Pre-School Children's Television Viewing

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A Pilot Study Exploring Pre-School Children's Television Viewing.

As television viewing continues to increase in the UK (Ofcom, 2009), it is a concern as to whether or not television plays a part in influencing children's behaviour and gender role development. The Office of National Statistics (ONS) has reported that adults in England spend 15% of their day watching television (2005). Adults have also reported television viewing to be their most favourite activity and spend 85% of their free time watching television (ONS, 2007). However, children have been reported to watch television for 87% of their free time; the second most common activity after spending time with friends (ONS, 2007). Children have been seen to be a special audience for television (Dorr, 1986) and they show interest in television from infancy (Lemish and Rice, 1986). Parents have admitted to putting their children in front of television at a young age to quieten them (Huston et al, 1992). Television viewing in younger children is on the rise (Barkham, 2009) and it is imperative to examine possible effects it may have on children's subsequent behaviour.

After recognising the negative effects of television on children, the American Academy of Pediatrics (2001) recommended that children of 2 years and over watch less than 2 hours of television per day. It was also advised that children under 2 not be exposed to television. This was due to evidence supporting the idea that television can have a negative effect on children's health, performance, language development, cognitive development and attitudes. Strasburger (1986) found that high television viewing had a negative effect on schoolchildren's learning and performance. Collins (1991) claim that television reduces preschool children's perseverance increases their impulsivity and induces restlessness. These results were found in their study on distractibility and children's persistence at a puzzle. Singer et al, (1991) also assessed children's restlessness and found that those who watch more violent television showed more restlessness. Dennison, Erb and Jenkins (2002) found that obesity in preschool children is linked with the increased hours of television they view. They state that children with a television in their bedroom watch more hours of television per day and are more likely to be obese. Christakis and Zimmerman, (2007) found that viewing of violent television programs in children was associated with an increased risk of antisocial behaviour for boys but not for girls. However, educational or nonviolent programming did not associate with hostile behaviour for boys or girls. They suggested that as viewing of violent programming by preschool boys is associated with subsequent aggressive behaviour, content viewed by young children should be modified. Other findings have linked early television exposure with cognitive and attention problems in young children. A longitudinal study conducted by Christakis, Zimmerman, DiGiuseppe and McCarty (2004) found that hours of television viewed per day at age 3 were associated with attention problems at age 7. High action and violence in children's television programmes has been linked with lower social interaction and imaginative play in children (Huston-Stein et al, 1981). However, there are still mixed findings regarding the effects of television on imaginative play. According to Singer and Singer (2001) on one hand television is believed to reduce imaginative capacities in children and is seen as passive, and on the other hand it has been seen to improve children's creative thinking skills. Powell (2001) suggests that children's imaginative play is based upon the television programs and characters they view.

Bandura's Social Learning Theory (1962) argued that children are able to learn and imitate behaviours observed on television. His “Bobo Doll” experiment demonstrated that behaviour from a televised model was as likely to be modelled by children as behaviours of a real life model. According to the Social Learning Theory, television is one of many factors which contribute to learning and development. This could also raise awareness to the explanation of gender role acquisition and aggression. The theory puts forward the suggestion that the foundations of human behaviour are a set of learning principles; these have been noted as observation, reinforcement and imitation. In terms of obtaining certain concepts, Social Learning theorists would claim that this occurs through children observing the particular behaviour, receiving reinforcement through attitudes and example, until finally imitating it and eventually adopting the behaviour (Bussey and Bandura, 1999).

Although the Social Learning theory has been very influential and insightful as to how children learn from their environment and make sense of what they see, many theories have criticised it. Some researchers have criticised the behaviourist approach as failing to appreciate what sense children make of the models they are presented with in television. It presumes that the child is passive and suggests that individuals are shaped by their environment, and learn exclusively through their surroundings. Worthman and Loftus (1992) criticise the morality and ethical validity of the “Bobo Doll” experiment and suggest that the children in the experiment were provoked into aggressive behaviour. Jeffrey (1990) has also disputed the theory as it fails to recognise individual differences. Feshbach and Singer (1971) opposed the Social Learning theory and proposed that violence on television allows viewers to eradicate themselves of negative feelings and therefore reduces the likelihood of them displaying aggressive behaviour. This was found in their study of juvenile boys' television viewing. Cooke (1993) also argued that if violence on television causes aggression, then the positive, educational value of television is significant in teaching children positive behaviours.

Huston and Wright (1983) point out that children are often cognitively active when watching television as they cognitively make sense of the world around them. This suggests that children are not just passively watching television but are active viewers. Other studies have also suggested that television may provide positive televised models for children to learn from. Linebarger and Kosanic (2001) conducted an evaluation of the children's program “Dora the Explorer”. They found that young viewers were able to learn from the program and increase their vocabulary. Grela et al (2003) support these findings and reported that toddlers learnt new language from a televised model. They further reported that those who watched the children's program “Teletubbies” did not learn language due to the poor language and lack of elicitation of involvement and interaction. This implies that children can learn language and communication from specific programs that promote language development; therefore television can enable children to learn in a significant way. Wright et al (2001) proposed from their experiment that earlier television viewing was a strong predictor of later school readiness and vocabulary than later viewing. This suggests that the early experience of viewing and learning from televised models is beneficial in assisting children's comprehension of the positive messages portrayed in television. However this can also be seen as harmful if the messages are negative and the child is being exposed to the repetition of the negative stimulus. Research by Singer and Singer (1998) has demonstrated that preschool children watching “Barney and Friends” showed improved cognitive skills and attitudes. These included number skills, vocabulary, knowledge of shapes, colours and manners as well as positive feelings and attitudes. Linebarger and Walker (2005) point out that although there is modest evidence which shows that children may learn from a televised model, it is limited in contrast with learning from a live model.

A considerable amount of research has been conducted around the theme of children's television and gender role acquisition (Smith, 1994). How children learn about, or acquire gender roles has become an increasingly prominent issue and many researchers have suggested that children's television portrays gender stereotypes that children grow up with. Calvert and Huston (1987) found that gender stereotyped behaviour patterns are commonly portrayed in children's media. It is believed by Golombok and Fivush (1994) that stereotypes encourage children to behave in certain ways. Pierce (1989) argues that television teaches children a great deal about gender stereotyped behaviours, this is because it brings a profusion of observable models into the child's home. Television offers a wide range of potential role models; these can be both positive and negative. Morley (1986) brings to the fore that it is not imminent that children accept television gender images without question, not all individuals are passive subjects of stereotyping. It has been suggested that children are more likely to imitate the behaviour of same sex models than opposite sex models (Courtney and Whipple, 1983). This could be due to reward and reinforcement from parents and peers, or due to more precise recall about the behaviour of their own gender. Positive correlations were discovered between the amount of television viewing and gender stereotyped answers given to following tests.

Gender differences in children's preference of television and amount of viewing have also been observed. Bianchi and Robinson (1997) put forward that gender differences in television viewing appear at 4-5 years. Many studies have found that young boys watch more television than girls, especially violent or action packed cartoons (Huston and Wright, 1977; Braithewaite and Holmes, 1981; Ozmert et al, 2002). However, when it comes to educational programmes, there appears to be no gender differences (Anderson and Field, 1983). Maccoby and Wilson, 1957 have found that children pay more attention to same gender characters. However Anderson and Lorch (1983) found in their highly controlled lab experiment that children are most attentive to television when they hear certain cues such as women's, childrens' or puppet's voices but not with men's voices.

Warren (2003) found that parent's attitudes towards television affected their intervention of restricting television viewing, to benefit their preschool children. Past studies have concluded that children who come from families in which parents are heavy television viewers are more likely to have a high viewing rate (Anderson et al, 1979; Holman and Braithwaite, 1982). Recent research has also reported positive correlations between parents' and children's extensive television viewing (Jordan, 2006). It was also found that in some cases, parents show lack of concern that television viewing is a problem for their children and may portray a positive image of their children's television viewing due to educational value and positive learning (Usha et al, 1993). Parents did not see a strong need to control their children's television viewing and who were less concerned about the negative effects of television had children with high television viewing habits (Holman and Braithwaite, 1982). Singer et al, (1991) reiterated that children who had parents more tolerable to television viewing were more likely to watch violent television. Cheng et al (2004) observed a distinction among parents' attitudes and procedures regarding television viewing and supervising; these were the age of the child and the gender of the parent. Mothers reported showing more concern about the content of the programs their children watched on television. Television monitoring was also seen to decrease as the child's age increased. More recently, He et al (2009) found that television related inactive behaviour was linked with children having televisions in their bedrooms. Those children who had strict parental rules regarding television viewing, and negative attitudes towards screen related sedentary behaviour as well as positive attitudes towards physical activity were less likely to be at risk. He et al (2010) later reported from their findings that high viewing children and parents had less negative attitudes towards excessive television viewing. Parents with high viewing children also enforced less rules.

The aim of this study is to examine preschool children's television viewing habits. More specifically to examine the amount of television watched, the types of programmes watched, any gender specific preferences and parental attitudes towards television programmes. It also aims to raise awareness of this issue to parents, carers and child care providers about the amount of television young children watch and the effects it may have on their play behaviour. The rationale behind this study that is there are a number of concerns relating to the rise in television viewing in preschoolers (Barkham, 2009). However, there is no data locally which indicates the amount of toddlers' television viewing habits and their parents attitudes towards them, therefore this study aims to fill that gap.

Research Questions

1: How many hours of television do preschool children watch per day?

2: What are the types of television programmes that preschoolers watch on television?

3: What are the parents' attitudes towards preschool children's television viewing?


H1: Boys will watch more action packed programmes than girls. This is based on the studies of Huston and Wright (1977) who found that boys watch violent and action packed cartoons and are drawn towards the male role models.

H2: There will be a positive correlation between parents' attitudes towards television viewing and the amount of hours that preschoolers watch television. This is based upon findings that parents who are less concerned about the negative effects of television have high viewing children (Holman and Braithwaite, 1982).

H3: The programmes that children watch will be reflected in their play behaviour. This is established through the findings of Powell (2001) who found that children's imaginative play is based on the television they watch.