Viewing the Viewers: Ten Video Cases of Children's Television Viewing Behaviors

Article excerpt

Besides articles and reports for the lay public, thousands of research studies describe how television generates mostly negative, but also some positive influences on youth.(1) Some link the recent surge in violence on our streets to watching televised violence (Centerwall, 1992; Palermo, 1995; Rosenberg, O'Carroll, & Powell, 1992; Huesmann, 1982). Others believe that unhealthy eating habits and accelerating rates of obesity result from sedentary television viewing and observing commercials promoting high fat, high calorie foods (DuRant, Baranowski, Johnson, & Thompson, 1994; Goldberg, Gorn, & Gibson, 1978; Gortmaker, Must, Sobol, Peterson, Colditz, & Dietz, 1996; Taras, Sallis, Patterson, Nader, & Nelson, 1989). Television viewing has been associated with teenagers' involvement in risky behaviors (Grube & Wallack, 1994: Klein, Brown, Walsh-Childers, Oliveri, Porter, & Dykers, 1993). Others indict television as the cause of poor academic achievement among youth in the United States (Beentjes & Van der Voort, 1988; Chall et al., 1982; Fetler, 1984; Neuman, 1988). Less often, researchers discuss some of the benefits of watching TV, such as the educational value of well-produced television programs about history, art, and science (Dorr & Rabin, 1995; Lesser, 1974; Liebert & Sprafkin, 1988; Valkenburg, Krcmar, & de Roos, 1998).

The reports describing these television effects often present remarkable statistics. They remind us that practically all (98%) American households have a TV set and over two-thirds have a VCR (Bernard-Bonnin, Gilbert, Rousseau, Masson, & Maheux, 1991; Stanger, 1997). Ninety-four percent of U.S. households have a remote control (Nielsen Media Research, 1997). Another often mentioned statistic is that, on average, children spend more time watching television than in any activity other than sleep (Huston, Wright, Rice, Kerkman, & St. Peters, 1990; Liebert & Sprafkin, 1988; Stanger, 1997; Tangney & Fesbach, 1988). Researchers frequently report that the average child is exposed by television to approximately 12,000 violent acts and around 20,000 commercials in a given year (Goldberg et al., 1978; Huston et al., 1992; Kunkel & Roberts, 1991; Sege & Dietz, 1994).

One study on attitudes about commercials found that children watch from 5 to 69 hours of television per week, with a mean of 34.2 hours (Ferguson, 1975). Another study on parent's perceptions of television reported that children watched an average 14 hours a week, with a range between 1 to 56 hours (Bernard-Bonnin et al., 1991). Elementary school children are said to watch two to three hours of television per day. However, there are considerable differences among children from study to study (Anderson, Field, Collins, Lorch, & Nathan, 1985; Stanger, 1997; Tangney & Fesbach, 1988).

Besides variation in amount, there are great differences in how children spend time in front of the television set. Attention given to television, often called "eyes on screen," varies within the range of viewing experiences (Krugman, Cameron, & White, 1995; Anderson et al., 1985). Research on viewing in naturalistic settings is scant; the few studies that exist estimate that viewers have their eyes on the screen less than two-thirds of the time while watching programming and around one-third of the time while watching commercials (Anderson et al., 1985; Allen, 1965; Krugman, Cameron, & White, 1995).

In many homes, the TV set is on from the time the first family member wakes to the time the last family member goes to bed--and in some households, even after that last person "goes to bed" (especially if he or she has fallen asleep in front of the TV set). Children do their homework, play board games, and eat their meals with television programs and commercials in the background in these constant television homes (Medrich, 1979). In other families, television viewing is a more structured activity. …