”Children are dedicated consumers of television. A substantial part of their waking hours is spent in front of the box.” (Hodge and Tripp 1996). What are the consequences of this constant exposure to television? Illustrate your answer with reference to your reading. The question of what impact constant exposure television has on children has attracted considerable literature and media attention, this interest and research have been present since the beginning of broadcasting.
With more programmes in production such as Teletubbies and the Tweenies that cater specifically for pre school age, surely whether it is positive or negative, there must be a significant impact on a child when the programmes are constantly exposed at such a young and impressionable age. Another argument I shall look at uses the example that some shows are too violent but are still classed as acceptable viewing for children, and then there are programmes that are classed as not acceptable for children but are still seen by children. I shall look at different consequences and in the different ways television causes a child to be influenced. I shall also touch on the frenzy produced from adults when their power of control over children is taken away by television, and discuss if it is well founded or over hyped as David Buckingham1 suggests.
In this essay I will look at the arguments against constant exposure to television with specific reference to Neil Postman and consider his theories in relevance to the consequences there may be for children. I will also look at contradictory evidence that denies that television contributes to the ‘disappearance of childhood’2 and can with the right balance of exposure and quality of production help children in their learning. For this I will use sources from David Buckingham3, Barrie Gunter and Jill Mcateer.
I am firstly going to look at how television has attracted this fear into the general public. It seems, according to the media the growing rates of disorder are down to the mirror actions of violence that are shown on the television. I can remember vividly, the time when the James Bulger case was constantly in the press and a violent film seen by the accused was said to be the major influence for the horrific murder. David Buckingham also mentioned this time of ‘media panic’5 in Britain. For some, it is television’s fault that society is at the state it is in today, inciting aggressiveness and disruptive behaviour in the youth.
It is rare that a day goes by where a newspaper does not include some article on how the new age of technology is corrupting the minds of the young. Even yesterday I heard the news on my local radio station reporting on a mother’s plea to ban the off the wall American stunt show Jackass, after her ten year old son tried unsuccessfully to copy a stunt that involved jumping over a fire while someone else poured petrol over it.6 Needless to say the boy received serious burns.
Jackass is a programme that is shown an hour after the watershed so why was a ten-year-old boy having access to a programme that is not intended to have a young audience? The answer is the increased convenience it has become for children, not having to search out material that is of adult content but it being readily available in their own bedrooms. Figures have shown that 36% of children under four years and 52% of children under sixteen years now have a TV in their bedroom (ITC UK survey 2001).7
Others believe it is not so much the images of violence that cause replications of aggression in the young, but more the way that programmes are produced that can cause harm to young viewers. Postman argues against the fast track way television moves from one piece of information to the other as it can leave the child feeling bewildered and confused. The danger is that television is seen as passive, and therefore leaves the door open for easy access to the secrets of the adult world, and this to him, is the most serious consequence, ‘television cannot whisper, and its pictures are both concrete and self explanatory. The children see everything it shows’. The outcome is that childhood innocence is lost. Children are forced to take on the secrets of adult life before they completely understand what they mean.
Another possible consequence is when children are exposed to programmes of poor intellectual quality, or what politicians in recent years have accused broadcasters of as ‘dumbing down’. The Teletubbies came under fire for exactly this, for their non-comprehensible language and for targeting an audience that should not be distracted by television but should be learning through play. A newspaper article on Thursday 22nd April pg. 5, contained the title ‘Clean up the Soaps.’
A study called ‘Is Television Special- A Review of Public Service Broadcasting’9, done by the broadcasting watchdog Ofcom criticised the pre-watershed programmes, especially Soaps, of producing too much violence, sex and drug use. On the subject of pre- bedtime viewing being safe for youngsters ‘the regulator found a comparatively low number of viewers thought terrestrial TV was succeeding in this area.’ Soaps now account for 55% of drama, compared with 47% in 1998. Reality shows have increased by 20% and the number of prime time art shows has fallen by 17% in 5 years.10 This is frightening evidence for Postman, his followers and politicians alike to prove that the programmes that children are available to are of poor quality and therefore could be stunting intellectual learning.
Concern about the impact of television on the lives of children has and will be in the media for a long time. There is however research to show the positive consequences from television for children. There is now a growing sense that TV can be successful in educating children, as it is able to show images and information that may be unavailable to them through other sources and can help give deeper understanding.
Programmes such as Sesame Street and Play school, though also have their own critics, have the fundamental aim of helping to create learning of basic forms of knowledge for children. You cannot disagree with Buckingham when he criticises the consequence of violence from watching television, when he uses the example that children of ghetto beginnings who live a life of crime would not have spent days in front of the TV and therefore be influenced in any way by it. When looking at the consequence of the dangers of passive viewing I tend to agree with Barrie Gunter and Jill Mcateer when they differ from this notion that children are injected with information from the television and have no resistance or opposing opinion of what they are watching. ‘Viewers are not empty vessels- not even young viewers.’
However these theories are often overlooked as the media only concentrates on blaming societies ills on everything negative that television possesses. I believe that television is treated as the scapegoat, which diverts away from the real causes of aggression and violence in society. The public easily accepts the media’s interpretation when nostalgia for a past golden age of youth is strengthened by constant references in the media to the loss of childhood, with articles on underage sex, drink and drug use and rising levels of teenage pregnancies.
I do believe that television isn’t entirely innocent and can influence children when used in the wrong way. Soaps have become increasingly over the top, and with children that are eight and under that may not have the awareness to distinguish characters as actors, it can be at times confusing and frightening. For example among ‘5 year olds over half of those questioned did not understand that actors play TV characters. At age 8 over two- thirds knew this, and by age 11 nearly all children appear to have learned this elementary fact.’
In the twenty first century television is an escapable part of family life. So what are the alternatives in protecting our children from these many negative consequences? David Buckingham describes in North America the introduction of the V- chip, a technical device fitted to all new television sets that will apparently filter out ‘violent’ material.13 In the UK there is Screenblock, which is an innovation that ‘protects children from the harm that can come from watching too much TV’.14 It works by enabling the adult to choose and set a daily allowance of TV time, after which it will automatically shut off the TV.
Is this a step too far that shows an extreme reaction from the obsessed adult world to control a generation and keep childhood as sacred and innocent for as long as possible, or a necessary instrument to help expose only beneficial programmes to help a child’s learning and avoid harming their perspective of the world. I tend to believe the answer is somewhere in the middle. The consequences of constant exposure to television can be either good or bad. Television can expose the secrets of the adult world before the child fully understands the situation, and television can be turned to educational benefits and encourage skills in reading, writing and thinking. It depends on how well the medium is used.