There have always been mixed blessings about the television in family households. What can serve as a single source of entertainment for the entire family can equally create a diversion or even a division within the same households. Since the 1950’s marketing researchers and social scientists have studied the effects of TV viewing with children to determine behavior patterns that impact commercial product sales as well as the behavior associated with social interaction at various developmental stages.
Marie Winn’s extensive look at the “boob tube” as many called it in earlier years characterized the video technology as the “Plug-In Drug” which served as the title of her 1977 best-seller. In it she observed how children related to their real world compared to those who watched very little or no television over certain time frames. Jerry Mander, a former advertising executive in San Francisco, exposed the commercial aspects of television in his 1977 book entitled “Four Arguments For The Elimination Of Television”.
“Mander attacks not only the contents of the television images, but the effects television has on the human mind and body. His discussion includes: the induction of alpha wave and its hypnotizing effect that a motionless mind enters. How viewers often regard what they see on television as real even though the programs are filled with quick camera switches, rapid image movement, computer generated objects, computer generated morphing and other technical events” (Review of Jerry Mander’s Four Arguments For The Elimination Of Television by Ron Kaufman)
Mander’s imagery of TV having a “hypnotizing effect” on viewers is similar to that of Urie Bronfenbrenner’s in his study published in 1981, “The ecology of human development: experiments by nature and design”. In it Bronfenbrenner notes that “like the sorcerer of old, the television casts its magic spell, freezing speech and action and turning the living into silent statues so long as the enchantment lasts”. (p. 242). Clearly a pattern was evolving with research that demonstrated a controlling effect on young developing minds watching TV.
The advent of TV brought with it the promise to connect us all closer to our world with the news and entertainment we seldom find outside our local communities. Yet this invention has perhaps turned out to fit Marshall McLuhan’s description of a “wasteland” more than a promised land. Commercial TV was devised to serve one main purpose and it wasn’t necessarily to broaden our education. The most negative results seem to be how it affects the social development, health and imaginative-creative thought processes of our children. It appears we may have all become shaped by the tools we make, to paraphrase a McLuhan aphorism.
Based on Census data from 1998, both spouses in American households were employed at least part time in 51% of married couples with children, compared with 33% in 1976.” Other findings from the Census Bureau report showed that even married or single mothers with very young children were likely to work at least part time; fifty-nine percent of women with babies younger than a year old were employed in 1998, compared with 31 percent in 1976. Of the 31.3 million mothers ages 15 to 44 whose children were older than a year, 73 percent worked in 1998 and 52 percent worked full time.”
What this data indicates is that parents are away from home more than in times past, spending less influential time with their kids during early childhood development. Under such conditions kids will have greater access to commercial TV. The commercial influences of children’s TV programming tend to fill the holes where parents would normally define reality. The television is on in the average home for 7 hours a day.
As a marketing tool TV’s primary goal is to encourage your children to buy their products. One of the negative impacts of TV’s influence on small minds is the urge they create for snack foods. There is a correlation between this increased marketing of kids’ eating urges and childhood obesity. Childhood diabetes and other weight-related issues are on the rise in this country.
Many of the products sold on commercial television today, especially children’s programs, are food items that are not the natural, healthy foods we want for our kids, despite the claims of some cereal manufacturers. They’re more along the lines of snack foods presented as “ready sources of quick nutrition” but are simply loaded with large amounts of sweeteners that give kids a quick “sugar high” for a brief period. Much of the sugar that is in kid food products comes in the form of high-fructose corn syrup because it extends the shelf life of processed foods and is cheaper; processed food products you would not normally put sugar in yourself, such as soups.
Childhood obesity rates in this country have more than tripled since 1980. And a new study conducted by Yale University’s Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity found that of the 642 cereal ads children see each year, most “are those that contain 85 percent more sugar, 60 percent less fiber and 60 percent more sodium than those marketed to their parents” (Rudd Center Releases Cereal Rankings Based on Nutrition and Marketing Exposure, The Rudd Center health Digest, November, 2009)
Food alone is not the only factor that contributes to obesity with kids who watch too much television. Even though the market now floods the consumer with Wii games simulating sports events that children can act out in their own living room, they are apt to be less healthy than those who engage in real outdoor events. Too much sun can be your enemy but we all need the vitamin D we get from our routine exposure to the sun’s rays. Research, published in the Archives of Internal Medicine, “shows that those with the lowest vitamin D levels have more than doubled the risk of dying from heart disease and other causes over an eight-year period.” (Time in the Sun: How Much Is Needed for Vitamin D? by Deborah Kotz, U.S. News and World Health Report, 6/23/2008)
IMAGINATION AND CREATIVITY
Two aspects of TV viewing that impact a child during early stages of development, imaginative play and creativity, have been addressed in some earlier studies. Imaginative play begins around year one for the child and reflects a behavior where they pretend people and things around them are figures of their own imagination. Later, around age 5, creativity develops in a child, often associated with their imagination, and they begin to display physical representations of their imagination such as pictures, costumes and even a language form.
These studies focus on children’s TV viewing habits and how it does or does not stimulate their imaginative and creative forces. The Reduction Hypothesis found in these studies seems to have the preponderance of research that validates the negative effects of children’s TV viewing. Six categories fall under this hypothesis; 1)Displacement; 2)Passivity; 3)Rapid Pacing; 4)Visualization; 5)Arousal; 6)Anxiety
In brief, these hypothetical categories discuss how TV viewing in early childhood can reduce normal imagination and creativity in children by removing them from real life situations, making them spectators rather than actors, producing sensory overload that doesn’t allow them to process what they see sufficiently, neutralizing and perhaps even eliminating personal creativity while watching visual representations somebody else has created, fostering “a physically active and impulsive behavior orientation in children” from viewing action-oriented and violent programs, and a regressive form of behavior that leads to “a reduction in the quantity or quality of imaginative play.” For a more thorough breakdown on these evaluations visit this link at the Children’s Creativity and Television Use site.
Television is but a tool. Its use or abuse will determine its negative impacts on children, especially in early developmental stages. For most parents who work long hours to support their family there is less time to spend directly with their children. We put them in front of the TV instinctively at very early ages to pacify them while mother’s do household chores and dad’s are outside working in the yard or on an old model car he’s fixing up. This seems an easier thing to do than including the children in our daily routine. Because of the television’s presence in the home today kids are less inclined to find interests associated with what mom and dad do around the home and at work.
Finding more reality-based forms of entertainment is essential to avoid the pitfalls that children fall into with non-reality entertainment on TV. Parents should make use of those programs available in their communities through libraries, parks and recreation and church organizations to stimulate young minds with hands-on experiences. Spend more time with your kids with more limited TV viewing and share your views with your more susceptible children on the messages that programs present.
Normal development should be achieved in real world situations and time frames in order for children to get a better handle on how their world actually functions. Parents, not a marketing tool, should decide how this is best achieved.