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. 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 electronic hearth.

Children's Programming

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.

Children's programming 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.

The Effects of Television Violence

Throughout all 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.

Taken together, 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?

Correlational 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 encourages aggression.

What conclusions 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.

Television and Cognitive Development

While televisual 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.

Children's attention 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.

With regard 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.

Television 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 watch.

Often this 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 of behavior.

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

Learning from Television

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.

Related 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.

Even 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.

In 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.

Some 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.

Beyond 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.

History and Policy

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 to television.

The 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 people.

In 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.

During 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 actions.

Founded 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 courts.

At 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 deceptive.

Other 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.

But 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.

A 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.

-Allison Alexander


Gunter, Barrie, and Jill L. McAleer. Children and Television: The One Eyed Monster? New York: Routledge, 1990.

Liebert, Robert M., and Joyce Sprafkin. The Early Window: Effects of Television on Children and Youth. New York: Pergamon, 1973; 3rd edition, 1988.

Signorielli, Nancy. A Sourcebook on Children and Television. New York: Greenwood, 1991.

Van Evra, Judith. Television and Child Development. Hillsdale, New Jersey: Erlbaum, 1990.


See also Audience Research; Cartoons; Blue Peter; Children's Television Workshop; Cooney, Joan Ganz; Family Viewing Time; Grange Hill; Howdy Doody Show; Kukla, Fran and Ollie; Laybourne, Geraldine; Muppet Show; Pee-wee's Playhouse; Road to Avonlea; Watch with Mother