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. In the United States questions about
program content and its use by children, about television's influence
on children's attitudes, knowledge and behavior, and about the appropriate
public policy toward children's television have been central to
the discussion of this medium throughout its half century as the
In the 1950s,
children's programs and the benefits that television could presumably
bring to the family were highly touted selling points for television
sets. By 1951, the networks' schedules included up to 27 hours of
children's programs. Like much of television programming, offerings
for children continued radio's tradition of action-adventure themes
and a pattern of late afternoon and evening broadcasts. An early
reliance on movies as a program staple was lessened in favor of
half-hour live-action shows such as The Lone Ranger, Sky King,
or Lassie, and host/puppet shows such as Howdy Doody and
Kukla, Fran and Ollie. By the mid-1950s programs had found
their place on Saturday morning, and by decade's end the thirty-minute,
once-a-week format was established.
During the 1960s
almost all other forms gave way to animation. Reduced costs resulting
from limited action animation techniques, and the clear appeal of
cartoons to children, transformed scheduling, and the institutionalization
of Saturday morning cartoons became complete--an unexpected lucrative
time slot for the networks. Popular shows included The Flintstones,
The Jetsons, Bullwinkle, and Space Ghost.
The 1970s have
been described as a video mosaic in which sixty- or ninety-minute
shows incorporated a number of segments under umbrella labels such
as The New Super Friends Hour or Scooby Laff-a-Lympics.
These extended shows were designed to increase audience flow across
the entire morning.
in the 1980s was influenced by the "television revolution" as the
growth of cable and VCR penetration began to erode the network audience,
and international co-ventures began to change the production process.
Cartoons remained the standard children's fare, but live action
shows began to increase in number. Cable networks such as Nickelodeon
and Disney, devoted primarily to children, as well as cable networks
with extensive children's programming like Discovery, Learning Channel,
USA, TBS, the Family Channel and Lifetime, have experimented extensively
in programming for children. They have produced live action programs,
including game shows, puppet shows, magazine format news and variety
programs, and live action drama/adventures shows frequently incorporating
anthropomorphic creatures into the storyline.
The 1990s have
been influenced by the Children's Television Act with many educational
shows joining the available programming. Since 1990, for example,
eight of the nine Peabody Awards for children's programs were for
informational or educational programs.
While it is
the case that most of the television viewed by children is of programs
not specifically considered "children's shows," the production of
children's programming is big business, often defined by the ways
in which "children's shows" are distinctive. "Children's shows"
are those which garner a majority of a child audience, traditionally
the Saturday morning programs. These shows are almost always profitable.
Because the child audience changes rapidly, and because children
do not seem to mind watching reruns, the programs are shown as many
as four times a year, a factor that reduces production costs without
reduction in program availability or profitability. Moreover, a
strong syndication market for off-network children's shows, adds
to the profits.
For many of
these reasons the major networks have traditionally exerted strong
control over production in the five or six production houses they
routinely use. Each network has a vice-president for children's
programming who uses other advisors and often relies on extensive
marketing research, as do The Children's Television Workshop and
the Nickelodeon cable network.
Both those who
purchase and those who produce children's programs operate with
assumptions about the child audience that, although changing, remain
important. They assume, for example, that there are gender differences
in preferences, but an important corollary is the assumption that
while girls will watch "boys' shows," boys will not watch "girls'
shows." They assume that older children control the set, an assumption
related to the axiom that younger children will watch "up" (in age
appeal) but that older children will not watch "down." The producers
and purchasers assume that children have a short attention span,
that repetition is a key to education and entertainment, and that
children prefer recognizable characters and stories.
The body of
television content emerging from these economic and industrial practices,
and based on these and similar assumptions, has been a central component
of "childhood" since the 1950s. Because they are seen as a special
"class" or "group" of both citizens and viewers, great concern for
the role of television in the lives of children has accompanied
the development of the medium. As a result of this concern issues
surrounding children and television have often been framed as "social
problems," issues of central concern to numerous groups. Large-scale
academic research enterprises have been mounted to monitor, analyze,
and explain relationships between television and children. Congress,
regulatory agencies, advocacy groups, and the television networks
have struggled continuously over research findings, public responsibility,
and popular response. And significant policy decisions continue
to be made based both on that research and on the political and
economic power that is brought to bear on these issues.
of Television Violence
these policy debates, citizens' actions, and network responses,
the issue of violence in television programming has been central
to concerns regarding children and television. As an aspect of television
content, violence has traditionally been measured quantitatively
by researchers who count incidents of real or threatened physical
injury. Gerbner and his colleagues have conducted such analyses
yearly since 1967. Their violence index shows a fairly stable level
of prime-time violence over the past 25 years. The question then
becomes, what is the effect of this type of programming on children.
In the 1960s
researchers used experimental methods to investigate the impact
of media violence. Albert Bandura's social learning theory (also
called observational learning or modeling theory) argued that children
could easily learn and model behaviors observed on film or television.
Sometimes known as the "Bobo doll" studies, these experiments demonstrated
that children who viewed filmed violent actions were as likely to
imitate those actions as were children who saw live modeling of
those actions. Many extensions of this basic finding established
that modeling was influenced by other attributes of the children
such as their prior level of aggressiveness. Context and message,
specifically the punishment or reinforcement of the filmed aggressor,
and the presence of an adult in the viewing or imitation context,
emerged as other significant factors in the modeling behavior. Later
laboratory studies used more realistic measures of aggression and
programming that more closely resembled primetime television. Field
experiments were also conducted, in which viewing in real life situations
(home, camps, schools) was manipulated.
In a series
of experiments, two opposing theories, catharsis and stimulation,
were investigated. Catharsis holds that viewing violence purges
the individual of negative feelings and thus lessens the likelihood
of aggressive behavior. Stimulation predicted the opposite. No support
for the catharsis theory emerged from the research; stimulation
was found to be more likely.
the experimental studies demonstrated that the process of televisual
influence on children is indeed complicated. Still, the results
from laboratory experiments do demonstrate that shortly after exposure
to violent programming, children are more likely to show an increase
in their own levels of aggression. But how would these laboratory
findings translate into real life?
studies, surveys, tell little about cause and effect, but they do
avoid the artificiality of laboratory studies. If viewing is associated
with television violence, then individuals who watch a great deal
of violent television should also score high on survey scales that
measure aggressive behavior. The results from a large number of
such surveys are remarkably consistent: there is a small but consistent
association between viewing violent television and aggressive tendencies.
Yet another form of survey research, panel studies, tackles the
question of causality by looking at the same individuals over time.
In the case of television violence, the question is: does television
viewing at Time 1 relate to aggression at Time 2; or, conversely,
could the causal linkage be reversed, suggesting that aggressive
behavior leads to a propensity to view violent television content?
Only a few such studies exist but, again, the findings are generally
consistent. Although the effect is small, watching television violence
can be reached from this large, ongoing body of research? Television
does contribute to aggressive behavior--however, television is only
one of many causes of aggression. Many other factors unrelated to
television influence violence, and the precise impact of televised
violence will be modified by age, sex, family practices, and the
way violence is presented. One statement is frequently repeated:
television has large effects on a small number of individuals, and
modest effects on a large number of people. The questions and approaches
continue to be refined, and currently, groups funded by both the
cable and network industries are studying levels of violence and
its appearance in context, in order to provide better information
on the type of violence being shown.
and Cognitive Development
violence is often the most visible and debated aspect of questions
linking children and television it is hardly the only topic that
concerns researchers. Other inquiry focused on potential effects
of the medium on patterns of thinking and understanding has prompted
extensive research. Posed negatively, the question is: does television
mesmerize attention, promote passive or overstimulated children,
while wrecking creativity and imagination? To explore such concerns,
cognitive developmental approaches to television and children have
typically examined attention, comprehension, and inference.
to television has often been characterized as "active" versus "passive."
Popular concern about the "zombie" viewer suggests that children
enter some altered stated of consciousness when viewing television.
But this generalization has received little research support. However,
one notion that seems to underlie many implicit theories of children's
attraction to the screen is that children's viewing is governed
by the novelty of the visual stimulus, rapid formal features such
as movements, visual complexity, cuts, pans, zooms, which produce
an orienting reflex.
A theory of
active television viewing suggests that attention is linked to comprehension.
Thus, when visual or auditory features of television content suggest
to the young viewer that it is designed "for children," attention
is turned to that content. When material is no longer comprehensible,
becomes boring, or when distractions occur, attention is deflected.
This theory of child attentional patterns has received substantial
support and has indicated specific stages. Attention to television
is fragmentary before the age of two; visual attention increases
during the preschool years, with a major shift in amount and pattern
of attention occurring between 24 and 30 months. Frequently beginning
around the age of eight, visual attention to TV decreases (presumably
as the decoding of television becomes routine), and the attention
pattern begins to resemble that of an adult.
to perception and evaluation of television content, children clearly
operate on different dimensions than adults who produce programs.
Understanding television programming requires a fairly complex set
of tasks for children, including selective attention to the events
portrayed, perceiving an orderly organization of events, and making
inferences about information given implicitly. Comprehension research
has examined both verbal and visual decoding and determined that
comprehension is a function of both cognitive development and experience.
Younger children have difficulty with a number of tasks involved
in understanding television programs: separating central from peripheral
content, comprehending the sequence of events, recalling events
and segments, and understanding causation. As well, they find it
difficult to complete such inferential tasks as understanding intersections
of motivation, action, and consequence, or evaluating the "reality"
of programs and characters. The comprehension of forms and conventions--sometimes
termed "formal features"--is similarly grounded in developmental
stages, with surprisingly early recognition of the time and space
ellipses of cuts or the part whole relationship of zooms. Such complex
storytelling functions as point of view shots or flashbacks, however,
are unclear to children through much of the first decade.
Within the Family
In most cases,
this viewing and the development of skills and strategies occurs
within a family context filled with other activities and other individuals.
The average child watches television a little more than four hours
a day. Childhood viewing peaks somewhere around 12 years of age
and declines during adolescence to a little more than three hours
per day. Children do most of their viewing during the weekday hours
with only 10% of their viewing on Saturday and Sunday mornings.
Viewing amount varies by gender and race, with blue collar families
averaging more television viewing more than white collar families
and blacks viewing more than whites. Television provides the backdrop
for growing up, and studies show that children often play, eat,
do homework, and talk while "watching tv."
Viewing is not
usually solitary. Children and adults view together and do many
other things while watching. The family has a say in creating the
context in which television will be consumed, a context involving
who decides what to watch, sibling or parental conflict over viewing,
and the rules for decision making. Although many families report
few rules, there may be subtle as well as direct rules about television
use. For example, children may not be allowed to watch until they
have completed important tasks such as homework or chores, or there
may be a requirement that television must be turned off at a certain
time. When parents report rules, they report control of when younger
children can watch; older children have rules about what they can
context is modified by processes of "mediation," a term used to
refer to the role of social interaction in relation to television's
use in the home and the potential impact of television within the
family. Some mediation is direct and intentional--parents make specific
comments about programs. Other mediation may be indirect or unintentional,
as in general comments about alternative activities, discussions
of social or personal issues generated by media content, and talk
loosely tied to content. Parents and siblings may respond to questions
with evaluative comments, interpretive comments, explanations of
forms and codes, and/or discussions of morality or desirability
One result related
to the complexity of viewing practices has emerged very clearly
from research conducted within a number of different contexts: interaction
with parents during viewing increases comprehension and learning
from television. In middle childhood, peer and sibling co-viewing
involves talk about television action and evaluation of that action.
Parental comments on the importance, truthfulness, and relevance
of media are common at this age.
Ding Dong School
In many ways general notions of how children learn from television
and specific aspects of educational television were revolutionized
by the premier of Sesame Street in 1969. Viewed by over 6 million
preschoolers every week in the United States and internationally,
this production is also one of the most studied television programs.
Research focused on Sesame Street has provided ample evidence to
suggest that young children can learn skills from the show, and
that these skills will contribute to their early educational success.
Many other programs produced by the Children's Television Workshop,
by public broadcasting stations, independent producers, and state
departments of education have been constructed to teach educational
concepts ranging from reading to international understanding.
to these educational programs are prosocial programs which model
socially valued responses for viewers. Prosocial behavior is usually
defined as "good for persons and society" and may include lessons
on the value of cooperation, self-control, helping, sharing, and
understanding those who are different. Mr. Rogers Neighborhood,
for example, is a classic prosocial program.
with the knowledge gained from research focused on television's
ability to teach specific skills, the medium is frequently castigated
for interfering in the education of children. Achievement, intellectual
ability, grades, and reading show complex relationships with television
viewing. For example, the relationship between television viewing
and academic performance is not clear cut. Children who spend a
great deal of time watching television do poorly in school but children
who spend a moderate amount of time with TV perform better than
non-viewers. The small negative relationship between IQ and television
viewing masks some important subgroup differences, such as age (high
IQ is positively correlated with viewing until the teens) and gender
(with the negative relationship holding stronger for boys than for
girls). Reading and television viewing are positively correlated
up to a threshold of about ten hours of viewing per week. Only when
television viewing rises above a certain level does it seem to be
related to less reading. Overall, the data suggest that television
has a small adverse effect on learning.
addition to the many ways in which television can influence the
learning of specific educational concepts, or the ways in which
basic television behavior affects other forms of learning, the medium
can also teach indirect lessons. Socialization, especially sex role
socialization, has been a continuing concern because television
so frequently presents basic images of gender. In prime time programming
men outnumber women two or three to one. Women are younger than
men and tend to be cast in more stereotypic roles, and tend to be
less active, more likely to be victimized, less aggressive, and
more limited in employment than men. Children's programs are similarly
sex stereotyped with women generally underrepresented, stereotyped,
and less central to the program. Cultivation analysis suggests that
a relationship exists between viewing and stereotypical conceptions
about gender roles. Nonetheless, some improvement has been made.
Research on the impact of gender representation reveals that children
do understand the images and want to be like same sex television
characters, and it seems clear that counter stereotypical images
are helpful in combating stereotypes.
research examining race role socialization shows similar patterns,
suggesting that limited portrayals and stereotyped roles can contribute
to skewed perceptions by race. Although African-Americans have frequently
been portrayed negatively, other minority groups such as Asians
and Hispanics have simply been missing from the screen world--a
process sometimes called symbolic annihilation.
the content of fictional representations, all parents would agree
that children learn from television advertising. Researchers initially
assumed children had minimal comprehension of the selling intent
of advertising and children verbally described advertisement as
an "informational service." Nonverbal measures, however, demonstrated
that children understood that commercials persuaded them to buy
products. Social scientists have studied a number of potential effects
of advertising. These include the frequent requests for products,
the modification of self-esteem, the relations of advertising to
obesity, and to alcohol and cigarette consumption. This research
has been dominated by a deficit model in which children are defined
as unable to distinguish selling intent, or as easily misled by
what they see.
Such vulnerability on the part of children explains, in part, the
designation of "children and television" as a specific topic for
political as well as intellectual concern. Politicians and the public
worried about the effects of media on children long before television,
of course. Novels, movies, music, radio, comic books, all came under
scrutiny for their potential negative consequences on the behaviors
and attitudes of the young. But in the 1950s, the spotlight turned
first congressional hearings, predictably, addressed violence on
television, and were held in the House Interstate and Foreign Commerce
Subcommittee in June of 1952. Network representatives were called
to testify about television and violence before the Senate Subcommittee
on Juvenile Delinquency headed by Estes Kefauver in 1954 and 1955.
In 1964 the same committee again held hearings and issued a report
critical of television programming and concluding that television
was a factor in shaping the attitudes and character of the young
the wake of the urban unrest and violence of the 1960s, a Presidential
Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence was formed to
examine the issues of violence in society. The report, basing its
conclusions on a review of existing research, indicted television
as part of the problem of violence. At the instigation of Senator
John Pastore of Rhode Island, the United States Surgeon General
commissioned a series of studies of televised violence and its effects
on children. This work resulted in what is popularly termed The
Surgeon General's Report of 1972, in which 23 research projects
in five volumes focused on many issues surrounding television. The
committee's main conclusion was that there was a causal link between
viewing television violence and subsequent antisocial acts. Despite
some initial confused reporting of the findings, the consensus that
had emerged among the researchers was made clear in subsequent hearings.
In 1982, a ten-year update of the Surgeon General's Report was released.
It underscored the findings of the earlier report and also documented
other areas in which television was having an impact, particularly
on perceptions of reality, social relationships, health, and education.
this long history of public regulatory debate on television, government
commissions and citizen action groups were pursuing related agendas.
Key to these interactions were the Federal Communications Commission
(FCC), the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), and citizens' advocacy
and action groups. Always involved in these disputes, whether directly
or indirectly, were the major television networks, their industry
associations, usually the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB),
and advertisers. Action for Children's Television (ACT) was the
citizens' group most directly engaged in legal procedures and policy
in 1968 by Peggy Charren, Action for Children's Television was formed
to increase availability of quality programming for children. Unsuccessful
at obtaining cooperation from the networks directly, ACT turned
to political action. In 1970, the organization presented a petition
to the FCC intended to change a number of FCC policies regarding
children's programming. A resulting inquiry launched unprecedented
response. Hearings were held, and in 1974 the FCC Children's
TV Report and Policy Statement offered specific guidelines
such as: a limit of nine and a half advertising minutes per hour
in children's programs, the use of separation devices indicating
divisions between commercials and programs, the elimination of host
selling, and the directive that children's programs not be confined
to one day--(Saturday morning television had become synonymous with
children's television). Later reviews suggested that the networks
were not meeting these requirements or their obligations to serve
children, but further regulatory action in the 1980s was blocked
by the shift toward a deregulatory stance at the FCC and in the
the Federal Trade Commission ACT was also at work, petitioning for
the regulation of advertising directed at children. In 1977 the
group presented a petition requesting that advertising of candy
in children's programs be banned. The FTC responded with a notice
that it would consider rulemaking to ban all ads to audiences too
young to understand selling intent, to ban ads for sugared products,
or to require that counter and corrective advertising be aired in
order to counteract advertising of sugared products. Hearings were
held, but lobbying efforts by networks and advertisers were very
strong. Congress passed a bill eliminating the power of the FTC
to rule on "unfair" practices, and restricting its focus to the
regulation of "deceptive" practices. In 1981, the FTC issued a formal
report dropping the inquiry. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s ACT
was engaged with the FCC and FTC in many other ways, representing
petitions dealing with matters such as the banning of program length
commercials (programs designed primarily to provide product exposure
and create consumer demand), or the evaluation individual ads deemed
citizen action groups have also been involved with issues surrounding
television. The National Coalition on Television Violence (NCTV)
has focused on television violence and efforts to educate the public
and curb such content. The National Citizen Committee for Broadcasting
monitored programs and identified companies that support television
violence. The PTA threatened boycott of products and programs. The
Coalition for Better Television (CBTV) was successful in pressuring
some advertisers to boycott sponsors of programs with sexual themes.
by the 1990s, the regulation of children's media was back on the
legislative agenda. The 1990 Children's Television Act was the first
congressional act that specifically regulated children's television.
Most importantly, it imposed an obligation on broadcasters to serve
the educational and informational needs of children. These are further
defined as cognitive/intellectual or social/emotional needs. Although
no minimum number of hours was established as a requirement, the
obligation of some regularly scheduled programming specifically
designed for children was established. Stations were also mandated
to keep a log of that programming and to make the log available
in a public inspection file. In a 1992 move widely viewed as an
effort to stave off a federally imposed ratings system for violence,
the three networks announced new standards, forswearing gratuitous
violence; later they agreed to include on-screen advisories prior
to the presentation of strong programs. In spite of these proposals
all the issues emerged again in the Telecommunications Act of 1996.
major legislative package that rewrote the 1934 Communications Act,
the many provisions of the act will take years to sort out. But,
in February of 1996 the Telecommunications Act was signed into law.
Of relevance to the children and television arena were provisions
requiring the installation of an electronic monitoring device in
television sets, a "V-chip" which would "read" violence ratings
and allow families to block violent programming. Moreover, the networks
have been charged with creating a self-designed and regulated ratings
system, similar to that used by the Motion Picture Association of
America, which would designate specific content depicting degrees
of violence, sexual behavior, suitable language, and other controversial
content. The bill includes the threat of a governmentally imposed
system if the networks do not comply, but concerns about constitutionality
and practicality of such a ratings system suggest that the issue
will be under debate for many years. In all these research and policy
areas much of what we know comes from the study of children enjoying
television as it has existed for almost half a century. But that
traditional knowledge, like the traditional definition of television
itself, is being challenged by emerging telecommunications technologies.
Cable, video games, and VCRs changed the face of television within
the home. The Internet, a 500-channel world, increasing international
programming ventures, and regulatory changes will change the way
children interact with electronic media. The special place of children
in human societies assures, however, that the concerns that have
surrounded their interaction with television will remain central,
even if they are shifted to new and different media.
Barrie, and Jill L. McAleer. Children and Television: The One
Eyed Monster? New York: Routledge, 1990.
Robert M., and Joyce Sprafkin. The Early Window: Effects of Television
on Children and Youth. New York: Pergamon, 1973; 3rd edition,
Nancy. A Sourcebook on Children and Television. New York:
Evra, Judith. Television and Child Development. Hillsdale,
New Jersey: Erlbaum, 1990.
Research; Cartoons; Blue
Television Workshop; Cooney,
Joan Ganz; Family
Viewing Time; Grange
Doody Show; Kukla,
Fran and Ollie; Laybourne,
to Avonlea; Watch