jeans driving a motorcycle into the sunset.
Some have suggested that even in television commercials we are being told how to act, think, and what to think of others. “In advertising, women smile more than men, and women are often pictured in playful-even childlike-poses. While men in advertisements appear serious about their clothes, their poses, and themselves, women are often pictured as if they consider life to be a series of costume balls” (Shepard, 1990, p. 238).
As Bandura explained, “people can form an internal mental representation of the behavior that have observed, and then can draw upon that mental representation at a later point in time” (Pervin, et al., 2005, p. 440). This can be a problem. Especially if researchers like Elliot Aronson are correct. Aronson (1999) suggests “that television’s representation of reality is grossly inaccurate and misleading.” In prime-time television “males outnumber females by almost 3 to 1, and women are depicted as younger and as less experienced than the men they encounter… Nonwhites and the elderly are underrepresented,” and minorities are underutilized.
67% of the U.S. workforce is blue-collar, yet on television this is only 25% of the characters. “Most prime-time characters are portrayed as professional and managerial workers” (p. 108). Aronson reports that crime is ten times more prevalent on television as in real life. “Over half of television’s characters are involved in a violent confrontation each week; in reality less than 1% of Americans are victims of criminal violence in any given year” (p. 108).
“It has also been shown that the incidence of larceny increases when television is introduced into an area… The most reasonable explanation is that television promotes the consumption of goods through advertisements; it also depicts upper- and middle-class lifestyles as the norm” (p. 110). As electronic media threatens to set the tone for what children think of our societal norms and how to think about Social Economic Status (SES) expectations, so too they learn about racism and gender roles. How accurate can we expect these to be if they are not filtered through the caring interaction of teachers and parents.
Our gender roles are “sets of expectations that prescribe how females or males should think, act, and feel” (Santrock, 2008, p. 282). Children who viewed television in “excess of twenty-five hours per week” were found to “have more traditional gender conceptions than children viewing ten or fewer hours” per week (Shepard, 1990, p. 232). This conception may not be completely the fault of our electronic media habits, but when the bulk of our superheroes are male: Superman, Spiderman, X-men, Batman, and on, it is little wonder why the perception is that the person in trouble is a woman, and the savior is a man.
It is no wonder then why psychoanalyst Bruno Bettelheim insisted that television “retards social skills not just by depriving children of playtime, but also by accustoming them to unrealistically stimulating characters” (Burton, Calonico, and McSeveney, 1979, p. 165).
If it’s that bad, and this obvious, why are so many people still using it?
Winn (1985) suggests the developmental shortfall rests with family relationships and how we as a society define our roles within and around the family. As society moves to support the individual identification of family members as individuals, rather than as members of the nuclear unit, the expectations, and therefore lifestyle to meet those expectations, are forced to change.
“For contemporary parents, love toward each other has increasingly come to mean successful sexual relations, as witnessed by the proliferation of sex manuals and sex therapists. The opportunities for manifesting other forms of love through mutual support, understanding, and nurturing, even to use an unpopular word, serving each other, are less and less available as mothers and fathers seek their independent destinies outside the family (p. 150).
The days of corporal punishment began to wither away after Rousseau’s writing in the eighteenth century and “a new light was cast upon the special needs of children” (p. 154). “Reasoning,” Winn (1985) explains, “with a young child engaged in a particularly delightful infraction, after all, rarely works as effectively, and never as swiftly, as a quick whack” (p. 155). Nonetheless, while enlightened parents hadn’t the stomach for corporal punishment, they also lacked the patience to effectively find other means to cope with the mire of issues childhood brings to the table.
“In the new era parents were obliged to cope with behaviors that seriously interfered with their adults lives, those with normal groping and grabbings, throwings, interruptions, vocalizings, and demandings – behaviors that were once considered ‘bad’ and punished out of existence – in new ways required much more time and effort (p. 155).
So there they were. Exhausted, and in need of some private time; television offers a “convenient source of amusement for their children and a moment of quiet for” the parents (p. 7). It wasn’t long before the quick-fix became a permanent solution. “Television is so wonderfully available as a child amuser and child defuser, capable of rendering a volatile three year-old harmless at the flick of a switch, parents grow to depend on it in the course of their daily lives” (p. 11-12). So then mass media becomes the primary means for our children to be introduced to our culture (Shepard, 1990, p. 115).
But then what about the real-world development of the children’s minds in the arena of socialization, family matters, and communication? The answer is nothing. Nothing becomes of it. “Families frequently use television to avoid confronting their problems, problems that will not go away if they are ignored but will only fester and become less easily resolvable as time goes by (p. 146). The hours that Dad spends watching the football game with his son he is sitting in the front of the TV specifically neglecting to physically teach his son the special manipulation and hand-eye coordination skills he would need to play the game; ironically, he is teaching him the benefits of those skills, just not the skills.
In another cruel twist, without the interaction from his parents, the advertisements coupled with the in-place lifestyles and lawlessness of the pro-athletes are teaching the child the wrong message about body image, instant gratification, and the consequences of illicit (read: immoral, anti-social, illegal) activity. “If parents or others do not counteract these false ideas – if a child’s view of the world is shaped by the mass media without corrective guidance – these ideas become real to the child unless altered by personal experience” (Shepard, 1990, p. 115).
And what of the actual hand-eye coordination of our even younger children? “A mother might take pains to discover, for instance, if her three year-old was capable of learning to cut with a pair of blunted scissors” (Winn, 1985, p. 160). If the child showed a particular skill in this area, she might be provided additional time and direction, some construction paper or magazines, and then eventually this task could be left to her to do alone. The mother’s reward for this time and effort would be a safe and “self-entertaining child once the skill was acquired” (p. 160) and the child would be rewarded, as Erikson in his industry vs. inferiority stage (Boeree, 2006b, p. 7) and Piaget’s Concrete Operational Stage (Santrock, 2008, p. 325) promote with a sense of successful accomplishment. “The skills and accomplishment [give] the child a sense of competence, and thereby counteract those feelings of helplessness and utter dependence that dominate early childhood” (Winn, 1985, p. 160).
But “the client is not constant” (Sarason and Sarason, 1999, p. 104), and neither are our children. Morals, values, and definitions for concepts like beauty, and intelligence change from culture to culture, family to family, and person to person. “Some studies indicate that different children are affected differently by media violence” (Anderson, et al., 2003, p. 96). So it becomes even more important to examine the relationships inside the family unit, the school yard, the media content, and the social setting the child lives in verses the one he or she is programming into during the afternoon TV hours. Universally accepted (seemingly) children’s programs like Sesame Street seem to offer one-size-fits-all solutions, but we know this is impossible given the facts about the differences in individual development.
The President of MediaKidz Research & Consulting, and former Vice President at Sesame Street Workshop, Dr. Shalom Fisch, is a big fan of Sesame Street. He reports “significantly greater growth in an assortment of academic skills, related to shapes, relational terms, and sorting and classification” by Sesame Street viewers (Fisch, 2005, p. 10). While this author agrees that Sesame Street and programs like Between the Lions, Reading Rainbow, and Barney are good for our youth, I advocate that parent interaction is the key ingredient to their success.
Elmo, for example, without the interdiction of proper adult syntax, would teach our Nation’s youth to sound ridiculous. Elmo speaks only in the third person, for example. And his use of plurals, possessives, and other syntax values for American English are completely off. According to Santrock (2008), among others, “maternal language and literary skills [are] positively related to the children’s vocabulary development” (p. 199). If Elmo is your pre-schooler’s parent while you are busy in the kitchen or on the internet, then do not act shocked when your child leaves out words like “the” and “I” when demanding services. “Elmo want milk!” Will quickly become the preferred method of delivery for your child too.
“Talk as if the infant understands what you are saying. Parents can generate self-fulfilling prophecies by addressing their young children as if they understand what is being said. The process may take four to five years, but children will gradually rise to match the language model presented to them” (Santrock, 2008, p. 199). The proactive parent should ask themselves if they want that model to be Samuel Jackson, Elmo, or themselves.
Winn (1985) summarizes a Yale Family Television Research and Consultation Center project where they suggest that “fast-paced shows like Sesame Street leave little time for the response and reflection that are important ingredients of a child’s complete learning experience.” They argue, and Winn expands on the idea that “Sesame Street creates a psychological orientation in children that leads to a shortened attention span, a lack of reflection and an expectation of rapid change in the broader environment” (p. 39-41). Winn warns that parents who allow their children to watch too much Sesame Street “might actually be encouraging overstimulation and frantic behavior.” Television she explains, “does not prepare kids to learn or play well after the TV set is turned off” either (p. 41).
Dr. Fisch sees no harm from television viewing. “Despite critics who claim (without any substantive evidence) that television destroys children’s attention spans or turns them into zombie viewers, research has shown that television is neither inherently good or bad for children” (Fisch, 2005, p. 13). Yet Santrock (2008) reports, “Children can become so deeply immersed in some [media] that they experience an altered state of consciousness in which rational thought is suspended and arousing aggressive scripts are learned” (p. 306). His section on the Effects Of Television On Children’s Aggression And Prosocial Behavior (p. 305-307) sites eleven different studies by more than two dozen psychological researchers and professionals.
Media violence has been a major concern of groups across the country for quite some time. Six medical and public-health professional organizational meetings held a Congressional Public Health Summit on July, 26, 2000. They “issued a Joint Statement on the Impact of Entertainment Violence on Children” citing research that “overwhelmingly to a casual connection between media violence and aggressive behavior in some children” (Anderson, 2003, p. 82). There were six signatory organizations: the American Academy of Pediatrics, American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, American Medical Association, American Psychological Association, American Academy of Family Physicians, and the American Psychiatric Association (p. 82). So it can be said that we understand the nature of the problem.
Television is “like eating cotton candy, [it] promise[s] so much richness… and then it just evaporate[s] into air” (p. 26). Television still occupies an important role in the lives of children, and I would be mistaken if I were to suggest one should remove it from the lives of their children. Yet television is not a babysitter. Television cannot respond to or correct or praise a child for behaviors and attitude adjustments. “Television has brought the modern parent instant relief from the difficulties of child care by transforming a third or more of the preschool child’s waking hours from unpredictable activity to dependable passivity” (Winn, 1985, p. 151).
While true, I argue that this a shame, and TV time should still be Mommy-Son or Father-Daughter time. With intelligent viewing choices, and mature dialogue about new subjects, the television experience can enrich children’s lives and offer more insight than ever before.
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 Author’s italics
 Even the vocabulary our culture uses to describe watching television pollute the true nature of its use. Calling watching television an “activity” alludes to both parties participating. As will discuss later, this is not the case.
 Gersoni-Stevn, Deane. (1974). Sexism, and Youth. New York: CRM/Random House.
 The part of the brain that senses the threat and prepares for “fight or flight.”
 The area that stores traumatic events for long-term memory.
 As a Navy Pilot I can attest to the fact that I am not Tom Cruise. I don’t own a motorcycle.
 Reference: every daily paper and any story about our pro athletes doing whatever they want and getting away with it because they are famous and profitable.