Television takes our kids across the globe before parents give them permission to cross the street.
And those journeys through television can offer exposure to various cultures giving our children greater social awareness. However we also know that access to a vast array of imagery, ideas and stories in our homes can lead to pitfalls as well. Since the average American home has more televisions (2.73) than people (2.55) living in those homes, according to Nielson Media Research, television is an ever-present force in our children’s lives. It can be an invaluable resource when children are sick and need time to rest. It can also provoke interesting conversations and ideas about our world which could include travel in outer space, experimentation with robotics or learning about animal habitats. I reached out to an expert on television to ask the questions that parents might most want addressed.
My guest blogger, David L. Smith is the author of Television that Matters and Visual
Communication. He is an Emeritus Professor of Communications and former Director of the Television Center at Xavier University in Cincinnati, Ohio. He has a forty-plus year career in television as a teacher, writer, producer and cinematographer. He worked on two local children’s shows and has won numerous awards for his work including an Emmy and a Silver Cindy.
I asked David to respond to questions on understanding the role of television and how much is too much, the focus of today’s post. Next week, he’ll return to respond to questions on how we can manage the content viewed.
What is the significance of television in our lives?
Because television is pervasive, it’s best thought of as an environment – like a neighborhood, a global neighborhood. Just as your kids are exposed to other kids, their parents and strangers in your neighborhood, they are also – and more frequently – exposed to the people who populate the electronic neighborhood. Exposure equals influence. What our children are watching is helping them shape their perceptions of themselves, others, the world and life itself. So television content is not trivial, it’s formative. Especially for young minds.
How does it influence us, particularly our children?
Everything presented on the screen is value-laden. As carefully prepared expressions of a writer or producer’s consciousness, television’s content and presentation techniques influence our beliefs, perceptions and values. It influences the perception of self (body-image for instance), what’s “cool,” what it means to be an American, our experience of the world, even what it means to be human. Public television certainly makes a valiant attempt to influence in more positive and constructive ways, but like any tool, a medium’s influence largely depends upon what the receiver does with it – the subject of next week’s blog. Regarding television’s output: What we see on the screen has been passed through the subjective filters of the producers, their upbringing, education, preferences, beliefs. Regarding the input: When the message reaches us, we filter it further as part of our need to validate what we know and believe as part of our quest for growth, meaning and success.
The message to parents is to never loose sight of the fact that commercial television is in the business of capturing and holding attention, delivering the maximum number of “eyeballs to advertisers.” It accomplishes this by providing content and images that have mass appeal, elements that stimulate emotions that may or may not be suitable for children. That’s obvious. But because the influence on a child doesn’t show up immediately or dramatically, and it’s so convenient to pass it off, parents do well to keep in mind that passing it off adds to the accumulation of influences. Moderation in all things – including television!
Personally, television has been a very positive influence in my life. I still yearn for the realization of its higher potentials – to educate, enrich, uplift, inspire and empower. Meanwhile, I try to make a good-faith effort to derive what I call the more nutritional influences from what’s currently available. And you can do the same for your children.
How does a parent determine how much is too much television?
First Do No Harm
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) discourages television
and other media use by children younger than two years and encourages
Significantly limit television for children, birth through four years old and try never to leave the television on when not actively watching it since it can affect brain development. Because television entrains the mind along particular pathways and provides ordered (prepared) experiences, heavy viewing has been shown to retard the myelination process in the early brain, particularly from birth to age four (Pearce, 1992).[ii] Myelination is the process whereby nerve cells in the brain build up a fatty protein sheath that improves conductivity, enhancing the flow of information from one cell to another. If this process is retarded, there’s a loss in the ability to use the imagination and to generate personal fantasies and realities from within (Buzzell, 1998).[iii] Sustained exposure to language and images packaged to capture attention can stifle a child’s ability to imagine and create a rich inner world. Strengthen these connections instead through engaged play, music, art, dancing and reading, especially encouraging children to make up their own stories.
Below is my prioritized “short-list” of some of the more studied negative effects – consequences of “heavy viewing” (more than six hours a day) – related to children.* You can find more on the internet under the heading of “Television Effects.”
- Displaces direct personal experience (play, dinner, reading, sports).
- Makes aggression, violence, self-centeredness, materialism and greed seem normal.
- Induces passivity and inhibits creative activity.
- Generates, validates and maintains stereotypes.
- Encourages cynicism, skepticism and a lack of trust in others.
- Contributes to a negative view of life and living – referred to as the “mean-world syndrome.”
- Can lead to attention problems, school difficulties, sleep and eating disorders and obesity.
- Has a desensitizing effect on empathy. Increased exposure to violence reduces sensitivity to it.
- Invites imitation, notably in the areas of violence, crime, aggressive behavior and suicide.
*A caveat common to most studies on “television effects,” is that the medium alone may not be solely responsible for the effects documented, that the predisposition of subjects and other environmental factors could lessen or enhance the severity of the effect being studied. Cautious researchers often conclude that television was a (if not the) “signiﬁcant” factor in their study.
Set and Consistently Reinforce Rules
For older children, total entertainment screen time should be limited to
less than one to two hours per day of educational, nonviolent programs
which should be supervised by parents or other responsible adults in the home.
– The American Academy of Pediatrics
Additionally, the AAP has identiﬁed a set of potential beneﬁts to limiting children’s television exposure. These include: improved diet, lower risk of overweight, less exposure to violent content and improved sleep quality. Setting times when your children can and cannot watch television eliminates daily arguments. I don’t recommend using television as a reward, that makes it all the more desirable. And try not to vilify television either. That can also make it more desirable in a different way.
Examples of television “House Rules” might include (will vary with age):
• “One hour of viewing on school nights; three hours on weekends. There will be exceptions when something comes on that we all want to see.”
• “No TV until homework is done—and checked.”
• “The bedroom is no place for a television set.”
• “In our house kids never watch television alone.”
• “When friends are over, you can watch a video but not television.”
• “If there’s something special you want to watch (while you’re doing homework or chores, we’ll record it for you.)”
Let your children know the criteria for the rules you and your partner are considering. Have a discussion. Invite their input and listen to their objections. Seriously consider them in making your ﬁnal decisions, and let the children see that their input was taken seriously. Indicate that the rules are likely to change as they grow.
Next week, David will offer tips on how to regulate and manage television content so the programming that children watch can enrich their lives and your conversations as a family.
For further reading, David recommends:
Van Evra, J. P. (1990). Television and child development. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
Better TV Equals Better Kids Check out the terrific graphics in this article that visually show the effects of television on children!
American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. (2002). Children and TV violence. Washington, D.C.: Author. Retrieved on July 12, 2006.
American Academy of Pediatrics Committee on Public Education. (2001). Children, adolescents, and television. Pediatrics. Elk Grove Village, IL: Author.
American Academy of Pediatrics. (2002). Television – How it affects children. Elk Grove Village, IL: Author. Retrieved on July 12, 2006.
[ii] Pearce, J. C. (1992). Evolution’s end: Claiming the potential of our intelligence. San Francisco: Harper-Collins Publishers, 1992.
[iii] Buzzell, K. (1998). The children of cyclops: The inﬂuences of television on the developing human brain. Fair Oaks, CA: The Association of Waldorf Schools of North America.