Children and Television

By Zukowski, Angela Ann | The Catholic World, November-December 1993 | Go to article overview

Children and Television

Zukowski, Angela Ann, The Catholic World

Although children may be taught the life skills they need to get along in the world - how to communicate, eat nutritious meals, obey safety rules, handle money, dress properly, get along with others - many parents do not realize that there is a greater influence in their children's lives: the programs they watch on TV. TV also teaches children the above life skills, and if we do not want them to learn such skills and values from TV, we must interact with them to counteract any undesirable effects of television.

The magnitude of television's involvement in our daily lives is pretty impressive. Recent census figures estimate that 96 percent of the households in the United States contain at least one television set; many have two or more. The data available from broadcast rating services indicate that American TV sets are turned on for an average of approximately seven hours each day! The obvious implication of these statistics is that virtually every person in the U.S. has access to TV, and some are watching for a considerable length of time. These facts, coupled with the common observation that our youngest citizens are among the heaviest users, have fostered serious concern about television's potential impact on the attitudes, values, and behavior patterns of this vast audience. This concern has been expressed not only by legislators but also by parents, teachers, and a wide range of mental health professionals involved with the growth and development of children.

Like most innovations, television was, and still is, received with a healthy skepticism by those who regard themselves as guardians of the values of society. It is criticized for the supposed deterioration in cultural standards, for diminished critical thinking, for manipulating political and social attitudes, for encouraging conformity, replacing more worthwhile leisure pursuits, and most vociferously of late for encouraging violence and influencing sexual mores.

There are several levels and types of effects which fall into one of two broad categories: (a) medium or displacement effects and (b) content effects. Displacement effects refer to the reorganization of activities which takes place with the introduction of television; some activities may be cut down and others abandoned entirely to make time for viewing. Content effects relate to the influence of a particular type of broadcast material-usually on attitudes, values, thinking, knowledge and behavior. Of course, the two categories are not mutually exclusive. They do provide a structure which is useful for describing some of television's effects on children.

Some parents believe that were it not for TV, children as well as adults would be engaged in a variety of more worthwhile pursuits, and that the socialization process of children has declined because of television. Socialization is the process by which a new-born child is gradually trained to "fit into" a particular part of society. It entails learning verbal and non-verbal language, and quantities of attitudes, values, opinions, skills and "knowledge." All of this information, which has to be processed by every child, comes from somewhere "outside" and most of it is directed towards the child by the so-called "agencies" of socialization: family, school, peers and mass communication. The relative influence of these agencies varies from society to society, sub-group to sub-group, time to time, and child to child.

Communications media are potential agencies of socialization because they, too, like family, school and peers, direct information towards the child and present him or her with examples of behavior. And it is reasonable to assume that because television has easily-interpreted, naturalistic, verbal and visual images which command so much of the child's attention, it is likely to be the most influential of mass media. It's messages and images will often be inconsistent with those generated by parents. …

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