This essay will seek to evaluate the view that 'television is good for your kids' (Messenger Davies, 1989). It will consider the range of different ways in which it has been argued that television has negative or positive effects, the methodological soundness of the relevant research, and different models of what people mean by 'good' or 'bad' television. The essay will also look at what it means to 'watch television', or to be a 'child'.
Children devote much of their free time to watching television, seemingly enamored of the screen, and continuous contact is thought to influence the way they understand and interpret both television and the world in which they live. Although children have everyday contact with other media and many other forms of expression and communication, visual media alone are seen as speaking a "universal language," accessible, regardless of age. That television is a desirable medium is testified to by the presence of one or more sets in more than 98 percent of households in the United States (US) and the United Kingdom (UK); and the great number of hours viewed per day by their owners and their offspring. However, there seems to be a duplicity of thought concerning this desired and appreciated medium. When one looks at the metaphors employed to describe the functions and operations of television and adults' interaction with it, they are predominantly pejorative - 'the one eyed monster,' 'the uninvited guest,' 'the plug-in drug,' 'the boob-tube,' among others. However, even though adults seem to like television as shown by their behaviour activity, they seem to fear it cognitively, as shown by their linguistic behaviour. This apparent duplicity is resolved by noting the asymmetric application of their fears and is shown by Winn (1977/1985), one of the earliest and most vociferous critics of television. Her criticisms were reserved for children and television, not adults and television. It some way, the latter was not so threatened by this medium.
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Although there are many reasons for adults' concern over television and children - some deep and hidden, others more open to debate, one of the major arguments is that young recipients are poorly equipped to handle the onslaught of this ubiquitous and attractive medium, with its highly constructed and 'realistic' content in an easily absorbable way (Clifford et al, 1995). Even though children are known to be eager learners from any and all media, it is held that they lack the skills and abilities to 'read' the television messages given out because of their limited knowledge of the physical and social world, and because of the presence of only embryonic learning and processing mechanisms.
However, this view has been heavily criticised by researchers in the field. Schramm (1961) notes:
When we say something about effect of television on children, we are really making a doubled edged statement. That is, we are saying something about television and something about children. In a sense the term 'effect' is misleading because it suggests that television 'does something' to children. The connotation is that television is the actor and children are acted upon. Children are thus made to seem relatively inert; television relatively active. Children are sitting victims; television bites them. Nothing can be further from the truth. It is children who are most active in this relationship. It is they who use television, rather than television uses them (p.p. 1-2).
Vygotsky (1962) also takes issues with the views put forward by early behavioursists, who regarded language learning as primarily a matter of passive reproduction - the child mechanically imitates what they have already heard. Children take on board the linguistic resources provided in and through their social environment, but they can then use those resources in new ways. They can say more with the words they inherit than they themselves have heard (Moss, 1996). For Vygotsky, children therefore grow up both accommodating themselves to the existing social forms of thinking, shaped through words. However, they can also reconfigure what they inherit as they try that language out in new circumstances, and for their own purposes. What really matters is the interaction between interlocutors, and the extent to which they borrow from or appropriate each other words' (Maybin, 1994; Wertsch, 1991). From a Vygotskian perspective, it is in and through talk that others become a significant resource for learning, which is inevitably culturally and socially shaped. Attention therefore shifts from the individual reader and the text - how the individual processes the text - to how this literacy event - the social occasion for reading in itself shapes and defines what reading is and how it will take place (Moss, 1996).
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The 'effects tradition' focuses predominantly but not exclusively on the effects of television rather than other media, on the child audience especially as it relates to violent and stereotyped programmes and on individuals rather than on groups, cultures or institutions. The question of media effects as more broadly understood includes relations between media, politics and the public, the use of media for public health campaigns or for propaganda or educational uses, among many other issues. Livingstone (1996) notes that the sheer mass and variety of effects research, make comparisons across studies a difficult task. Yet the numerous dimensions on which effects studies can differ can also serve to map out the parameters of the field. These include empirical design, type of population and media studied. Difference between studies must also be understood in their historical context as Livingstone (1996) notes the media has changed over the past 50 years of research, in terms of technology, content, availability and relation to the changing practices of everyday life. There is a long history behind this kind of research and Hodge and Tripp (1986) notes that even Plato in his day expressed serious reservations about the influence which stories of a certain kind might exercise on young minds and urged that the first stories a child encountered should be those which would teach 'desired' behaviour
The debate about children and the media has been wide ranging and at times fierce, but there has been certain areas which have attracted popular attention namely violence (and to a lesser extent sexual content), advertising and developmental and educational implications (Robinson and Willett, 2006, p. 6). New experiences in particular seem to provoke hostility by virtue of being new and thus unfamiliar, so currently, even though television still comes in for much criticism, video games, mobile phones and the internet are significant targets. However, Robinson and Willett (2006) notes that this is not to say that all criticism of media texts is unjustified.
Daily reports and programmes present crude arguments of cause and effects which implies a direct relationship between what is deemed to be excessive use of the medium in question and anti-social or deficient behaviour of one kind or another. One such example is the murder of James Bulger in 1993, where two ten-year old boys were found guilty of killing a three year old boy. It was claimed that the video Child's Play had influenced the boys to carry out such a crime. However, as Buckingham (1994) has shown that this example is lacking in credibility as many such claims, even being refuted by the police in charge of the investigation. Not only is there no evidence that the boys in question had actually seen the video, there are also very few real similarities between the film plot and the murder. Yet this example has gained general acceptance as being yet another instance of the dangers of allowing children access to certain media texts (Robinson and Willett, 2006, p.7).
Buckingham (1994) explains that research evidence on media and children is far from conclusive. Most research findings have yet to be replicated and there is a sense in which much research seems to be based on self-fulfilling hypotheses; it seems to be possible to prove almost anything and thus prove nothing (Robinson and Willett, 2006, p. 10). One such study which was heavily criticized was Winn's (1985) study of television and children called 'The Plug-in Drug'. In her report she sees all television as dangerous, not just certain programmes, claiming that the very act of watching television creates passivity in the child and can lead to an addiction which she compares to a drug addict. She claims that television is a non verbal, visual activity which can lead to children's language being underdeveloped with consequent implications for their school work. She also argues that children's ability to play and the structure of family life is being destroyed by television, suggesting that the new 'TV Generation' will have trouble communicating with each other and are more likely to be reliant on other drugs. However, Robinson and Willett (2006) points out that Winn gives no evidence to show how she went about gathering evidence or how the sample was chosen thereby making it very hard to make a judgement as to the validity of this evidence base.
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Judged by any normal criteria, Winn's work has little credibility, yet her ideas have not just been widely promulgated but have been built on by other writers. Trelease (1984), for example, used Winn's work to claim that television has deleterious effects on children's reading in particular. Similarly, Pipher (2002) bases her findings on her interactions with adolescent girls in the context of her role as a clinical psychologist; and Wolf's (1991) analysis does not include any accounts from girls or women themselves. Such texts, like media stories on the Bulger murder, often include many unqualified and thus powerful assertions which can at first seem compelling but which we need to examine critically for supporting evidence (p.8).
However, while the bulk of research is concentrated on harmful media effects, with some exceptions, not all the arguments in the public domain are so fearful of the media. Davies (1989) made a well publicized and populist case for the benefits of television for children. Similarly, Tapscott (1988) describes new generations of children as natural cybernauts, inherently at one with new technologies, and thus able to reap the many benefits offered to them in the new media world: 'Because the Net is the antithesis of TV, the N-Generation is in many ways the antithesis of the TV generation' (p.26). But, there are far fewer studies of the pro-social effects which might result from viewing positive images of social relations. Livingstone (1996) notes that interestingly, the results for such studies are far less controversial, although the same methodological problems apply- that of weak evidence. Generally researchers conclude that while, unfortunately few pro-social television programmes exist, they have broadly beneficial effects and these effects are more substantial than for harmful effects. However, such populist theories are significant in that they have often been the starting point for more systematic research in this area.
Gunter and McAleer (1990) comes to much the same conclusion as Buckingham. In considering the question of child development, they conclude that 'children's attention to the screen is neither passive nor constant' (p.74) but notes that television does have the ability to exert both a negative and positive influence on such matters as children's use of stereotypes and their understanding of social roles (p.74). It reports research which shows that for some children, television is not a displacement activity, although it highlights studies which have attempted to capture the impact of television as it has been introduced to new societies and which have tended to claim that other leisure activities have been displaced to some extent. (pp. 11-12).
Violence on television and its link to children has also been a major source of research. As part of a series of experiments during the 1960s, Bandura et al (1961/1963) investigated the notion that children imitate behaviours they see on television, particularly when enacted by admired role models or when the behaviours viewed are rewarded. Four to five year old children were shown a five minute film in the researcher's office and then taken to a toy room and observed for 20 minutes through a one-way mirror. Children had been randomly assigned to watch one of three films, each involving a boy picking a fight with another boy and attacking some toys. In the first, the attacker won the fight and was rewarded by getting all the toys to ply with; the second, the attacker is beaten by his opponent and is punished; in the third, the two children play together with no aggression. In addition, a fourth group of children was observed with no prior exposure to a film. The results showed that those children, especially the boys, who had seen the rewarded aggressive model spontaneously performed twice as much imitative aggression as all other groups, but no more non-imitative aggression. When interviewed afterwards, these children were found to disapprove of the model's behaviour and yet they were influenced to imitate him because his aggression led to success.
Turner et al (1986) argue that there are significant parallels between the situation in Bandura's experiment and that of the domestic viewing situation: children may and often do identify with characters who are rewarded for their aggression in television programmes. More aggressive children are more likely to watch violent television (Huesmann and Eron, 1986), thus enhancing the likelihood of an effect. Being arbitrarily provoked before viewing also enhances the effect. Borden (1975) argues that such findings are an artifact of the demand characteristics of the experiment (that children sense what is expected of them and try to please), for children are more likely to imitate the aggressive behavious if an adult in the test situation seem to approve.
Again, there is general consensus between Buckingham and Gunter and McAleer's survey with both sources showing the limitations of much of the research methodology and the subsequent weaknesses of findings in all the different effects theories whilst recognizing the importance of the issue. According to Robinson and Willett (2006) it would appear that more suitable techniques will be needed to resolve this issue, and such work is to some extent being carried out through more ethnographic research such as Buckingham's own study for the then Broadcasting Standards Council, which attempted to discover what children themselves found disturbing or frightening.
As increasingly, real television programmes, rather than artificial extracts are shown to viewers, questions about the types of portrayal can be addressed. The greatest anti-social effects are found to be associated with the news, particularly the portrayal of justified and realistic violence with no negative consequences (such as when police control a riot). Cartoons, containing no justified violence and the negative consequences of aggression, are much less effective (Hearold, 1986). Whether or not the consequences of violence are shown - even if children can connect a portrayed action to its consequences (Collins, 1983), seems less important than whether the programme provides a justification for the violence and whether the portrayal is realistic (Dorr, 1983; Hodge and Tripp (1986). Livingstone (1996) notes that since there is some suggestion that these conclusions are reversed for very young children, the need to differentiate children of different ages is critical.
Lack of evidence is one of the many problems with much of the research which claims a casual relationship between children's behaviour, attitudes and skills and their consumption of the media. Various authors have challenged effects research, pointing out to the inherent faults with the methods and methodology (Barker and Petley, 1997; Buckingham, 1993; Gaunlet, 1998; Hodge and Tripp, 1986). Critics of effects research point out that an assumption is made that the text is 'all powerful', that is 'Meaning is seen to be inherent in the message, and to be transmitted directly into the mind and then behaviour of the viewer' (Buckingham, 1993, p. 7). In other words not only is the message of text easily and universally read, the audience has no impact on the interaction of texts' messages. Media texts are seen as so powerful that the ideology inherent in the text unwittingly positions viewers into particular categories. Furthermore, like 'common sense' discourses, effects research tends to simplify relationships, attributing a casual effect to a situation in which there is merely a correlation. 'Common sense' tells us that if there is a rise in violent incidents in society as well as on television, there must be a casual relationship. Further methodological problems include the way effects research ignores other variables such as the home environment. Durkin (1985) points out that effects research takes a limited view of television viewing and ignores what else is occurring not physically but also socially and cognitively. Durkin writes 'what children bring with them to their viewing will influence substantially what they extract from it' (pp. 72-73). Taking an 'active reader stance', Durkin describes how children use information from their lives to explain stereotyped roles on television. Instead of the notion of a passive viewer, Durkin describes viewing as 'developmental and social' as children engage in the process of making meaning from that information and ideologies which are contained in television texts, and as they apply that information in their own lives (p.87).
Hearold (1986) conducted a meta analysis of 1,043 media effects reported in 230 studies with over 100,000 subjects over the past 60 years. In general, the correlations between viewing and effect vary between 0.1 and 0.3. These are small effects, and findings which meet the criteria for statistical significance are not necessarily socially significant. It is a matter of judgement whether effects which account for some five percent of the variation in the behaviour concerned are important or not and whether they are more or less important than other factors. A satisfactory explanation of social phenomenon such as violence, stereotypes, sonsumerism or prejudice, will involve understanding the combined and interactive effects of multiple factors of which television may be one such factor.
In conclusion, despite the volume of research, the debate about media effects, whether it can be shown empirically that the specific mass media messages, typically those transmitted by television, have specific, often detrimental effects on audiences who are exposed to them remains unresolved. This is partly due because the debate is more about the epistemological limitations of social science research than it is about the media in particular, and partly because the debate is motivated more by a public and governmental agenda of education, censorship and regulation (Rowland, 1983) than by an academic agenda concerning media theory (Roberts and Bachen, 1981).
However, most experts on children and media generally advise that there be some sort of both formal and informal media education to defend children against what is seen as the negative influences of the media. Suggestions have be put forward that parents frequently watch television with their children to help them understand what they are viewing and for children to learn from their parent's reactions. Just as parents let their children know on occasion that the child's behaviour needs improvements, or that some adult or child in real life is doing something wrong, so too they may want to point these things out on television. Equally important, is for parents to point to behaviour that is they believe are exemplary and deserving of replication. Additionally, there have been calls for media education to form part of the school curriculum. However, while it might be possible to define media in terms of its objects of study, or in terms of the skills it seeks to cultivate, many argue that most contemporary versions are based on a series of key 'aspects' or 'concepts'. Buckingham (1996) notes that in practice, these aspects should typically studied in relation to each other, and through arrange of pedagogic strategies, including both 'critical' and 'practical approaches.
However, as Schramm (1961) points out 'no informed person can simply say that television is bad or that it is good for children. For some children, under some conditions, some television is harmful. For other children under the same conditions, or for the same children under other conditions, it may be beneficial. For most children, under most conditions, most television is probably neither particularly harmful, or particularly beneficial.