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Kids and TV- Effects of television on children
At different ages, children watch and understand television in different ways, depending on the length of their attention span and the way in which they process information. These variables must be examined to gain an understanding of how television violence affects children at different ages. Psychological research has found that televised violence has numerous effects on the behaviour of children of different ages. These include the imitation of violence and crime seen on television towards behaving aggressively, and the displacing of activities, such as socializing with other children and interacting with adults, that would teach children non-violent ways to solve conflicts.
An analysis of almost 300 studies in 1986 found that preschoolers tend to demonstrate more physical aggression and other anti-social behaviour as a result of watching violence on television than older children. During adolescence, the effect of violent television programs increases for boys and decreases quite dramatically for girls. The focus of this study is on the effects of television violence on children between infant and preschool ages.
By the time infants are three months old, they can pay attention to a television set for short periods of time, but this seems to demand a great deal of effort. By six months old, infants can direct their own attention to the television and maintain that attention for as long as 16 minutes. Infants in Japan appear to be more attentive television viewers than infant in the United States. Exposure of American infants seems to be largely incidental, occurring only because the infant is in the same room as other family members who are watching the television. In Japan, mothers make an effort to ensure that their infants watch educational television during its scheduled broadcast times. It has been found that Japanese infants, like American infants, are exposed to television programming for approximately two hours per day. Almost 80 percent of the mothers surveyed reported evidence of involved viewing, such as imitating hand clapping. Fourteen month old infants were found to pay attention to and imitate a televised demonstration of an adult using a toy in a new way. The demonstration was done with black and white film with no background music and with a live actor. These 14 month old infants imitated the behaviour they had seen on the screen even if they had to delay their imitation until a day later because the toy was not available. It appears that infants can imitate behaviour from television when the behaviour is presented in a simple, uncluttered and instructional manner.
No research has focussed on the specific effects of television violence of infants. Since infants show so little interest in what adults consider to be content, it might be argued that violence is largely irrelevant to them. It has been shown that infants can imitate televised behaviour, but only with material that is simple, uncluttered, and presented in an instructional manner. Violence on television does not have these characteristics. Since there is some possibility that infants will imitate what they see on television, parents and caregivers might want to limit their infants' exposure to television violence or other portrayals of actions.
At about the age of two and a half, children dramatically change their approach to watching television. They spend about the same amount of time near a television set as infants; however they pay three to four times more attention than before. This change appears to be part of a more general development in children's ability to represent objects and actions internally as thoughts, words and memories. It is this developing ability that allows children to extract meaning from television content at this age. By the time children are three years old, they have become established television viewers, with most having a favourite program. They watch an average of two hours of television a day and show significant loyalty to particular types of programs, such as children's educational programs, action-adventure shows, situation comedies and game shows. Like older viewers, their program choices are based on program scheduling, but they also have strong preferences for cartoons and other programs that characters that move fast. They are particularly likely to watch children's educational programs.
We know that toddlers are capable of learning verbal and non-verbal behaviours from television. Toddlers will imitate both what they see on television and what they hear. At this age, children may establish television viewing patterns that will expose them to high levels of violent content throughout the rest of their childhood. It has been found that viewing patterns established at the preschool stage persist into and through elementary school age years.
Children are highly influenced by their parents' viewing habits as they establish their own viewing patterns. An influential action which parents and caregivers can take is to examine and regulate their own viewing behaviour. Toddlers will imitate what they see and hear on television, therefore it might also be wise for parents to prevent their children from being exposed to content that portrays violent actions that might lead toddlers to harm themselves or others.
A great deal of the research on the effects of television violence has been directed at preschoolers. Strong effects of televised violence for both girls and boys in this age group have been reported, especially when the violence is in a cartoon format. Preschoolers demonstrate a strong tendency to focus on the most physically obvious features of their environment at a time. By the beginning of preschool age, children are using symbolic processes known as schema. These schemas allow children to begin developing organized expectations about what things are like, what features and events regularly go together and are in the same category, and what events are likely to follow each other in sequence. As children develop, they become more capable of telling the difference between pictures, images and events that are important. Since their ability to form schemas depends upon their accumulated experience, as well as, on their cognitive development, preschoolers remain quite dependent on physical features while their own personal guiding schemas are developing. This style of processing information leads preschoolers to watch television with an exploration approach. They actively search for meaning in the television content, but they are still especially attracted to vivid production features such as rapid character movement, rapid changes of scene and character, varied settings, intense or unexpected sights and sounds, loud music, and peculiar or non human voices. Vivid production features are especially important as attention=getters for preschoolers, because at this age they are watching an operating screen in the same room only about half the time the set is on. During the time they are not watching, they appear to keep listening, and will frequently turn their visual attention back to the screen in response to an obvious feature such as loud music or sound effects. They are probably keeping an ear tuned more for signals that they should look at the screen to see what is going on, rather than as a way to keep up with plot events in the program by listening to the sound track.
By the time children are at the preschool age, they have developed a sophisticated understanding of formal features of programming, but they still miss the meaning of more subtle features. For example, they readily recognize the format of animation (cartoons) as a signal that the content is meant for them.
Preschoolers are predisposed to seek out and pay attention to televised violence because such violence is accompanied for formal features such as loud music, rapid movement, rapid scene changes, and sound effects that attract the attention of preschoolers. The violent content itself is conveyed visually, making it especially likely that preschoolers will learn it easily. Preschoolers overwhelmingly prefer and pay close attention to cartoons. These are the types of shows that are considered to be violent. Saturday morning cartoons, for example, have 20 to 25 violent acts per hour compared with five violent acts per hour in prime time programming. With their preference for cartoons, preschoolers are therefore being exposed to large numbers of violent acts in their viewing day. Based on their viewing patterns, it has been estimated that, by the time they start school, children will have seen an average of 8,000 murders and 100,000 assorted other acts of violence and destruction on television.
Analysis of children's viewing preferences and attention to television has revealed that it is not the violence itself that makes cartoons attractive to preschoolers, but the formal features of the cartoons, such as rapid character movement, sound effects, and loud music. Children are just as attracted to nonviolent cartoons and to live action shows that have these formal features. Although it may be reassuring to know that preschoolers are drawn to the action of violent television rather than to the violent content itself, watching high levels of television action may also make children more aggressive. Preschool age children have been found to behave more aggressively than usual in their play after watching high action television with no violence in it at all. It has been found that high excitement level alone is sufficient to increase their aggression, and that vivid formal features produce such levels of excitement. It has also been demonstrated that violent content produces substantial effects over and above those brought about by the excitement alone.
In studies that specifically compared the effects of live action violence with those of cartoon violence, the live action violence was found to have a substantially larger effect on aggressive behaviour than the cartoon violence. An Australian study found the combination of violent cartoons and toys related to the cartoon violence to be particularly potent: both boys and girls were more likely to be physically and verbally aggressive with another preschooler if they had just watched a violent cartoon together; this was especially true if they also had toys related to cartoons in their play area. An analysis of children's heroes from 1900 to 1980 and a survey of adults who grew up before and after television confirmed that preschoolers today are more likely to choose fantasy heroes over real life heroes in their play, more likely to engage in more heroic adventure play, and more likely to learn about heroes and play themes from television rather than from friends, siblings or parents.
About 50 percent of preschoolers report having been scared by something seen on television. In fact one of the most frightening television segments found for preschoolers is the highly fantastic transformation of The Incredible Hulk in the children's television series of that name. Preschoolers find the Hulk himself terrifying and think he is evil as a result of his physical appearance, because they do not understand that things can remain the same while looking different and that the Hulk is, in fact, the same character.
The most common ways parents and caregivers can help young children cope with fears about what they see on television are cognitive strategies such as talking to the children about the program or explaining that the scary parts are not real. Although these strategies work well with older children, they do not work with preschoolers. In another example, virtually all the preschoolers in a 1984 study were able to answer correctly that the wicked witch in The Wizard of Oz was not real, if they had previously been given that information. However, these children were just as frightened as children who had not been told to remember that the witch was not real when both groups viewed the witch threatening Dorothy on the television screen. One possible explanation is perhaps that adults misunderstand what children mean when they use the words real and pretend.
Rather than trying to comfort a frightened preschooler with logical explanations, parent s would do better to provide distraction or physical comfort. Besides providing distraction or comfort, parents of preschoolers may be able to prevent their children form having high levels of general fear from television by mediating their viewing in some way. Children whose parents do not use any means of mediation have been found to be likely to adopt a view of the world as mean and scary.
Children whose parents do provide mediation have been found to be not only less fearful, but also less aggressive. Parental mediation to reduce a child's fears and aggression can include limiting the amount of programming the child watches, watching with the child, encouraging or discouraging behaviour children are imitating from television, commenting on violent or scary content and encourage the viewing of pro-social programs. In addition, they can reduce the effect of television violence considerably if they refuse to provide their preschoolers with toys related to violent television content.
In Japan, mothers frequently use television programs as a babysitter for younger children. By age three or four, Japanese preschoolers were found to spend more than half their viewing time watching alone or with other children. American preschoolers spend about 75 percent of their viewing time in the company of one or both parents. However, the programs they are watching are most likely to be those intended for an adult audience and chosen by the adults. It is therefore likely that these parents are probably increasing their children's exposure to content that is violent, frightening, or, at least, incomprehensible. On the other hand, it is not known to what extent Canadian parents use television programs as a babysitter for their preschoolers. It has been suggested that parents may be more likely to let young children view alone if they are watching children's educational programs. Such a tendency is understandable, since children are most likely to need information and reassurance from their parents when they are watching adult programming. Recent evidence suggests that even if children are watching alone, they are still earning new vocabulary. But parents who do not watch children's shows with their preschoolers are losing out on an opportunity to maximize the child's learning by discussing the material and doing follow-up activities that elaborate on what has been learned from the programs. It would be a good idea for the television industry to avoid the use of violence in programming for preschool age children, since violence is not necessary to attract their attention and has been shown to increase their level of aggression. Canadian children watch programs that are especially intended for children, but unfortunately they are frequently not available. Children therefore end up watching a great deal of television that is intended for an older audience. Canadian television stations could improve the situation by offering a wider variety of children's programming and scheduling it at the times preschoolers are likely to viewing such as in the morning, after three o'clock in the afternoon, and in the early evening.