First scientific study: What television does to children

Here are the questions most parents have asked about television's ability to harm the young, and the answers given by a survey of 6,000 children

Sidney Katz April 22 1961

First scientific study: What television does to children

Here are the questions most parents have asked about television's ability to harm the young, and the answers given by a survey of 6,000 children

Sidney Katz April 22 1961

IT IS COMMONPLACE to say that television ruins children’s eyesight, lures them away from school-work and reading, deepens their ignorance, debases their taste, gives them a false sense of right and wrong and even, in some cases, leads them on to actual delinquency. Since all but 700,000 of Canada’s four and a half million homes now have TV, these are grave charges. But are they true? At last it has become possible to give an answer, in part. For three years the Institute of Communication Research at Stanford University has been observing 6,000 children and 2,000 parents, including 1,200 Canadians in two B.C. communities— Quesnel, which has no TV, and Langley, which is within range of television. (They are called Radiotown and Teletown respectively in the Stanford University report.) Here are some of the questions the Stanford survey answers:

HOW MUCH TV DO CHILDREN WATCH? “The average child during the first sixteen years of life spends as much time on TV as he does on school, and more time on TV than on all the other media of communication.’’ One out of three is watching TV by the age of three, four out of five by the age of five, nine out of ten by the time they’re in Grade 1. Children in the early grades watch TV about fourteen hours a week. This goes up to twenty-four hours a week in the eleven-to thirteen-year-old group, Grades 6-8. Sunday is the heaviest viewing day, Friday the lightest. Peak viewing time is eight p.m.

IS THE TV ADDICT A BRIGHT OR A STUPID CHILD?

The answer varies according to the child’s age. Among very young children, the bright ones tend to be heavy TV viewers simply because they do more of everything. At about eleven years of age, though, the bright children turn away from TV to the greater challenges of the printed word. The survey found that among heavy TV viewers in Grade 10, 67 percent were of "lower intelligence” and only 30 percent of "higher intelligence.”

DOES TV DAMAGE CHILDREN’S EYESIGHT?

Apparently not. The survey found no differences in the incidence of eyestrain, headache, wearing of glasses, etc., between heavy viewers and light or non-viewers. TV’s only threat to eyesight, according to the report, is in poor viewing conditions — sitting too close to the tube, or too far away; watching in a dark room, which exaggerates the glare of the screen; watching from an awkward angle.

DOES TV SEND CHILDREN TO SCHOOL SLEEPY AND TIRED?

Not in most cases. Typically, the survey found, TV delays the child’s bedtime by no more than ten or twenty minutes. However, the minority of children who habitually stayed up to watch the late, late shows were the ones least able to afford it. They were children of lower Intelligence who were doing badly at school. "Late bedtimes tend to occur in homes where parental control is lax, where intelligence is low, where poor school performance is taken for granted. The implication is that the child might have come to school sleepy and inattentive even without TV.”

ARE CHILDREN OFTEN FRIGHTENED BY TV?

No. Children are not frightened by "ritual violence” like Donald Duck falling over a cliff or the “bad guy” in a western being shot to death. They accept these things impersonally, knowing that things are going to work out all right in the end.

However, they do react strongly to depictions of injuries that are both realistic and personal. When a TV character is whipped, or caught in a bear trap, or cut by a knife, these are pieces of violence that a youngster feels. If the violence is committed against a character with whom the children identify themselves — like Lassie or the “good guy” in a drama — it leaves a mark. Situations that remind the child of his own real-life fears can also be damaging — darkness, loneliness, thunder and lightning, a spooky, moving shadow, someone peering in a window at night. These can lead to painful anxiety if the child is still too young to have developed “adult discount,” and realize that what he’s watching is make-believe.

What constitutes a "fear program,” of course, varies with the individual child. Officials at one home for disturbed children discovered that they must never turn at bedtime to a TV program that emphasized warm, loving family relationships. Programs of this kind caused the children to stay awake at night or have bad dreams. The family program was a sharp reminder of what was lacking in their own lives.

The researchers offer pointed advice to parents: maintain a warm, secure family atmosphere; exercise control over the kind of programs your child watches; don’t let the fearful child watch TV in a dark room alone; encourage him to “talk out” his fears after viewing a program that has made his hair stand on end.

IS TV TOO EXCITING FOR CHILDREN?

Yes, it is. The report takes a dark view of the souped-up life portrayed on the TV screen, constantly bombarding children with high adventure, violence and sexual stimulation. Thus “children viewing TV are in a peculiar position. Experience is exhausted in advance. There is little they have not seen or done or lived through, and yet this is second-hand experience. When the experience itself comes it is watered down, for it has already been half-lived but never truly felt.”

Teachers and schoolwork may be made to seem dull by comparison with TV. Also, children may come to expect to learn everything passively, rather than by concentration and effort. The TV-conditioned youngster may find himself in the same position as the alcoholic without a drink; he’s bored, ill at ease, lost without his accustomed stimulation. “These are serious questions,” says the report, “which nobody at this moment can answer confidently.”

IS TV RAISING A BETTER-INFORMED GENERATION?

No. The kindest thing the survey has to report about the educational effectiveness of commercial TV is that "it is neither a distinct advantage nor a severe handicap.”

Among children with low IQs, TV viewers start school with a vocabulary about a grade higher than non-viewers. But by the sixth grade, they’ve lost this lead. Heavy viewers know more about subjects emphasized on TV, less about subjects that are not. There are a few excellent educational programs for youngsters, but it’s the more intelligent children — the ones that need them least — that tend to watch them.

The conclusion reached by the survey is that, educationally, TV viewing makes little difference to the child of average intelligence; the bright child who watches too many programs is handicapped, because his time could be spent with more value reading, talking to people or pursuing other interests; the child with a low IQ is probably a little better informed because of TV.

“Commercial TV, rich in talent and money, is supported chiefly for offering fantasy experiences. Educational TV, which is devoted to offering reality experience, is starved for talent and money. The old dream of TV as the super-medium for informing and teaching the people of a democracy has never been fully realized.”

DOES TV STIMULATE CREATIVE OR INTELLECTUAL ACTIVITY?

Sometimes. A play by a talented writer led to a run on his books in the school library. Lively classroom discussions were sparked by the telecasting of the Democratic and Republican national conventions last year. When a San Francisco station presented a demonstration of Japanese brush painting, several thousand people adopted this form of art as a hobby. However, the researchers felt that TV acts as a positive stimulant only if the viewer already has an interest in the material being shown. For most children, TV does nothing more than initiate fads like the wearing of Mickey Mouse T-shirts or Davy Crockett hats.

DOES TV DEBASE CHILDREN’S TASTES?

Children develop good taste by being exposed to good programs. In England, when the BBC was the only channel available, children got the chance to become familiar with such high-quality programs as Science Review, From a Tropical Forest and Have You a Camera? After watching these shows, many children became devoted fans.

Paradoxically, the result of having three or four channels available is to narrow the child's taste, not broaden it. If he doesn't find light entertainment on one station, he’ll flick the dial to another. Constant exposure to effortless entertainment molds and reinforces his taste for it.

This is precisely what has been happening to most of our children. By the time they’re ten or eleven they’ve left most juvenile programs behind them. They now prefer "adult” entertainment—crime drama, adult westerns, situation comedy and musical variety shows. They’re uncritical. Asked how they would like to see TV improved, they remain silent. "Most children are inarticulate on the subject.” says the report. "The only thing they can suggest is that they would like to see more of the kind of program they like and already see a lot of.”

DOES TV CONVEY AN INACCURATE PICTURE OF ADULT LIFE?

Yes, it certainly does — and most of what a child learns from TV is about adult life, and how adults behave. The women are abnormally sexy; assault, deceit and murder are commonplace; the law is ignored: fathers are simpering nincompoops; people cut corners to make a pile of money; policemen and judges are often corrupt. In these circumstances, says the report, “the child couldn't help absorbing a warped picture of adult life. Later, it may be difficult for him to make adjustments to real-life situations." TV's grotesque representation of adult life "may force a child into a kind of premature maturity, marked by bewilderment, distrust of adults, a superficial approach to adult problems or even unwillingness to become an adult.” If parents don't take this challenge seriously, they’ll lose by default because "TV wants the attention of children and goes to any length to get it. It is never too busy to talk to them; never shuts them off because it has to prepare dinner.”

DOES TV SERIOUSLY AFFECT A CHILD’S BEHAVIOR AND PERSONALITY?

The study warns that in any discussion of the effects of TV on children, the term "effects” can be misleading. "When we talk about the effects of TV, we're really talking about how children use TV. Children come to TV seeking to satisfy some need. Something in their lives makes them reach out for a particular experience on TV. Children use the same TV in different ways and with different results.”

The study then goes on to consider the possible effects of TV on some children. Does TV tend to render a child passive, receptive and helplessly dependent? Some of the experts quoted, like Eugene David Glynn, a Michigan State University psychiatrist, believe that it does. Glynn says that there are "traits TV can so easily satisfy in adults or foster in children: passivity, receptivity, being fed, taking and absorbing what is offered. Activity, self-reliance and aggression are notably absent. These traits, of course, are inherent in all spectator sport. But what is crucially important about TV is its ubiquitousness.”

The report comments that this is "a powerful and alarming argument, based on a psychiatrist's clinical insights.”

Undoubtedly, there are already a number of confirmed juvenile TV addicts, and the report makes it clear that TV addiction exists among children who are not psychologically disturbed in a serious way. On the other hand, there has been "no massive change to passivity” — the majority have surrendered only a small part of their active lives to TV.

DOES TV TEACH VIOLENCE AND LEAD TO JUVENILE DELINQUENCY?

This question is posed because in the ten years of TV’s greatest growth, the number of juveniles brought to court in the U. S. has doubled: in Canada it has jumped by almost fifty percent. Psychiatrist Ralph Banay, of Columbia University, observes: "If prison is a college for crime . . . TV is a preparatory school.” To another specialist, Dr. Lawrence Z. Freedman, the question of TV and crime has not yet been answered but "we have no reason to assume that we shall be pleased with the answers when we get them.” A seven-year-old Los Angeles boy sprinkled ground glass in his family's veal stew “to see if it would kill them like on TV.” Seeking vengeance on his teacher, a nine-year-old Boston child gave her a box of poisoned candies for Christmas. After a quarrel with a playmate, an eight-year-old tried to lynch him.

Dr. Freedman attempts to describe the child who might be incited to violence by TV. In general, he’s the kind of person who immerses himself completely in TV as an escape and a stimulus. He’s likely to be of below-average intelligence. He doesn’t get along with his family or peers. He may have psychopathic tendencies, in which case he doesn't share the repugnance to violence that a healthy person feels. He is "poised to rebel.” This kind of child may use TV as a model for his own rebellion. Another category is the psychotic or nearly psychotic child. The lashing, stabbing or hanging he sees on TV may be the final stimulus.

In summing up, the Stanford survey says:

“The judges and psychiatrists we interviewed told us that, almost invariably, delinquent children who blamed TV for their crimes had something seriously wrong with their lives apart from TV. It is our belief that the kind of children we send to TV, rather than TV itself, is the chief element in delinquency. The roots of delinquency are much lower and broader than TV. The most TV can do is to feed the malignant impulses that already exist.”