This essay is about the extent, justification and concerns that adult citizens have about the influence of television viewing on children. Adults in the context of this essay encompass parents, journalists, policy makers, media researchers and human right activists among other citizens. The discussion is covered over five sections. Each section attempts to give the perspective of a ‘loose’ category of adult citizen concerns. The first section begins by situating the topic in media effects research theory-a concern for social scientists and media theorists. Here it underscores the various foci of ‘effects’ research over the years notably; media texts as powerful agents of social change (Hovland et.al., 1953; Galician, 2004 and McQuail, 2005), media texts have an influence on peer relations (Moreno, 1934), there is a role of mediating factors (Klapper, 1960 and Moss, 1996) among other concerns. The second section attempts to justify the question of the essay by providing some evidence of why the influence of television might be considered more important than other media – a concern for media owners, human rights activists and policy makers. Here contributions are made on the distribution and coverage of television (Lichter, 1990), its accessibility (Burton, 2004) and extent of usage by children (Buckingham, 2007) among other arguments. The third section focuses on a range of specific concerns about the actual effects of television- of interest to parents, media researchers and human rights activists. These concerns include, aggressive behaviour (Bandura, 1994), gender stereotyping (Ingham, 1997) and citizenship (Selznick, 2008) among others. The fourth section critically discusses some of the methodological approaches to examining the influence of television on children that would be of possible interest to media researchers and policy makers. Here it briefly highlights possible theories of how children react when exposed to a media text through perceived processes of cultivation (Newbold, 1995), acculturation and socialization (Goonasekera, 1996) and varying intellectual development (Buckingham, 1998) among other theories. The fifth section is the authors perspective of the kind of effective action that should be taken to contribute to better ‘effects’ research and healthy television viewing among children. The conclusion summarises the main elements of the essay.
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Situating the influence of television viewing on children in ‘media effects’ research theory
The early part of the 20th century saw a pristine effort in the study of mass media effects that began when public concern about the impact of movies on children and adolescents was prompted by the privately funded Payne Studies (Galician, 2004, p84). These and other media studies helped establish the notion that mass media messages are indeed powerful agents of social change (e.g. Hovland, et.al., 1953;Galician, 2004 and McQuail, 2005). The influence of television viewing on children is an important issue to examine because as McQuail in Newbold (2005, p9) argues, the media is a powerful shaper of opinion and beliefs. For Hovland, et.al. (1953, pp260-266), two personality factors appeared to play a significant role in determining variations in the degree of effect of a media text; intellectual ability and motivation. In even earlier work, Moreno (1934) underscored the importance of peer relations and the bonds they form based on values within the group that are perhaps influenced by media texts. Lazarsfeld et al. (1948, p151) argued that the process of attitude and opinion formation within the broader public sphere of say a community owed more to the influence of other people – the opinion leaders, than the media itself. Within media effects research, the opinion leaders are considered the primary group whose relevance is not merely its existence but rather their influence on behaviour and attitudes of individuals that make up the group (Newbold, 2005, p17). Hovland and his colleagues were not only concerned with personality factors but more so with the message itself. They argued that its apparent trustworthiness and how it influences the learning of facts indeed invoked different reactions (Newbold, 2005, p15). For Klapper (1960, p8), “mass communication does not ordinarily serve as a necessary or sufficient cause of audience effects, but rather functions through a nexus of mediating factors”, an argument that emphasizes the ‘total situation’. Moss (1996, p5) seems to allude to this when she stipulates that audience studies can be examined by establishing the social context in which texts are distributed and consumed. The disparity in ‘effects’ research approaches perhaps provides an indication of the complexity of the emphasis of issues and concerns by mass communication scholars in demarcating the field. The next section provides some illumination on this latter concern by comparing the influence of television versus other media on audiences from the collective adult citizen perspective of human right activists, journalists and policy makers.
The influence of television versus other media
Lichter, et. al. (1990, p8) views effects of television as greater than the print media or even radio because it clearly provides its audience with a sense that what it views is true and real. They further argue (p8) that television has broken down class and regional boundaries to a far greater extent than other media (during the 1990s); as compared to say, the print media that is segregated by area of distribution and readership. For Burton (2004, p93), television is the most accessible media to most people, including young children, where television is their most favourite form of media. Buckingham (2007, p75) further illuminates Burton’s assertion by arguing that if schools have remained relatively unaffected by the advent of new technology, the same cannot be said of children’s lives after school. He also argues that childhood is permeated and in some respects defined by modern media -television, video games, mobile phones, the internet that make up contemporary consumer culture. Gavin (2005) asserts that within a year an average American child would have spent about 900 hours viewing television in school compared to and nearly 1,023 hours in front of a television at home. Kellner (1990, p1) supports the latter assertions and argues that 750 million television sets across 160 countries worldwide are watched by 2.5 billion people every day; underscoring the obvious ubiquity and centrality of television in our everyday lives. Television influence separates itself from other media influences by the extent of its central role in the lives of the contemporary child and perhaps the fact that this is coupled with frequent audio visual stimulation. Media convergence in the current advanced IT age has given rise to internet television and mobile phone television tuning that ‘technically’ changes the perceived coverage and possible influence of television. Surrounding these postulations is a range of specific concerns that are briefly discussed in the next section; looked at from the collective perspective of concerned parents, social scientists and possibly media theorists.
Concerns about the influence of television viewing on children
“The debate about the influence of the media on children has been wide-ranging and at times fierce” (Robinson & Willett, 2006, p6) with concerns about violence, sexual content, advertising and its developmental and educational implications (p6). The Australian Psychological Society Ltd Factsheet (2000, p1) claims that prolonged exposure to television violence is among the factors which lead to children to display aggressive behaviour in both the short and long term. Some ‘aggressive effects’ research evidences that up to 88% of children readily imitate aggressive behaviour seen earlier on television (Bandura, 1994 in Cumberbatch, 2008, p23). Other concerns revolve around the ‘power of advertising’. Buckingham in Dickinson, Harindranath and Linné (1998, p134) contend that advertising is often accused of promoting ‘false needs’, irrational fantasies or even reinforcing exaggerated gender stereotypes and; children are at risk because of their apparent inability to recognise its underlying persuasive intentions. Some authors attribute this to the effectiveness of advertising. Halford, et.al. (2004) argue that because food is the most frequently advertised product on children’s television programming, exposure to these advertisements effectively promotes consumption of the advertised products. Gunter and McAleer in Robinson and Willett (2006, p11) do not agree with the latter assertion and argue that objective evidence is much less conclusive as to the effect of advertising. For Coon, et.al. (2001), excessive TV viewing during childhood and adolescence contributes to higher intakes of energy through snacks and carbonated beverages and lower intakes of fruit and vegetables. Other authors (e.g. Gortmaker, et. al., 1996; Hancox, et.al., 2004) suggest that watching excessive television contributes to sedentarism in both children and adults by taking the place of more energetic activities. Some concerns have been reflected in children’s perception of traditional gender stereotyping on television that is perhaps no longer appropriate for the contemporary roles taken on by the sexes. Ingham (1997, p2) reports that women in the home are frequently represented via the housewife-type role, with the man as the strong, bread winning husband. She further argues (p3) that when women are portrayed as successful; it tends to be at the expense of their personal life, which invariably tends to be unhappy. From a philosophical perspective Goonasekera (1996,p41) argues that communications technology (including television) has greatly increased cultural contacts among people of different nations; providing unprecedented opportunities for the establishment of closer cultural linkages and identities. He further argues that this very opportunity raises fears of cultural domination and obliteration of ethnic identities. For Van Evra (2004, p66), the concerns have gone beyond looking at only the negative effects and argues that although television may displace study time or affect reading habits and study skills; it can also stimulate interest in new topics, provide background material for school projects and stimulate classroom discussions. For Selznick (2008, p108), television teaches citizenship. A plethora of views exist on the perceived influence of television on children. As noted by some authors (e.g. Buckingham, 1998, p.137; Newbold, 2005, p15) and Klapper,1960, p8), ‘intervening variables’ mediate between television and its audience. Selznick (2008, p108) also argues that whether the effect of television on children is seen as positive or negative, most scholars agree that television affects the way that children build their own identities, specifically how they understand who they are, what they like, their place in the world and their goals. The next section provides a critical exploration of some approaches and models in effects research around the influence of television on children by expressing the more prominent concerns that scholars have had of their peers.
A critique of evidence and methodology around effects of television on children
The development of effects research has largely been in the direction of emphasizing the role of ‘intervening variables’ (Buckingham p136 in Dickinson, Harindranath and Linné, 1998). Taking this as a starting point, Robinson and Willett (2006, p9) argues that the way we interpret physical phenomena is not constant across cultural boundaries. Cumberbatch (2008,p33) alludes to Robinson and Willet’s latter argument when he asserts that research evidence on the effects of viewing violence suffers from various methodological evidence. Moss (1996, p30) alludes to these latter arguments from a Vygotskian perspective when she asserts that children grow up accommodating themselves to the existing social forms of thinking, shaped through words (Moss 1996, p18) and perhaps by proxy; through what they see through different media. Perhaps at this point a small illustration might serve to stimulate the discussion. Recently in Uganda, horror was experienced when a group of school children witnessed one of their peers plunge to his death in a deep topless latrine after boasting to his friends about being ‘Tinky Winky’ – one of the ‘Teletubbies’ on children’s television often seen to emerge or drop down a hole in the ground. The ‘Tinky Winky’ illustration peripherally suggests that negligence might have caused such an unfortunate situation for the kids. But as some of the Ugandan community seemingly believed; television ‘implanted’ a fatal ‘irrational fantasy’ described by Buckingham in Dickinson, Harindranath and Linné (1998, p134). Gerbner and Gross (1976) in Newbold, 1995, p30) prefer to call the latter case ‘cultivation’ that places emphasis on long-term effects of the media. Perhaps, what creates a fair amount of separation in ‘effects’ research and perspectives is not only linked to the way we interpret physical phenomena but also to the way that populist views (Robinson & Willett, p9) are taken as gospel truth. The elite Ugandan community called for a total ban of the teletubbies -a demand that spread to human rights groups. Could peers perhaps have influenced their unfortunate friend through ‘secondary’ transfer of their television experience with the teletubbies? For Moss (1996), children sense of the media is mediated through talk with peers, parents and teachers. Goonasekera (1996, p26) attempts to demarcate the process that leads to ‘anti-social’ behaviour that he contends happens through a process of acculturation and socialization, where values such as respect for the sanctity of human life become weaker and values promoting short-term hedonistic behaviour become stronger. Does this latter postulation apply to the Ugandan tragedy above? Some authors think otherwise. Gauntlett in Dickinson, Harindranath and Linné (1998, p124) criticises the ‘effects’ model for its media depictions of ‘anti-social’ acts that he says is limited to fictional productions. The weakness with this latter assertion of the effects model is that other ‘anti-social’ activities which appear in other media do not have similar effects on the same audiences. If also, as McKenna (1995,p25) asserts that public service broadcasting tends to be dominated by the elites, then how can one account for the violence that is prevalent in many rural areas in Africa that are not exposed to the media? Can this perhaps be controlled when testing hypotheses? McQuail (2005, p16) alludes to this when he asks; “which aspect of the medium is being regulated?” This latter assertion has connotations for media effects research methodology; especially testing hypotheses. Buckingham (2008, p31) recommends that research should contribute to the wider debates about the aims and methods of media education. For Moss (1996, p24), this kind of research could explore on a macro level, the influence of media products on society and its culture or the socio-psychology of the process for individuals. Buckingham in Dickinson, Harindranath and Linné (1998, p136) however notes that effects models assume that ‘effects’ can simply be ‘read off’ from the analysis of content. This latter assertion appears to undermine the ‘mediating factors’ paradigm that he further argues, has a weakness of viewing the audience as a mass of undifferentiated individuals. However, Buckingham (p.137) also validates ‘mediating factors’ research approaches that underscore the dependence of the socializing influence of television on diverse and variable meanings which its users attach to it (uses and gratifications) and where viewers construct meaning (constructivist). Anderson and Lorch (1983), allude to an active relationship between children and television as they view them as actively making the choice to pay attention to television which in turn influences the way they understand what they watch and on the activities available in their viewing environment. This approach appears not to account for ‘future’ similar anti-social behaviour that children exhibit after recently watching television. Indeed, Buckingham (1998, p139) expresses this latter concern with the ways in which children’s understanding of television changes along with their intellectual development and uncertainty over their ability to distinguish between reality and fantasy on television. But for Cumberbatch (2008, p13 & p32) doubts remain over the validity of empirical evidence to the case of causality in effects research into media violence that he argues; fails to raise the question of investigating why many people seem unaffected by television violence. On the other hand Moss (1996, p30) postulates that through social activities, children’s interpretation of media text goes through a transformation as they represent what they know in the current context, and renegotiate its significance in the light of others’ comments to generate and sustain their talk. For Robinson and Willett (2006,p25), both popular and academic research view children as passive receivers of whatever messages the media offers, with little ability to resist the ‘effects’. These hypotheses in the underlying models of communications create a separation in the ‘evidence’ generated by effects research of the media on audiences. The variegated demarcation of concerns in this and other sections only adds to the complexity of the issues around television’s influence and further raises the question of kind of effective action that needs to be taken. The next section attempts to illuminate this latter question from the author’s perspective.
Effective action for better ‘effects’ research and healthy television viewing among children
The concerns laid out in previous sections are based on the premise that watching television might have both positive and negative effects. This said, there appears to be vast inconclusive literature on ‘anti-social’ effects such as violence compared to ‘pro-social’ influence that television might have on children. Research might better serve in demarcating the field by illuminating the more positive aspects of television influence on audiences. With global processes such as the current economic recession and globalization unfolding or deepening, it might be useful for research to investigate the effects of television viewing on cultural practices or on economic status of audiences across an array of ethnic groups. Also investigating the effectiveness of ‘mediating factors’ in influencing the resulting effect(s) might be an interesting area for research e.g. does someone’s religious beliefs ‘rein-in’ or promote potential ‘anti-social’ behaviour? Can say criminal ‘anti-social’ behaviour have a genetic link that manifests under a threshold of specific media exposure? How can research separate media and non-media influences across different audience age groups by first establishing a baseline of what children already know about the media?
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In terms of the presumed effects of advertising, media violence and so forth, parents or guardians need to review the balance of the child’s daily activity based on some ‘anti-social’ indicators. For example, if a child always chooses to watch television instead of play with friends or only talks only about television programs and characters, or is not performing well in school, it would be prudent to
cut back on the amount of time spent in front of the television. Television viewing time should be negotiated together with the child. Parental Guidance locks should also be instituted on ‘undesirable’ programmes. It is also helpful for adults, media text producers and regulation to help children interpret and critique the viewed material in order to promote constructive ways that life and values should be interpreted.
This essay has benefited by examining some of the salient issues around adult citizens concerns about the influence of television viewing on children. It focused on loosely defining the category of adult citizens and their specific interest in aspects of the topic. The discussion was demarcated by situating the topic in media theory, justifying the importance of examining the influence of TV versus other media and then specifically highlighting the plethora of concerns that were mainly negative. These concerns then spilt over into a separate section that focused on a critique of some of the existing methodological approaches and concerns. This was important to examine because methodological approaches inform the existing evidence and facts that a range of adult citizens base their understanding of the issue on. The essay then underscored the fact that mostly negative evidence exists around examining the influence of TV viewing on children and inconclusive in its findings. The essay then recommends future research to look into more positive facets when examining the issue and to incorporate the interesting dimensions of genetics, ethnicity and spirituality. This complex essay would have benefited more from an in-depth examination of the causal link between “ethonographic”, child development and economic issues and critical distancing in the influence TV television viewing on children.