What Kids Get From TV
There is no simple formula for choosing the programs your children watch. If it were that simple, we could just create a list of programs to watch and programs to stay away from. And just think about how happy advertisers would be if we could guarantee that watching a certain program would make people behave in a particular way. While it’s not quite that easy, there are some things we do know that can help us understand how watching TV affects children.
What kids get from the television depends on four things:
HOW MUCH they watch.
Nearly all researchers agree that heavy viewing (more than 10 to 20 hours a week) is not good for kids. Watching too much keeps them from enjoying other important activities, and it can overexpose them to television’s sometimes negative messages. Television is powerful because it can repeat messages hundreds of times each day. So, the more kids watch TV, the more they are influenced by it.
WHAT they watch.
Television teaches every time it is on. Do you know what your children are learning? What they see on television can be very influential, especially if they believe that what they are seeing is real or true. Kids tend to believe TV the most when it tells them things they know the least about (and for preschoolers, that’s a lot!). When they don’t have personal experience to use as a lens, they tend to believe the TV. It’s bad enough for adults, but the effect is magnified for children, whose personal experience is so limited. Children are likely to think that TV programs show us what the real world is like. This is especially true for preschoolers, who don’t have the ability to understand time or distance; they think that what they see on TV is happening in their neighborhood.
WHO they are.
How kids see things depends on their experiences and personality. Two children can get very different messages from the same program. The most powerful messages tend to be those that are reinforced by things in real life. For example, a child who watches violent cartoons and who is also a hockey fan — and who sees violence in the neighborhood, plays with toy soldiers, pretends to be an uncle in the army and whose parents use corporal punishment — is more likely to copy the aggressive behavior seen on TV than a child who watches the same violent cartoon but who sees no other violence.
HOW they watch.
Different kids have different viewing styles. One is not necessarily better than another, but the differences do mean that TV viewing doesn’t fulfill the same needs for all children. For example, some families use TV viewing as a social event, inviting friends over to watch, talking back to the set and talking with one another about what they see. In those families, children are learning language and critical thinking skills while they view. In other families, TV viewing is quiet time and it’s considered rude to interrupt someone who is watching. Children in these families need to have other opportunities to practice language and thinking skills. Likewise, some children move a lot while they view, dancing and singing along with their favorite characters. Others prefer to sit still while they watch. To make sure that this latter group of children develops motor skills and coordination, they need other opportunities to move.
If you want to know what children are getting from TV, ask them. It’s tempting to start a conversation by trying to explain what the children have seen on TV. But you’ll get better results if you start by asking children what they think they are seeing. You may be surprised by what they understand and what they don’t.
© Text by Faith Rogow, Ph.D., Insighters Educational Consulting, 19 Barbara Ave., Binghamton, NY 13903. Reprinted by permission.