Television and Children ReViewing the Evidence


Chapter 12 in What to Look for in a Classroom . . . and Other Essays
(San Francisco:  Jossey-Bass, 1998)

Television and Children

ReViewing the Evidence

By Alfie Kohn

[originally written in 1990-1991]

When an extraordinary new technology is about to arrive, there is room for rapture or dread but nothing in between.  Television, E.B. White declared shortly before regular national broadcasts began, “is going to be the test of the modern world….We shall discover either a new and unbearable disturbance of the general peace or a saving radiance in the sky.”

If this language seems hyperbolic now, remember that in 1938 there was still something miraculous about the idea that “a person sitting in one room could observe the nonsense taking place in another,” as White put it.  We grow used to miracles, though; this capability is rarely pondered by today’s channel surfer.  But if no one today speaks of TV as a saving radiance, an influential contingent of critics is still very comfortable with phrases like “unbearable disturbance of the general peace” — and worse.

In fact, it is difficult to exaggerate the hysterical tone in which claims are routinely made about the medium — or the grip that these beliefs have on the educated sector of our society.  No one blinked when a woman who stood up to ask a question after a recent panel discussion about television began with the observation that “watching [TV] makes people more dulled and hypnotized instead of thinking for themselves.”  Indeed, many academics share these assumptions.  A few years ago, for example, a sports medicine journal inquired into a possible connection between watching television and gaining weight.  The title of the article, “Is Childhood Obesity Related to TV Addiction?”, implied that while such a relation may be open to question, the premise, that children may be meaningfully described as “addicted” to TV, is not.

An influential group of writers have practically built their careers on sweeping denigrations of television and italicized warnings of its effects on children in particular.  Neil Postman, who teaches communications arts at New York University, asserted not long ago that when students see nothing wrong with contradicting themselves in their term papers, it is television that is to blame.  Elsewhere, he has written that TV “has the power to lead us to childhood’s end,” that it “brings ruin to any intelligent understanding of public affairs,” and that viewing “requires no skills and develops no skills.”  In her best-selling book, The Plug-In Drug, the journalist Marie Winn declared that TV “distorts the sense of time…weakens relationships…[causes] a serious diminution of verbal abilities,” among other things.  More recently, Jane Healy wrote in Endangered Minds that “brains of youngsters who spend lots of time in front of a TV set, for example, may be expected to develop differently from others…” — although she conceded much later in the book that there is virtually no evidence to support this.  Even the influential pediatrician T. Berry Brazelton has warned about the “disintegration of ego mechanisms” and “screaming, thrashing, disorganized hyperactivity which ensues after a period of television watching in most [preschool-age] children.”

What is interesting about such charges — apart from the fact that alarms of comparable volume were sounded in the early days of radio, movies, paperback novels, and other media — is that they go well beyond an indictment of the programs that network executives choose to put on the air.  It is the medium itself that is said to be unhealthy for children and other living things; the prescription that follows from this view is not to watch selectively but, in the words of a bumper sticker now popular in college towns, to kill your television.  Thus, parents who pressure the networks for better quality children’s programming are, in Winn’s view, like people who deal with alcoholism “by striving to replace cheap whiskey with Chivas Regal.”

The distinction between television and what is on television resonates with Peggy Charren, the founder of Action for Children’s Television and no friend to the industry after two decades of lobbying against the Saturday morning “kid-vid” programming ghetto.  “A lot of people think the act of watching television is a problem all by itself,” she says.  “I think that’s just plain dumb.  We tend to blame on television what are really other problems of society because it’s a very easy scapegoat.”

This is not to deny that the content of current U.S. programming continues to justify Newton Minow’s famous phrase of 30 years ago:  TV as we know it is still, for the most part, a “vast wasteland.”  In fact, it is worse than that.  There is reason to think that watching certain kinds of programs may play a role in making some children more aggressive, although research findings to this effect are shot through with qualifications.  A report by a task force of the American Psychological Association, released earlier this year, also indicted the pervasiveness of social stereotypes on popular programs.  Values offensive to many of us are promoted nightly on every channel.  Numerous commentators, meanwhile, have shown how TV news tends to trivialize issues, preferring arresting images to thoughtful ideas.  And, of course, there is reason to be concerned about a child who spends hour after hour in front of the television to the exclusion of other activities.  (This, however, reflects “a problem in the family, not in the television,” remarks Kathy Pezdek, a psychologist at Claremont Graduate School.)

In short, TV may be an easy target, but much of what the critics say is right.  We may be put off by the smugness of chablis-sippers who confide that they don’t even own a set, but it is hard to blame them.  The critical point, however, is that there is no inconsistency in rolling one’s eyes at, and deciding to spare one’s children, many of the programs beamed into our living rooms, on the one hand, and objecting to wild pronouncements about how television sucks in young viewers and sucks out their brains, on the other.  The fact is that many of our common assumptions on the subject, echoing those of self-assured critics and columnists, typically cannot stand up to critical reflection or a careful review of the data.

Peter Miller, who directs the Institute for Modern Communication at Northwestern University, acknowledges that television “probably doesn’t do a hell of a lot of good.”  But he adds that, “for most kids, [researchers are] not getting the kinds of deleterious impacts that are often attributed to television.”  This is precisely the conclusion that emerges from a review of more than a hundred empirical studies:  There is very little about television viewing, per se, that is cause for alarm, according to the available evidence.

Such a finding is as significant as it is surprising.  Even if TV is not generally beneficial, it matters that there is no good research to support the barrage of criticism insisting that the medium is inherently destructive.  Moreover, it turns out that where good research on the topic does exist, its effect is typically to rebut the most frequently heard charges.  That, in turn, forces us to rethink what has come to be common knowledge about children watching television.

*

Collecting evidence on the topic has provided researchers with a unique set of challenges.  Even establishing how many hours children spend in front of the set isn’t as easy as it might seem.  The usual figure is between 22 and 25 hours a week (less time as children get older), but some critics think those figures are inflated because unrepresentative families are surveyed or because networks lure viewers with special programs during the ratings periods.  At least one TV-diary study found only half the expected amount of viewing by children.

Most of the research on television, in fact, has concentrated on children, and the bulk of it has been done since the mid-1970s.  But that research has been handicapped by the fact that there is no natural comparison group to match with TV viewers; nonviewers are a tiny and otherwise peculiar group.  Nor is there any way to get a baseline measure of behavior before viewing begins since children typically come to consciousness with the TV on in the background.  (Sometime between the ages of two and three, a child starts to watch deliberately, developing preferences for particular programs.)

Except for the very few studies that managed to compare children’s behavior before and after television came to their towns, most research consists of looking at heavy and light viewers to see whether they seem different from each other.  The problem here is that such differences, even when they do show up, do not constitute proof that TV was responsible.  One early study, for example, found that children who watched television were less likely to attend Sunday School — just the sort of fact that pundits love to pounce on and publish.  Luckily, though, these researchers had questioned children before TV arrived, and it turned out that less religious families were especially likely to buy television sets and use them.  This difference between viewers and nonviewers “already existed…before television came on the scene.”

The very idea that TV is the cause and the child’s behavior the effect is a common way of approaching the subject.  On reflection, however, it is not easy to defend.  This model, derived from behavioral psychology, sees people as essentially inert and acted on, whereas communications researchers are coming to understand that viewers, even very young ones, are active choosers who shape their environment just as it shapes them.  The question to ask, then, may not be “What does television do to a viewer?” but “To what uses does a viewer put television?”

The traditional model, implicitly employed by TV’s least subtle critics, also ignores the fact that TV will affect any two children differently, depending on age, gender, race, personality, patterns of family interaction, who else is watching, what programs are being watched, and why they are being watched (identification with a particular character? distraction from bickering parents? to learn about the world? to relax? to be able to participate in playground conversations tomorrow?)  Context is all, which is why Wilbur Schramm and his colleagues began what has become one of the most influential academic books on the subject by declaring, “No informed person can say simply that television is bad or that it is good for children.”  Some pages later, they explained that “the relationship is always between a kind of television and a kind of child in a kind of situation.”

With that in mind, let us consider what the research really says about the most frequent and (for parents) most frightening claims about watching TV — respectively, that it is a mindless activity, that it lowers school achievement by making children restless and by taking the place of pleasure reading, that it is addictive, that it engenders passivity, and that it inhibits the natural development of children’s imaginations.

IS WATCHING TV A MINDLESS ACTIVITY?

Critics seem to be on very safe ground indeed when they argue that television is less intellectually challenging than books.  After all, it seems indisputable that reading takes more effort, and it is precisely this ease of viewing that leads so many people, such as Postman, to mourn for a generation raised on images rather than words.

Immediately, though, we must put this argument into context.  When the goal is to teach reading, giving children books obviously makes more sense than giving them a TV set.  But when we are talking about recreation, why do we recoil from the prospect of a free-time activity that is relatively undemanding?  Not very far below the fulminations against television rests the idea that even our play should be like work, that pure entertainment is somehow suspect.

For rhetorical purposes, it is much easier to dismiss television by contrasting very good books with very bad TV programs:  No wonder this generation is in such trouble!  Children spend their time with teenage mutant Ninja turtles instead of with the brothers Karamazov!  But the comparison between the two media is not quite so neat when the choice is between an episode of “Nova” and a Danielle Steel novel, or when a Kurosawa film on cable is weighed against the sports section of the paper.  Even if we are prepared to defend the idea that words are inherently superior to images — a belief rarely subjected to careful analysis — the functional relevance of this idea depends on which words and images we have in mind.

Whether TV is an inherently mindless or effortless medium, whether images “only require that your eyes be open…[because] the viewer is little more than a vessel of reception,” as Jerry Mander put it in Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television, a 1978 book that still commands something of a cult following, is an empirically testable question.  The fact that people may work harder when they read than when they view does not answer that question because so many factors beyond the intrinsic features of the two media must be taken into account.

One factor, again, is what we watch:  Thomas Hardy, even on TV, may take more concentration than the Hardy Boys.  A second factor is how we watch, and specifically how much we anticipate having to think hard.  Gavriel Salomon, professor of education at the University of Arizona at Tucson, likes to talk about the “perceived demand characteristics” of a task.  “The way children treat TV strongly depends on their preconceptions rather than on any necessary limitations imposed by the medium on the processing of its material,” he and a colleague have written.  Someone who expects (or prefers) not to have to reflect while watching television probably won’t.  In fact, Salomon found, when high-ability children, who are especially likely to think of TV as “easy,” are “faced with a somewhat demanding show, [they] learn less from it than their less able peers” do.  Beliefs, in other words, may count for more than the medium itself.

What Salomon calls our “amount of invested mental effort” not only reflects the generalizations we subscribe to (“TV is easy; reading is hard”) but also varies by where we are and what we’ve been told.  Children will probably concentrate harder on a TV show at school than at home — and harder yet if they think they will be tested on what they are watching.  Altering the format of a show also leads children to watch more closely.

In fact, anyone can choose to approach any task, including television viewing, “mindfully,” to use the favorite term of Harvard psychologist Ellen Langer.  “Regardless of whether the material is good or not, one can watch it either mindlessly or mindfully, and parents can give their children either mindset with which to watch,” she says.  Even the most formulaic sitcom can be an intellectual adventure for someone thinking about the social norms reinforced by the show, the characters’ psychological motives, the way the writer has braided together and resolved the different subplots, how many cameras have been used to film it, and so forth.

The fact that TV can be watched mindlessly is not necessarily an indictment of the medium.  “The minimum effort needed for the satisfactory processing of materials” may be low, but this “says nothing about the amount of additional effort one couldexpend” to get more out of it, Salomon points out.  Likewise, the fact that TV iswatched mindlessly by most Americans probably says more about the viewer than the viewed:  “Who the hell wants to expend all that mental effort on ‘Nova’ after an eight-hour day at the office?  People are entitled to mental laziness if they want.”  What they are not entitled to, Salomon implies, is to accuse TV of being mindless just because they have chosen to view it this way.

Some social scientists go on to argue that it is a fallacy to associate critical thought exclusively with the written word.  To understand TV “requires mental elaboration, including perceiving information, drawing inferences, and generating hypotheses about what comes next,” writes Susan B. Neuman, who teaches education at Temple University.  A book tells a child outright that Madeline was sad when her Daddy left; a television show requires the viewer to infer this from her facial expression.  A book tells a child that Madeline opened her front door and walked into the living room; a television program shows Madeline outside a house, then cuts to an interior sequence which the viewer, on the basis of having learned cinematic codes, must figure out is the inside of the same house.

This is not to make the reverse argument — that it is inherently more difficult to watch TV than to read.  Until the skill of reading comes easily to a child, simply following a story at its most basic level undoubtedly is more demanding in text form.  But in light of variations in content and perceived demand, in addition to the potential for mindfully attending to subtleties, the flat (not to say mindless) statement that television is unchallenging simply cannot be defended.

DOES WATCHING TV LOWER SCHOOL ACHIEVEMENT?

It is an article of faith among many educators and parents that watching TV contributes mightily to a decline in cognitive skills and school achievement.  Before reviewing the evidence on this question, though, we might consider the two leading explanations proposed for this effect.  First, watching TV is thought to make children impulsive and restless, to reduce their attention span and capacity for deferring gratification.  Presumably these effects would interfere with their ability to learn.  Second, television is said to displace reading:  An hour in front of the tube is an hour not spent in front of a book.

Researchers still aren’t sure what to conclude about the first topic; the few available studies have yielded mixed results.  Jerome and Dorothy Singer, co-founders of the Family Television Research and Consultation Center at Yale University, found a modest negative correlation between how long children were able to sit quietly on demand and how much TV their parents said they watched.  In another of their studies, though, there was no relation between restlessness and viewing.  Of course, even such correlations, where they do appear, don’t establish that TV is the cause of this restlessness; some unknown third factor may lead children to watch more television and be unable to hold still.

At the University of Massachusetts, meanwhile, Daniel Anderson and his students found no connection between how much TV children were said to watch at home and how long they persevered at solving a puzzle, how impulsive they seemed, or how much they jumped around during free play in a laboratory setting.  But other experiments hint that such a relationship may exist, at least on some measures and for some children.  No one knows whether these effects, even if they are meaningful, are due to television per se, to violent television, fast-paced television, or only to “excessive” amounts of television.  Nor is it clear how long the effects might last.  The question of television’s contribution to impulsivity and perseverance, then, remains unresolved.

As for whether TV takes time away from other activities, the answer is obviously Yes:  Those hours have to come from somewhere.  But the more meaningful question, as Gary Gaddy, a communications researcher at the University of Wisconsin, puts it, is “whether or not the displaced activities were more educationally beneficial than the activity (TV) which displaced them.”  In fact, we want to know specifically whether children would read appreciably more if they watched less television.  Surprisingly, the answer to both questions is: Almost certainly not.

Several major studies have looked very carefully at the displacement hypothesis and, while the results are not identical from one to another, the consensus is that reading and watching TV serve very different needs.  They are not, in the lingo of researchers, “functionally equivalent” activities; therefore, doing less of one will not necessarily lead to doing more of the other.  Moreover, the majority of American children were not serious readers before TV was invented and they would not become serious readers if TV disappeared tomorrow.

Three major research projects have tracked children in areas that received television for the first time.  In the first, Hilde T. Himmelweit and her colleagues in England compared nearly two thousand children in areas with and without TV in the mid-1950s –including a city that started to receive broadcasts midway through the study, allowing the researchers to watch for changes in the children’s behavior.  They found that book reading fell off when TV arrived but that after three years or so the average number of books read by each child rebounded to original levels or, for some children, even slightly higher.  Only comic book reading was permanently displaced; the effect on other books was due mostly to the novelty of television and therefore was temporary.

The second study, by Tannis MacBeth Williams and her colleagues, looked at a small Canadian town (referred to as “Notel”) that, for geographical reasons, got television for the first time in the mid-1970s.  Williams examined children’s behavior before and after TV and also compared these subjects to those who lived in towns that received one channel (“Unitel”) and four channels (“Multitel”), respectively.  Overall, book reading and TV viewing were not statistically related.  Library use was about the same in all three towns, and Multitel children actually did more reading than Unitel children.  Multitel adults, however, reported reading fewer books than their counterparts in the other towns.

The third study was conducted in South Africa, which had no TV until 1976.  More than 2,000 children were followed from 1974 until 1980.  Movie attendance and radio use were displaced by TV; time spent on homework declined at first but then returned to what it had been before television arrived — a confirmation of the novelty effect.  (Of course, children sometimes do homework and watch TV at the same time.  This raises questions about the very premise of the displacement model, which is that these activities are mutually exclusive.)  Pleasure reading dropped by about three minutes a day on average from pre-TV levels.

So what does TV displace?  Some investigators, including Williams, mention social activities, but Neuman’s reading of the research is that “given a choice between viewing and playing with others, the majority of children still continued to prefer social interaction.”  Watching television more likely takes the place of entertainment activities like going to the movies (a process accelerated by the proliferation of VCRs) and time spent sitting around not doing much of anything.

“We want to hear that if it wasn’t for TV, children would be going off to the library,” says Neuman.  But the most important influence on time spent with books is not time spent with TV but the time parents spend with books.  “Targeting television as the source of children’s lack of interest in leisure reading is simply too easy an answer to a much more complex issue.”

*

Whether TV affects children’s perseverance and personal reading habits are interesting questions in their own right, but for many people they are important principally with respect to the bottom-line issue — children’s thinking and reading skills.  The first problem with the argument that test scores are dropping because kids watch too much TV is that test scores are not dropping.  National reading scores have been rising since the late 1970s and were higher in 1984 than they were in the early ’70s.  Needless to say, this cannot be explained by a decline in TV viewing.

These aggregate scores can tell us only so much, though, so it is worth looking at other measures.  In 1986, when Gaddy of the University of Wisconsin sat down to analyze the standardized test scores of thousands of high schoolers, he expected to find that television viewing led to lower achievement.  Once he controlled for other factors, though, he couldn’t find any relationship.  In fact, “the effects of achievement on the selection of television …are generally…larger than the effects from TV to achievement,” he reported.  It’s not that staying away from television improves school performance, in other words, so much as that students who score high for other reasons choose to watch less TV.

A group of researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health published an extension of Gaddy’s research in late 1990, looking at data from the ’60s in which the amount of television watched by a large, nationally representative sample of children (ages 6 to 11) was compared to their standardized test scores.  Then their TV habits were matched to their scores four years later.  When other factors were taken into account, there was, once again, “no significant causal relationship.”

If you look hard enough, you can find studies that show the expected negative effect on reading — effects on achievement in other subject areas having rarely been measured, for some reason — as well as a few that turn up a positive association between viewing and school performance.  But most of the good research finds little or nothing.

Thus a 1980 study of New Jersey middle-school students:  “The primary finding is that IQ accounts for most observed relationships between viewing and achievement.”  A three-year study of California children:  “The more sophisticated our analysis, the less conclusive the evidence” that TV lowers reading skills.  An analysis of the state and national reading scores of more than two million students (by Neuman):  at first glance, a curious effect in which children who said they watched a lot of television didn’t do as well as those who watched less, but those who watched a little did better than those who watched none at all.  The final judgment:  “Does television viewing affect reading achievement?  Not meaningfully.”

It may be that a genuine relationship does exist but only for some groups of children or only for viewing certain kinds of programs; most studies would have missed these correlations if they existed.  But the better research to date seriously challenges the widely held belief that TV viewing by itself has a consistent impact on academic achievement.

IS TV-WATCHING ADDICTIVE?

Yale’s Jerome Singer rose to deliver a lecture about the mass media at a recent academic conference.  A mild man of 67 with black-and-white hair, Singer could never be accused of possessing mass media charisma.  Yet he immediately endeared himself to his audience by confessing that he sometimes “flicks on the TV” rather than picking up a book when he gets home.  “So…my name is Jerry Singer and I am a television addict,” he announced, causing the room to erupt in laughter.

Singer went on to assert more soberly that “the television medium by its very nature, the ease of watching, is mildly addictive” — a belief held by so many people today that it nearly qualifies as folk wisdom.  But this conviction may tell us less about television than about our culture’s penchant for describing a range of popular activities — drinking liquor, eating chocolate, shopping, having sex, falling in love — as addictions.  Our addiction to finding addictions, so to speak, may well invite suspicion that the word has been stretched beyond the point of usefulness.  What does it really mean to say that someone who watches too many sitcoms is an addict?  On the other hand, if so many activities really are addictive, we might ask whether television has any distinctive qualities that hook viewers or whether watching is simply one more pleasurable pursuit that can be overdone.

In either case, psychologists, social critics, and parents who claim that children are addicted to television almost never cite any supporting data — probably because such data do not exist.  Only two researchers have investigated the subject directly, both focused on adults, and neither offers much reason to accept such claims.  For her doctoral dissertation, Robin Smith mailed questionnaires to nearly a thousand residents of Springfield, Massachusetts.  Of the 491 who returned them, two thirds thought that television is addictive….but apparently just for other people.  Only 11 individuals called themselves addicts, and they, like the other respondents, said they almost never experienced Smith’s specific descriptions of addiction, such as “When I’m watching TV, I feel like I can’t stop.”

Self-report data are of limited usefulness, of course, especially when those who dutifully filled out the form may not represent the population at large.  The same problems compromise the findings of Robert McIlwraith, a psychologist at the University of Manitoba, who reported that 17 of 136 undergraduates described themselves as television addicts.  Everything McIlwraith has seen on the subject, though, has made him cautious about using the word addiction to describe TV viewing.  “People think they’re addicted because they use the television as a relaxant,” he says.  But the concept “isn’t justified in a syndrome sort of way.”  There’s no evidence, for instance, that people develop a tolerance to viewing, that they “watch more and more and need a stronger fix to get a buzz.”

As for going through withdrawal, another sine qua non of addiction, some parents report that their children become grumpy after the TV has been shut off, but no researcher has shown how widespread this really is.  To whatever extent the phenomenon does occur, it may be simply a child’s reaction to being told he must stop doing something he enjoys — or, alternatively, it might be due to prolonged physical inactivity rather than to some ominous feature of TV itself.  Some Swedish researchers checked in with more than 200 teenagers when a strike in 1980 shut down nearly all television broadcasts for two weeks.  “Very few respondents expressed strongly felt deprivation in a situation of almost total television loss,” they reported.

The fact that a child enjoys watching TV, and continues to do what he enjoys, does not justify invoking the word addiction (even though it may justify a parent’s shutting off the set at some point).  If we feel vaguely guilty about watching too much television or find it difficult to pull ourselves away, the first question to ask is whether this doesn’t describe our behavior at other activities, too, such as reading mystery novels.  The next question is whether this is truly comparable to the way heroin users regard their next fix.

Critics may fall back, at this point, to claiming that viewing is “habit-forming” even if not technically addictive.  But this charge is no easier to support on closer inspection.  After all, there is no reason to think that it is the act of watching TV last week that caused one to watch again this week.  Rather, one watched both times because it was fun to do so.  There is no evidence to support the charge that television has some uniquely ominous power over us; if tuning in is “habit-forming,” it is only in the very weak sense that repeatedly eating a favorite food or doing anything else we enjoy qualifies for that label.  The argument collapses into the question of whether watching TV is inherently less healthy than the other things we do, which is dealt with elsewhere in this article.

When Jerry Singer told his colleagues that TV was addictive, the only substantiation he offered was a reference to the writings of Robert Kubey, a psychologist at Rutgers University, who lately has been making such claims himself in the popular press.  Kubey did his graduate work at the University of Chicago with Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who pioneered a clever experimental method in which subjects are given beepers and asked to fill out a form describing what they are doing and how they feel about doing it each time the beeper goes off.

In the mid-1970s, Kubey beeped 107 adults, all of whom were employed and most of whom were women, paying special attention to their self-reports while watching TV.  In his 1990 book written with Csikszentmihalyi, Television and the Quality of Life, Kubey declared that “television viewing is unquestionably habit forming.  It may even be addictive…”  Unfortunately, a close reading of his study turns up no evidence to support this belief and may even provide the basis for a partial refutation.  Subjects were beeped about 3,000 times when they weren’t at home, for example, but in only five instances did someone report thinking about TV — not what one would expect of addicts.

Asked in an interview to justify his claims about dependence and addiction, Kubey pauses for a moment.  “No,” he says, “I don’t think there is hard empirical data to support this.”  Instead, he appeals to anecdotes, common sense, and the finding that heavy viewers reported being slightly less happy than others when doing nothing (although they did not feel any worse than light viewers while talking or working).

While this is not much on which to build a case that TV is addictive, it does raise the possibility that television makes the average viewer depressed.  But Kubey himself supplies the rejoinder to this:

Although there is some evidence that people may feel worse an hour or so after viewing than after other leisure activities, there is stronger evidence that negative affect precedes rather than follows heavy viewing.  It is more appropriate to conclude, therefore, that television viewing is more a response to negative affect than a cause of it — at least in the short term.

DOES TV MAKE CHILDREN PASSIVE?

The phrase “glued to the TV set” has been used to refer not only to how long people watch but to how they watch.  Critics like Winn have alleged that television makes children passive, putting them in something like a hypnotic trance (even though it is also supposed to make them hyperactive).  The implication is that kids’ brains shut off, that they are transfixed by, rather than truly attentive to, what they watch.

Now obviously this description does not apply to adults.  Most of us wander in and out of the room while the TV is on and engage in various other activities even while sitting in front of the tube.  (Nearly two thirds of the time that Kubey’s subjects described themselves as watching TV, they were also doing something else.)  This is hardly consistent with the idea that people are hopelessly mesmerized by the flickering images.

In fact, a growing body of evidence has cast doubt on the validity of this idea where children, too, are concerned.  A child seated in front of the tube — or in front of a book, for that matter — clearly is not physically active at the moment.  But no one has ever been able to show that TV makes children passive over the long haul.  The two earliest and most famous studies of television and children examined this claim and were unable to support it.  Himmelweit’s English study found “no evidence whatsoever of increased passivity….Viewers appeared to have as much initiative, imagination, and pleasure in active play as controls.”

Schramm’s North American study, meanwhile, reported that a normal, happy child “is not in danger of being made abnormally passive by television.”  So, too, Patricia Palmer, who observed and interviewed eight- to twelve-year-olds in a lesser known Australian study in the early 1980s:  “The still-popular view of passive children suffering from television’s ‘effects’ lags well behind current research findings…[including those] described in this study.”

Some critics retort that even if heavy viewers are no less physically active than their peers, TV has the effect of making them mentally passive — if not hypnotized while they watch.  But research over the last two decades has established that children, like adults, often do other things while watching TV — half the time they are viewing, by one estimate — and that they typically look at and away from the set every few seconds.  (Both of these findings also suggest another qualification to the usual claims about how many hours children watch television; a child is not actually attending to the TV every minute it is turned on.)

Perhaps most significantly, it has been established that even toddlers think about what they are watching.  “The popular notion of the ‘zombie viewer,’ sitting catatonic before the set, is not confirmed in real observations of children spending time with television,” Susan Neuman writes in her new book, Literacy in the Television Age.

A good many of those real observations have been made by Daniel Anderson, a research psychologist at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.  Anderson, 47, has a pale, solidly Midwestern face framed by an amateur haircut.  He is the sort of man who enjoys playing with data more than speaking in public and whose idea of a harsh epithet is “Oh, fooey!”  About 20 years ago, never imagining that he might someday make his mark as an investigator of TV viewing, Anderson was grinding away instead on the sort of obscure behavioral research that fills the journals and brings its creators tenured obscurity.  Then, one day, an undergraduate asked him a question he couldn’t answer.

It was the fall of 1972, and he had just finished lecturing to an auditorium full of undergraduates.  As most of them noisily collected their notebooks and shuffled out, a handful headed up to the podium to pepper him with more questions.  The first student to reach Anderson on that particular morning was a young man he remembers as being intense, short, and athletic.  During the lecture, Anderson had casually remarked that toddlers are much more distractible than older children.  If that was so, this student demanded, how come a four-year-old can watch TV for hours?

“I gave a really glib answer,” Anderson recalls.  “‘It’s obvious.  The TV’s a distractor.  It just looks like the kid is paying attention.'”  Later, feeling both guilty and curious, he sent a graduate student to look up the existing research on how children attend to television.  Nothing was there to be found.  “So we sat around and watched kids watching TV.  The more we watched, the more it seemed my glib answer was not correct.”

Young children do pay attention to what they watch and control their own behavior while doing so, Anderson and his colleagues eventually found.  At some point, any given child may seem transfixed by the TV, and some children will watch this way more than others will, but overall, children’s attention is highly selective.  “If they don’t understand,” Anderson says, “they don’t watch.  And even when they do get into it and you see” — he mimes an unblinking stare with jaw hanging open — “that sort of thing, the question is what does it mean.  One interpretation is that the child’s mind is a blank.  Another interpretation is that the child is intensely concentrating.  And now we have data to suggest the latter [is true].  Kids are cognitively engaged” with what is happening on the screen, he concludes, rather than passive victims of a “mesmerizing medium that exerts some kind of unique control.”

In 1982, a state-of-the-science review of data on cognitive processing and television published by the National Institute of Mental Health vindicated this conclusion:  “Viewing is more active and discriminating among even young children than is generally recognized.”  But that corroboration was nearly a decade in arriving.  Anderson’s first experiment on the topic, an analysis of how one- to four-year-olds watched a brand-new program called “Sesame Street,” was difficult to get published and was not the best strategy for securing tenure in the psychology department, his colleagues warned.

Those early studies were, in Anderson’s words, “detailed, descriptive research” lacking any theoretical grounding or social agenda.  He was one of the very first experimenters to videotape children watching TV so he could analyze their every glance.  To make those sessions as realistic as possible, he set up a laboratory to resemble a comfortable living room, with toys and snacks for the children and coffee for their moms.  Later, he convinced families in western Massachusetts to allow two video cameras in their homes — one to monitor the TV and the other to watch them (both rigged to work only when the television was turned on) so that people’s attention to the set could be precisely correlated to what was being broadcast.

Pat Collins, a doctoral student of Anderson’s, is in the lab this afternoon, painstakingly turning some of these videotapes into data.  VCRs patched into humming computers are squeezed next to red LED number displays, time-code generators, shelves of tapes, and coils of cords on pegboards.  Collins is watching a monitor on which a five-year-old girl, comic book on lap, sits in front of the TV.  A small box in the lower right corner of the screen contains the image on the girl’s set.

“OK, let’s go back to where she entered the room,” Collins mumbles as she hits first the rewind button and then play.  “She goes back and forth between talking with her mother and sister and monitoring the set….She really doesn’t seem very interested in the commercial….Now Batman has started….That’s where they do that ‘dee dee dee dee.'”  Collins imitates the theme song and looks up, suddenly self-conscious.  “Hey, I grew up on this stuff,” she laughs.

Every time her young subject looks at the TV, Collins stabs a blue button marked “Attention” and holds it down until the girl looks away.  Earlier, she and the others in Anderson’s lab meticulously noted when each family member entered and left the room, then watched all the tapes again and recorded (by using a specially designed computer program) what the children were watching and what was happening on screen — whether it was live action or animation, whether there was violence, which character was on the screen, whether that character was male or female, and what else the viewer was doing.  In all, she and the others in Anderson’s lab will analyze 4,672 hours of videotape for this study.

“She’s clearly splitting her time between the magazine in her lap and the television,” Collins is saying, her eyes still fixed on the screen.  “It’s not clear how much her sister’s pattern of attention influences her pattern.”  She punches a white button on the master panel.  Anderson, standing behind her, watches the monitor as children zoom in and out of the living room.  He points to their mother, lying motionless on the couch.  “That’s your passive viewer,” he says.

Back in his office, where a poster of Big Bird watches over the likes of Imprinting and Cortical Plasticity on his bookshelf, Anderson ticks off the information he hopes this research will reveal, such as the age at which kids start to leave the room during commercials and what time of day they watch TV most intensely.  Mostly, though, “there doesn’t exist a good description of TV viewing as a behavior.  That’s what we’re trying to do here.”

DOES TV IMPOVERISH CHILDREN’S IMAGINATIONS?

Where Dan Anderson’s office bulletin board features Big Bird, Jerry Singer’s is decorated with an autographed photo of Mister Rogers.  In some respects, the two men are a study in contrasts, but not so much because Singer attacks television and Anderson defends it.  For one thing, Singer acknowledges, when pressed, that the data don’t support a simplistic emphasis on “the evils of television [to the point that] every family should throw it out.”  Anderson, meanwhile, protests, “In no sense am I trying to promote television.  There’s no way I’d defend much of the content of current programming.”

Rather, what distinguishes the two are their styles of research and the way they use data — and herein lies a tale with implications beyond the study of television.  Anderson is a man who hesitates to say that Thursday follows Wednesday until controlled studies have demonstrated this.  But Jerry and Dorothy Singer give the impression that their minds were made up about the consequences of watching television long before they looked at the results of their studies.  Unexpected evidence that television may have a positive effect (for example, heavy viewers’ greater enthusiasm in school or more pronounced artistic orientations) are mentioned very quickly in their articles and books and then dismissed.

By contrast, any finding that supports an anti-TV view is enthusiastically repeated in the discussion section of the paper and then again in their subsequent publications.  Take the question of whether television has an adverse impact on children’s imagination — a claim for which the Singers’ work is cited more often than anyone else’s.  In a 1984 study, they described several tests they had performed on seven- and eight-year-olds to determine whether the children’s imaginativeness was related to TV viewing.

Two of these tests showed a very weak negative relationship between viewing and imagination — so weak as to be practically meaningless until facts about the children’s family life were entered into the equation.  Another test showed that children who watched a lot of TV were more imaginative than their peers.  Yet the Singers concluded their article by emphasizing the negative result and, in a later paper, declared unequivocally that “heavy television viewing preempts active play practice and the healthy use of the imagination.”  (Queried in person, however, Jerry Singer concedes that, “in terms of imagination, we don’t have that dramatic a result.”)

The Singers’ contention that TV attenuates a child’s fantasy life is exactly the opposite of Marshall McLuhan’s warning that TV leads people to fantasize too much.  But attempts to show any causal relation between TV and the imagination generally have not gotten very far.  The Himmelweit study found that teachers’ ratings of their students’ imaginativeness were about the same for viewers and nonviewers.  McIlwraith’s research with first graders and adults found that those who watched a lot of television were no less likely to have positive, imaginative fantasies than those who watched less.  “What we find again and again,” he says, “is that there isn’t an awful lot about media use that’s related to imagination.”

In general, a far more promising way to predict the richness of children’s imagination, as several researchers have pointed out, is to look not at how much TV they watch but at how their parents live and what they value.  But it is far more satisfying for critics — and more convenient for some parents, perhaps — to claim that if children today seem less imaginative than we were, well, television is to blame.  This extends the practice of investing the medium with awesome, magical powers, including the capacity to hold children captive and turn them into addicts.  Such claims have the effect, not so incidentally, of deflecting attention from the messier but far more critical issues of how families interact.

Some writers, including Neuman and Palmer, argue that, if anything, TV has the capacity to stimulate the imagination by supplying material that children later incorporate into their active play — exactly as books do.  (We may wince at the content of this material, but that is very different from finding that the act of watching TV impoverishes the imagination.)  In the view of George Gerbner, who was for 25 years the dean of the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School of Communications, “Imagination comes from cultural participation.”  Television, while scorned by “upper-middle-class intellectuals” who have other means for such participation at their disposal, is “an enrichment to vast numbers of people, providing visions from the whole world.”

*

Given the amount of research that has been conducted by now on how children are affected by watching TV, it is decidedly meaningful to keep encountering findings that imaginations are not attenuated, pleasure reading is not displaced, and minds are not emptied.  While one can never prove once and for all that viewing (or anything else) has no effect, the data collectively should lay to rest many of the fulminations about television that continue to be repeated.

On the other hand, none of these findings can be interpreted as offering a green light for the parental policy of using TV as a permanent babysitter or otherwise allowing children unrestricted access.  Many researchers offer the common-sense suggestion that parents should know what their children are watching, feel free to set limits on both how much and what is viewed, and, ideally, be present to explain, analyze, and filter the content, turning any program into an opportunity to discuss ideas and values.

By the same token, it is worth repeating that the data about TV’s effects (or lack of effects) do not amount to an endorsement of the mostly vapid programming that dominates American network television.  (What about PBS? someone in the audience asked researcher Michael Morgan after a talk he gave recently.  The total audience for public television, he replied, is less than the margin of error in national viewing surveys.)  News on television is “more television than news,” says George Gerbner, Morgan’s former mentor.  “Its primary function is to inherit the audience and pass it on” to the entertainment programs that follow.  And aside from “Mister Rogers” and “Sesame Street,” children’s television in this country is by any measure a disgrace — mostly animated, often violent, typically male-oriented, assembly-line-quality shows that look like half-hour toy commercials.

There may be ultrachic critics who take self-conscious satisfaction in defending the likes of “Doogie Howser” or “Wheel of Fortune,” but they’re hard to find and even harder to take seriously.  Dan Anderson is sometimes cast in the role of pro-TV prof and asked to debate the medium’s more voluble critics, but he will have none of it.  “My guess is that most of what’s on commercial television for children is no worse than a waste of time,” but even if the arguments against watching are not terribly compelling, that doesn’t mean “that a parent should have a child watch television.”  Current programming doesn’t offer anything that a youngster “can’t acquire in other ways.”

But Anderson and other careful researchers have produced a body of data that force any responsible observer to reconsider all those middle-class truisms about the evil intrinsic to watching TV.  Their work makes it more difficult for us to blame that activity for every problem involving children, and, by extension, presses us to look just a little harder for real solutions.

Copyright © 1998 by Alfie Kohn. This article may be downloaded, reproduced, and distributed without permission as long as each copy includes this notice along with citation information (i.e., name of the periodical in which it originally appeared, date of publication, and author’s name). Permission must be obtained in order to reprint this article in a published work or in order to offer it for sale in any form. Please write to the address indicated on the Contact Us page.  www.alfiekohn.org — © Alfie Kohn