Under the Influence: An Analysis of Children's Television Regulation

By Lazar, Bonnie | Social Work, January 1994 | Go to article overview

Under the Influence: An Analysis of Children's Television Regulation


Lazar, Bonnie, Social Work


Social work's focus on the interaction of individuals and environments is central to its values, skills, and knowledge base. This perspective has led to an in-depth understanding of the ways in which families, schools, and communities can support or hinder children throughout their development. Surprisingly, little social work attention has been given to television, an environmental influence that can surround, dominate, and engulf children for many hours of their day. Unlike other developed countries (Palmer, 1988), the United States has neglected to protect children from the aggrandizing practices of a multibillion-dollar industry. Social work's historic commitment to child and family welfare obligates the profession to consider television's influence and the need for social policy.

Television has become a significant socializing agent whose influence begins well before children enter public school. Most children grow up in homes where the television is on for an average of seven hours a day, creating a virtually closed-circuit environment. The average preschool child (ages two to five) watches about 28 hours a week, and the average school-age child (ages to six to 11) watches about 24 hours per week (Nielsen Media Research, 1990). The average U.S. high school graduate will have spent more time watching television than in any activity other than sleeping (American Academy of Pediatrics Committee on Communications, 1990). Although television can be viewed by everyone, poor and minority children rely more heavily on television as a prime source of information and education (Greenberg, 1986; Huston, Watkins, & Kunkel, 1989). Research on the effects of television on children has been conducted for more than 30 years. Data indicate that children are affected by direct instruction, by the disinhibition of aggressive impulses, and through value shaping (Bandura, 1973; Friedrich-Cofer & Huston, 1986; Huesmann, 1986; Singer & Singer, 1983). Children exposed to heavy doses of television violence can develop antisocial values, which can lead to aggressive acts and tolerance of aggressive behavior (Drabman & Hanratty, 1976; Huesmann & Malamuth, 1986; Pearl, Bouthilet, & Lazar, 1982). Television violence is not the only cause of aggression in children, but it has consistently been found to be one cause (Andison, 1977; Eron & Huesmann, 1987; Huesmann & Malamuth, 1986; Levinger, 1986; Pearl et al., 1982; Singer & Singer, 1988; Williams, 1986). Heavy television viewing can cause increased restlessness as well as aggression, which can lead to academic and social problems (Eron, 1982; Eron & Huesmann, 1987; Huesmann, 1986; Singer & Singer, 1986). There is also evidence that heavy television viewing by children can create a sense of danger and vulnerability in a "mean world" (Gerbner, Gross, Morgan, & Signorelli, 1979). Some children exposed to heavy doses of television viewing may learn aggressive behavior, and other children may learn "to be a victim and identify with victims" (Pearl et al., 1982, p. 90). Interest in the socializing influence of television has not been limited to its correlation with violence and aggression. Numerous studies have found the potential for both negative and positive influences in regard to the acquisition of sex-role and racial attitudes (Greenberg, 1986; Liebert & Sprafkin, 1988; Pearl et al., 1982; Roberts & Maccoby, 1985; Withey & Abeles, 1980). Child development issues have been a source of additional research interest. Singer and Singer (1990) and Carlsson-Paige and Levin (1987, 1990) have identified a relationship between television viewing and displacement of children's imaginative play with imitative play. In a Canadian study, the introduction of television in a previously television-free town adversely affected children's reading and creative thinking (Williams, 1986).

Exploitation of Children and Childhood

How violent is children's television? …

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