What Is Television Doing to Children?
THE effects of television on adults can be significant. But what television can do to children goes much deeper.
No other technical development in history has as directly affected this most vulnerable part of the population as has TV. Indeed, a survey of schoolchildren in Sydney, Australia, reveals that TV may already have replaced the school, religion and the family as the main influence in the values many children learn.
Far Too Much
In countries where TV is widely available, it consumes more of the average child’s waking hours than does any other activity.
For example, the average American child will have spent from 15,000 to 20,000 hours in front of TV by the time he is 16 years old. This compares with about 11,000 hours of classroom instruction. Many children now watch TV for five, six, seven or more hours a day, especially on days home from school.
Would the average parent let his children go to two or three motion picture shows a day at the local theater? Likely that would be out of the question, even aside from the cost. But the uncontrolled watching of TV at home amounts to much the same thing.
There is no doubt that many children are vastly overexposed to TV. Why, then, do so many parents allow this? Many use the TV as a baby-sitter. In effect, they say to their children, ‘Here, sit in front of the TV and don’t bother me.’ As a mother of three admitted: “I’m afraid not to have a TV set even though I know the kids would probably be a lot better off without it. I can’t imagine managing without it. I’m hooked on using it.” But, of course, for thousands of years parents managed without TV.
Many parents say that their children are “almost hypnotized” by TV. One said of her young son: “He watches in a real trance. It’s almost impossible to get his attention. He’ll watch like that for hours, if I let him. He just seems mesmerized.”
The book The Plug-in Drug states: “Again and again parents describe, often with considerable anxiety, the trancelike nature of their children’s television watching. The child’s facial expression is transformed. The jaw is relaxed and hangs open slightly; . . . The eyes have a glazed, vacuous look. . . . There is certainly little indication that the child is active and alert mentally.” Thus, with good reason did a headline in the Toronto Star declare: “CHILDREN SLAVES TO TV.”
Common sense tells us that a child sitting for long hours, day after day, in front of a TV in such a mental state, uncommunicative, cannot be doing himself good. It is not possible for a young mind to be exposed to thousands of hours of TV programs, many containing violence, depravity and immorality, and not be adversely affected.
One effect of excessive TV viewing, especially late into the evening, is observed in class. In the Federal Republic of Germany, Professor Heinz-Rolf Leuckert of Munich University states: “Washed out faces, tired, drawn eyes and listless expressions are the order of the start of the day. Apart from affecting their physical health, loss of slumber means they are not so bright at school—and they do not learn so readily as classmates who have had a good night’s sleep.”
When TV viewing was drastically cut down, or cut out altogether, most cases of such chronic fatigue disappeared in a few weeks. Of course, too much TV is not the only reason for fatigue, but it certainly has added to the problem. Incidentally, those children who went back to watching too much TV found that their symptoms of fatigue returned.
Other symptoms of uncontrolled TV watching that were made worse in some children were loss of appetite, headache, vomiting and irritability. Lack of proper exercise also was involved, since it can lead to a degeneration of the body’s normal activities.
Television advertising can contribute to poor health in children in another way. They are constantly bombarded by advertisements offering “junk” foods with little nutritional value. Many highly sugared foods are made to look attractive, but they work against good health. One observer said that the child “is fooled into believing that the foods that are most harmful to him are those that he must have.”
Eye specialists say that too much TV can harm the eyes, not giving them the proper exercise needed. Instead of developing good eye coordination by doing things that require “three-dimensional” vision, children watch the “two-dimensional” TV screen too long. In the United States, it is estimated that up to 30 percent of the children who watch TV have some eye problems. Some doctors refer to “clumsy eyes” that will not follow a printed line, but stumble along, missing words and phrases.
Too much TV takes away time that children could better spend reading, building things, talking with others, or playing. A school librarian said of TV-addicted children: “They don’t initiate ideas or activities. They can’t think anything through. They want everything laid out so all they have to do is watch or do what you tell them.”
A New York City elementary school teacher observed: “Children do not play the way they used to. . . . They don’t seem to have as much imagination, either in verbal expression or in the ways they play or in the things they make.” Another, with 35 years of experience, added: “There’s a greater passivity about their play. They’ll get interested in something, but then if it means they have to do something themselves they’ll lose interest.” These teachers say that watching too much TV is largely to blame.
Educators note that reading skills are more poorly developed than they were years ago. But it could hardly be otherwise when children are allowed to substitute so many uneducational TV programs for reading. And since reading takes effort, and TV does not, it is obvious which one the child will prefer if left to decide for himself.
Not only are reading skills hindered, but TV-addicted children often have more difficulty responding to real persons. Why? Because real people may not arouse the same interest that a television character does. And, often, what a child learns from television regarding human relations has little bearing on real life.
This is also the case inside the family circle. Getting along with other family members must be learned, experienced by actually doing things, conversing, interacting. The child has a great need to develop such skills so that he can become a good parent himself. Nothing can substitute for the give-and-take of mother, father, sisters and brothers.
There is a need for a child to communicate constantly in the family so that he can have questions answered, wrong views corrected and right views encouraged. But there is every indication that too much TV has a destructive effect on viewpoints. And it will take a further toll later, when today’s TV children have their own offspring.
What Violence Can Do
One of the most frightening aspects of what television is doing to children concerns violence. In country after country the evidence mounts that many children who watch too much TV violence tend to be more violent in their everyday behavior. And they are also more tolerant of violence inflicted on others.
An article in The Journal of the American Medical Association shows that the average American child, by the time he graduates from high school, “will have witnessed some 18,000 murders and countless highly detailed incidents of robbery, arson, bombing, forgery, smuggling, beating, and torture.” It observed that there is about one act of violence per minute in the standard TV cartoon for children under the age of 10.
Some parents notice an immediate reaction when their children watch too much TV violence. One said: “There’s a rapid rise in their inability to control themselves. They whine, they fuss, they absolutely regress. . . . it takes them a while before they’re back to normal.”
But the effects can be far more than just temporary irritability. For instance, consider that 146 scientific documents reporting on research studies involving 10,000 children all reached similar conclusions. They showed that TV violence produced in children an increase of aggressive behavior that may be long-lasting.
Nor is this merely an American condition. A headline in Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post declared: “TV VIOLENCE HARMS CHILDREN—EXPERTS.” The newspaper reported: “Children in Hong Kong are particularly likely to be affected by violent television programs, educationalists, social workers, psychiatrists and psychologists said.” And a report from Japan, appearing in Atlas magazine, shows that children there “are offered almost unlimited blood and violence” on TV.
In Canada, a 91-page report by the Hamilton, Ontario, Board of Education to the government’s Royal Commission on Media Violence said: “Violence on television can create anti-social behavior, unrealistic fears and desensitize children from emotions in the world around them.”
The Commission was also told that the effect of TV violence on children could be likened to the planting of a bomb that might explode within 10 to 20 years. The report said: “Every murder or violent act a child witnesses on TV is like a small, even a minuscule weight placed on the balance. . . . no psychologist could guarantee that the balance would not tip, triggering violent acts by people who had appeared normal.”
In England, a two-year study concluded that bad TV programs were indeed causing an increase in crime by young people. Another study, over a six-year period, involving 1,565 boys aged 13 to 16, found that those who watched TV brutality often were about 50 percent more likely to resort to violence than were boys who did not regularly view such programs.
Much the same conclusion was reached by research studies commissioned by the United States Surgeon General. From watching TV violence, children learned to act more violently. This was true regardless of the child’s economic background, family characteristics, or neighborhood.
Regarding a 10-year experiment, Science Digest reported the following: “A boy’s aggressiveness at age 19 was directly and significantly related to the amount of violent television he watched at age eight regardless of his initial level of aggressiveness, social status, intellectual ability, or parents’ behaviors.” This publication warned: “Scientists are discovering that certain effects, notably increased aggression, may last a lifetime.”
Many parents have had experiences similar to those of the one who wrote this to the Washington Post:
“I’ve watched the effect of television on my own child and some of what I see I don’t like. His vocabulary, for instance, has become increasingly violent.
“He is forever ‘killing’ me or ‘dying’ himself or ‘shooting’ something or someone with any household article that in the least way resembles a gun.
“He is sometimes a monster or a pirate or simply a bad guy. He talks of jail and at night, when the lights are out, strange creatures come a-visiting.”
Judges are now seeing the evidence of this callousness toward violence. Juvenile Court Judge Patrick Tamillia, of Pennsylvania, says that young offenders have become increasingly hardened by TV crime. He states: “Kids don’t cry much in court anymore; the hardness of heart is just incredible. They look at violence on TV, where there is really no remorse shown. So when they hurt somebody else, they don’t feel they’ve done it to a human being.”
Police records show that young people who imitate TV crimes are far more numerous than most people think. For instance, a 17-year-old boy admitted killing a young woman in a planned reenactment of a TV show that he had seen. A seven-year-old boy who was found sprinkling ground glass in the family’s lamb stew said that he got the idea from a TV program. Two boys who tried to extort $500 from a company through a bomb threat got the idea from TV. A nine-year-old boy who gave his teacher a box of poisoned candy for Christmas said that he learned this from a TV program in which a man killed his wife that way without getting caught. A six-year-old son of a policeman asked his father for real bullets so that he could make his little sister “die for real,” as he thought that people did on TV.
A number of sexual assaults carried out by teen-age boys were almost identical to what TV shows had portrayed, resulting in one parent’s suing a TV network. And a mother who had been unconcerned about TV violence changed her mind when her four-year-old son tried to smother the family dog with a pillow right after seeing a man do this to another person on TV.
Children have also put their own lives in danger as a direct result of watching TV. In Perth, Australia, a four-year-old girl tried to hang herself to imitate a hanging in a TV cartoon. Children have broken bones or have otherwise injured themselves by jumping from high places, imitating TV characters of the “superman” or “batman” types. Bicycle-riding youths have suffered numerous injuries trying to imitate TV motorcycle stunt riders.
Thus, more and more studies of short-term and long-term effects point to the conclusion noted by Parade magazine: “TV violence . . . is harmful to children in three ways: They learn and remember—and many copy—aggressive behavior; it is easier for them to be violent, and they are less anxious about it; it heightens, rather than ‘drains off,’ their aggressiveness.”
Of course, it is true that aggression and violence have occurred among young people for centuries. But the fact is that, however bad the situation was previously, a steady diet of unsuitable TV programs is making the situation worse.
What, then, can parents do to counteract these trends? What should adults do for themselves to avoid the bad effects of poor TV programming?
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How many hours has your child spent watching violence on television?