The images children absorb also can leave them traumatized and vulnerable. According to research, children ages 2 to 7 are particularly frightened by fantastic, scary-looking things like grotesque monsters. Simply telling children that those images aren't real won't console them because they can't yet distinguish between fantasy and reality.
Another problem with television is that it turns our children into potatoes. According to the American Academy of Paediatrics (AAP), there is a link between excessive TV watching and obesity - a significant health problem today. Children are inactive and tend to snack while watching TV, and they are bombarded with advertising messages that encourage them to eat unhealthy foods, such as potato chips and cookies, that often become preferred snack foods.
There are, of course, several other arguments against television - that it reinforces gender roles as well as racial stereotypes and so forth. A lot of the time, however, the positive effects that television has on children are overlooked. In this essay I shall flipping the proverbial coin and take a look at the constructive effects of television.
During the ages of three to six years, children learn and acquire important social skills and values which will shape the person they become. Television and videos are a part of many children's lives and we know that early childhood television viewing experiences have long term implications for children's development.
To fully understand the impact of video viewing on young children in Australia, Disney commissioned a 'world first' independent study, named Our Children's Media Diet: A Mother's Perspective¸ in 2003 which concerned itself with the television and video viewing habits of children aged between three and six years. The study was led by Dr Helen Skouteris, an expert in Developmental Psychology from LaTrobe University's School of Psychological Science.
The study found that Disney videos encourage children to be 'active viewers', frequently incorporating events and characters into their 'pretend play'. Pretend play is one of the most essential activities during childhood. Through pretend play, children develop language skills, imagination, creativity and the ability to take another's perspective.
Dr Skouteris says that videos such as Winnie the Pooh titles, Pinocchio, Peter Pan and Mary Poppins are very popular with young children and provide them with a fun and magical experience. "Films such as these are easy for children to interpret, are entertaining, and most importantly, encourage behaviours such as pretend play, singing and character role play," says Dr Skouteris.
According to the study, Disney videos promote positive social messages by showing children the importance of honesty, trust, loyalty, fairness and friendship. Dr Skouteris found that when watching Disney films, the majority of children recognise the difference between good and evil and value certain characteristics such as bravery and a sense of humour. Repeated viewing of animated Disney videos (five or more times) was also found to be an extremely common and positive experience. Repeat viewing is associated with greater enjoyment, greater appreciation and understanding of the storyline and children wanting to partake in more frequent pretend play.
Dr Skouteris maintains that parents watching videos with their children and children repeatedly watching the same Disney videos facilitate children's understanding of the storyline. With a greater level of understanding, children are more likely to pretend to be characters, recite lines, and sing songs from the video, all of which make watching a video an active rather than passive experience. In this way, co-viewing (parents and children watching the videos together) has the added benefit of providing close family time where parents can make a point of discussing the various themes presented in the videos and answering any questions children might have.
Of course, we cannot ignore that the Our Children's Media Diet: A Mother's Perspective was commissioned by Disney them, so while the results of the study may be valid, it is obvious that they are in favour of the people who paid for the research. However, research by other organizations has also come up with similar results.
John P. Murray along with colleagues at Kansas State University, the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio and the University of Aberdeen in Scotland, used Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) to map the patterns of children's brain activations while watching TV violence . Their results indicated that children are very actively involved in processing the visual scene and work hard at understanding the meaning of what they see. Very specialized areas of a child's brain (such as the amygdala, which senses danger and signals the body to prepare for fight or flight) are engaged while processing violent vs. nonviolent messages. It is likely that these messages are stored for long-term memory because an area of the brain known as the posterior cingulate, which is related to memory for traumatic events, is also activated. In this way television helps to teach children how to deal with such messages.
The Department of Human Ecology at the University of Texas at Austin conducted another study, led by Dr Aletha C. Huston who concluded that, "Sweeping condemnations of television ignore the obvious fact that television contains an enormous variety of forms and content...The findings of this study provide strong support for the notion that the effects of television viewing depend on program content and genre."
Dr Huston and her colleagues analyzed the television-viewing habits of nearly 200 children aged 2 to 7 over a three-year period. The children, all from low- to moderate-income families, were also given periodic tests of their reading, maths, vocabulary and school-readiness skills.
The researchers focused on low- to moderate-income families for several reasons: these families have been underrepresented in previous research, they tend to watch TV frequently, and many educational programs are targeted at them.
The researchers found that very young children who spent a few hours a week watching educational programmes such as Sesame Street along with other educational programmes that we do not receive in Europe, namely: Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, Reading Rainbow, Captain Kangaroo, Mr. Wizard's World and 3-2-1 Contact had higher academic test scores 3 years later than those who didn't watch educational programmes.
However, because the average child watched just 1 to 3 hours weekly of education programmes, compared to an average of 10 to 16 hours of general-audience programmes, and 5 to 8 hours of cartoons, the researchers couldn't test whether watching many hours of educational TV would also have exerted a negative effect.
These educational programmes are particularly strong for children aged 2 to 3 years old, as Dr Huston explains, "Good educational programmes can provide lasting benefits to children at many ages, but it may be especially important to provide such fare for very young children because they are less likely than older children to be exposed to formal preschool instruction, and because stable habits of viewing may be formed in the first few years of life."
Children find characters like Big Bird and Mr. Rogers to be sincere and helpful sources of information about the world. The characters project warmth, honesty and caring in their interactions with the young viewers on the other side of the screen. Children take these and other characters are important and trusted members from the programmes to create a kind of "extended" family.
This "family" helps to teach positively children important social messages. Sesame Street in South Africa recently made the announcement that they shall be introducing a new character who is HIV positive. This, of course, sparked an interesting debate. Is this character appropriate in the context of a children's television program? Will the discussions of HIV/AIDS be meaningful and understandable to the young viewer? Is this an effective way to raise these issues for young children?
The short answer to all three questions above is, yes. Of course, the details remain to be seen in both the programming and the programme outcomes, but it is very likely that the careful portrayal of an HIV-positive child will have a beneficial effect on children's understanding of HIV/AIDS and the way it affects their friends and families.
Talking about such issues in a programme like Sesame Street is an effective way of reducing children's fear of the disease and the stigma attached to children afflicted with it. This is particularly important South Africa, given the extensive number of HIV-positive children and adults.
While the U.S.A. version of Sesame Street does not deal with the issue of HIV/AIDS, after the September 11th attacks on the twin towers in New York, the writers developed four programmes addressing children's fears. Cleverly, these programmes did not directly focus on 9/11 attacks, but with associated issues, namely fire fighters and fire safety, understanding and relating to others who may be different from you and strategies for coping with loss and grief.
In the last programme dealing with loss and grief, for example, Big Bird adopts Seymour, a wild turtle who wandered into Big Bird's nest. Since the turtle is in fact wild by the end of the episode he runs off never to return. The other characters on Sesame Street help Big Bird deal with his loss by talking about the event and providing emotional support. Big Bird understands the loss and deals with it by preserving warm memories. In this way, children who experienced losing someone close to them, which many did on September the 11th can respond to the way Big Bird is feeling and do the same thing - learn that loss is a fact of life and we must remember the positive times we had with the people who we lose.
Theorist Marshall McLuhan was right to some extent when he famously claimed that "the medium is the message". The movement and pace of television programmes even appeals to very young children. The television set and the way in which programmes on it are presented to us have changed the way we think. The fast pace at which things happen on TV teaches children to absorb and understand images quickly.
TV also teaches us critical ability from a very young age. Although they are more affected by them than adults, children quickly learn the ability to distinguish between a television programme and an advert. Children are also sharply aware of the difference between what they see on TV and reality, and rarely confuse the two. Think back to 1938 when Orson Well's The War of the Worlds radio programme scared about 1 million people into believing that the Martians really had landed and they only had a few more days to live. Nowadays even children would be able to distinguish such a programme as fiction because this is the world they have grown up in. It is not television in isolation which has given children this ability but the amount of media surrounding them in their everyday lives. This is what gives them the ability to tell the difference between TV, radio, reality and even movies they see on the computer. Each is valued in a different way by the child.
So what are the positive effects of television on children?
According the Disney study in Australia, the cartoons that Disney produce feed and inspire the imagination of children as well as promoting positive social messages by showing children the importance of honesty, trust, loyalty, fairness and friendship. The conclusions of the Kansas State University, the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio and the University of Aberdeen are that through the television set children are taught to deal with and control the adrenalin that is sent through their body when dealing with violence. While Dr Huston at the University of Texas along with other similar studies show that educational programmes on the television are in fact educational and a good source for children to obtain information about the world. Educational television programmes not only teach children lessons of formal educational value, but also help them deal with life. Television has also taught our children to be critical thinkers. TV teaches children that there is a bigger world than their street thus becoming culturally aware from a young age, which can only be a good thing.
Wimmer R.D. & Dominick J.R. (1994). An introduction to Mass Media Research. Belmont, California: Wadsworth Pub. Co.
Center For The Advancement Of Health: Television Can Enhance Children's Intellectual Development (2001). Retrieved May 20, 2004. http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2001/09/01092406.htm
Your Children's Neighbourhood: TV programming is more relevant than you think (2002). Retrieved May 20, 2004. www.poppolatics.com
Our Children's Media Diet: 'A Mother's Perspective' (2003). Retrieved May 18, 2004. http://www.femail.com.au/effectoftvonchildren.html