Television in the Lives of Children and Their Families

By Cohen, Stewart | Childhood Education, Winter 1993 | Go to article overview

Television in the Lives of Children and Their Families


Cohen, Stewart, Childhood Education


During the past year, many have voiced concern over the quality of television and the consequences of viewing it. Research data support past warnings of the potential negative effects associated with frequent television watching, especially among younger viewers. Writers have cited disturbing trends in the behavior of adolescents subjected to years of unsupervised media exposure. This article examines the broad and subtle effects of television watching on children and their families.

Television Within the Family

While research on viewing patterns most often reflects individual viewer preferences and television's effects on individual behavior, television does have broad implications for families and how they function within their communities (Wilson & Christopher, 1992). Television, as a primary source of information and influence, has significant effects on behavior.

Television influences work-leisure relations, aesthetic interests and values, consumer behavior patterns, parent-child attitudes and socialization practices. As an accepted, approved and readily accessible source of information, television both creates and reinforces models of social behavior (style of dress, idiomatic language, attitudes toward sexuality and gender, parent behavior) that define not only individual behavior, but also family behavior.

Since its development as a commercial vehicle, families have come to accept television as a valuable member of the family (Liebert & Sprafkin, 1988). In many homes, families frequently arrange their schedules and even their furniture around the television set. "Television viewing is not just an option, but a direct option" (Wilson & Christopher, 1992, p. 29). Television's influence is widespread across the entire family.

Parents may use television as an inexpensive "electronic baby-sitter" for very young children. Children as young as 9-months-old watch approximately 90 minutes of television a day. Television use, in varied form and frequency, continues throughout all phases of the life span. By the time adolescents have graduated from high school, they have spent more time viewing television than performing any other activity except sleeping. And among adults, contrary to common belief, television is the number-one adult leisure activity. Demographic data suggest that, on the average, American adults have 41 work-free hours each week; of these, television viewing consumes more time than any other activity. For almost every day of the week, TV viewing consumes more than four times as much total available leisure time than any other single activity (Spring, 1993).

Television's Effect on Children

The most significant concern about television use is its potential effect on children's development. Any activity that occupies such a large portion of children's time will have some discernible outcome upon behavior. The specific effects of television viewing are complex, however, and often difficult to accurately isolate and measure. Behavioral effects will vary depending upon the viewer's age, program quality, duration and balance of viewing patterns and degree of parental supervision.

In general, television does not teach positive family values, prosocial behavior or cognitive and language skills. Such beneficial lessons do appear on television, but in low proportion to total available programming and viewing frequency. Shows such as "Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood" are, unfortunately, too rare. This show uses a slow-paced, unhurried, repetitive style to portray a secure and orderly model of human interaction. Each participant is listened to and respected and self-worth and other values are carefully nurtured.

Television in the Formation of Children's Attitudes and Values

Available research does not provide unequivocal answers to questions about whether television contributes to crime, delinquency and antisocial behavior. There is, however, considerable evidence that television does influence what children think about and come to believe in (Liebert & Sprafkin, 1988). …

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