It sits in the livingroom—an unpretentious-looking box that has the power to hold individuals in a hypnotic state with their eyes glued to a screen of rapidly moving images. Parents have a visitor in their home. One that exerts its influences in all areas of their life. Television colors our attitudes, opinions, values, buying habits, and even our sense of time (“I’ll do my homework during
”; “I’ll go to bed after
”). It’s a constant companion in our life. Even when people are not actively engaged in watching TV, they report turning it on for companionship.
The idea for this unit was born when I heard and was amazed by the statistic that most American children will have spent, by the time they graduate school, 20,000 hours in front of the television set compared to 15,000 in the classroom. It recalled to me an informal survey I had conducted in my classroom this spring. I teach sixth through eighth grade computer science classes in an urban junior high school. The children are approximately seventy percent minority and range in abilities from very high scholastically to very low. Almost regardless of ability, all the kids had the same experience in common; they were allowed to watch unrestricted hours of television. They watched whatever they wanted in almost unlimited quantities. Out of about 150 students I polled, only a handful said that their parents monitored what they could view. Only one student did not have a television in his house. His parents were opposed to television and he had to depend upon his friends when he wanted to see a particular program. Invariably my students chose action shows, sitcoms, and late evening soaps as their favorite viewing. The advent of cable and MTV has also altered their habits. They no longer exclusively listen to the radio for their music; they now watch the accompanying videos. Subsequent research made me realize that my students conformed to the national norms. Because television is so much a part of my student’s lives, there is a serious need for guidance in what they view and how it influences them.
Most adults over the age of thirty still remember a time before television, but for our young children and adolescents, life without TV is unthinkable. According to a study done in Boston back in 1959, it was the blue collar worker and his family who were the most dependent on TV.
Not so today. Television has cut through economic, racial, and religious lines; it is a common denominator.
Television was very different during its early years; it was live, there was a stronger code of programming ethics, the black and white sets were less realistic and less riveting, and most importantly, there were fewer programs and channels available. Programming hours were considerably less than today and so we spent less time in front of the set and more pursuing other interests.
Given the fact that 98 percent of all American homes now have television (a greater percentage than those that have indoor toilets), that millions of homes are now wired for cable, and still others have been experimentally hooked up to two-way systems known as interactive television, the following statistics should not shock anyone. Americans spend 2,300 hours in front of a television set every year. Television viewing ranks second only to sleeping as the nation’s number one pastime for children. What’s more, according to Roger Fransecky, a psychologist and consultant for CBS, children in this country are estimated to have watched between 5-and 8,000 hours of television before they enter kindergarten. Television hats slowly worked its way into the social fabric of the nation, resulting in silence replacing conversation, sitcoms replacing bedtime stories, and staring at the TV replacing sitting by the hearth.
Researchers report that the average family member now spends more than seven hours a day tethered to the tube and just 14 minutes a day conversing with others in the house.
Kids of all ages watch not only by day, but also by night; 18 million children are still in the viewing audience between 8 and 9 P.M. and no fewer than 1 million are still watching at midnight.
A survey conducted by Joan Wilkins, author of
Breaking the TV Habit
, revealed the following facts about television and the middle-class household: (1) most families own a minimum of three and a maximum of five televisions; (2) at least one set in each home is in color; (3) the sets are situated in vital living areas such as the living room, kitchen, bedrooms, and family room, (4) families seldom watch television together; (5) often parents do not know what their children watch; and (6) three-quarters of the people polled in the survey would be unwilling to go without television for a week even as an experiment. These simple facts lend themselves to some general assumptions: (1) TV is a lonely recreation. Children don’t have to pick and choose programs, sharing the set with parents and siblings. With several sets in the house, a child finds one that isn’t being used and turns it on; (2) many parents, therefore, fail to monitor their children’s television intake; and (3) probably the set is on during family mealtimes. Apparently even parents who take great pains to research school districts before purchasing a house and who monitor the daily activities in their child’s classroom display a peculiar apathy when it comes to censoring or limiting television.
Although television is not taken very seriously, it should be. Five hours a day, sixty hours a week for millions, television is merging with the environment. After all, the average 16 year old has clocked more hours with the tube than he has spent in school. The
outsells every other magazine in the nation. It would seem that television which grew up to be what it is today by accident, without long-range planning, has done something in the process, also by accident, to the nation. Just as our car culture, our restless motoring, required drive-in restaurants and fast food franchises . . . filling stations of the stomach . . . so our developing TV culture requires fast food distraction, junk entertainment, psychic beef patties. The living room has been converted into a kind of car: the TV screen is its windshield; every home is mobile; everybody is in the driver’s seat; and we are all seeing the same sights simultaneously. I would strongly agree with the words of critic John Leonard, “Television isn’t just in the environment. It is the environment.”
Television fascinates most children. They will sit passively for hours absorbing whatever images move across the screen and the jumble of music, words, programs, and ads that make up the TV soundtrack. I have always been amazed by children who could not conquer the multiplication tables or remember state capitals yet, were able to parrot back word for word, current advertising jingles and slogans. Most professionals who work with children daily—teachers, pediatricians, child psychiatrists are concerned about the daily effects of sitting passively for long periods of time. Television represses children’s innate tendencies because it requires passive rather than active involvement. Teachers have reported strong resistance among children, not only to reading, but to exerting any kind of effort. We now have evidence that habitual viewing can affect a young person’s basic outlook and sensibilities, predisposition to violence and hyperactivity, IQ, reading ability, imagination, play, language patterns, critical thinking, self-image, perception of others and values in general. Further, habitual TV viewing can affect the physical self as it can alter brain waves, reduce critical eye movements, immobilize the hands and body, and undermine nutrition and eating habits. Teachers must contend not only with years of cartoons and actions shows, but
the Electric Company
. These programs may often create an unrealistic attitude among kids; that learning must be continually fun and entertaining and is not the serious, often repetitious business it is. One classroom teacher admitted to resorting to teaching a lesson using puppets behind a cardboard television screen to command her student’s attention.
We are losing contact with one another. Parents, for one reason or another, often use television as a substitute for themselves. Children need people most of all. Children cannot become human if they relate heavily to an image of an image, or at best, to a nonresponding, nontouchable image of a person. Television is no better or worse than the rest of society, but it is the major instrument by which, at present, we hasten the process of alienation in our young, interfere with the processes of ego strengthening which grow primarily through contact with reality, not images, through participation and interaction with people and things, not through passivity and imitation.
Adolescence is particularly a time of turmoil and change. In early adolescence, as never before, the child is aware of tremendous bodily changes and emotional stress. There is a search for identity; a quest for role models. Increasingly teenagers turn to TV for answers and often come away more confused and with more distorted perceptions than ever. There is an obvious need to teach our children to look at TV with a discriminating eye; to question reality as portrayed by TV. Television is not going to disappear and our kids are not going to be more critical in their viewing habits without some concrete guidance. Television has the potential to teach, to challenge, and to entertain without being either abused or abusive. It is the intention of this unit to examine two critical aspects of television and then to offer suggestions for countering their negative effects. We will examine some of the viewing habits of Americans, and then suggest ways to help our students cut back on their viewing time. In conclusion, we will look at some ways in which we can utilize TV to our advantage.
The unit has been divided into four separate lessons: (1) Violence on TV, (2) Stereotyping on TV, (3) Cutting Back, and (4) Utilizing TV. The first two lessons contain background material which should be helpful to the teacher. There are lists of suggestions and activities for the teacher to choose from, utilizing as many or as few as necessary to obtain the objective. The third lesson has a specific time frame. It is meant to be presented for a minimum of four weeks and can be utilized throughout the semester. The fourth lesson can be used whenever the teacher feels it is appropriate and applicable to the subject area.
Violence on TV
Objective: Students will be able to recognize the excessive amounts of violence shown on TV.
Columnist Erma Bombeck was prompted to write an angry letter to the television networks that went like this: “During a single evening I saw twelve people shot, two tortured, one dumped into a swimming pool, two cars explode, a rape, and a man who crawled two blocks with a knife in his stomach. Do you know something? I didn’t feel anger or shock or horror or excitement or repugnance. The truth is that I didn’t feel. Through repeated assaults of one violent act after another, you have taken from me something I valued—something that contributed to my compassion and caring—the instinct to feel.”
The subject of television violence has long been a topic for study and controversy. Congressional studies were carried out in 1954, 1962, 1964, and 1970. The intense interest becomes understandable in light of the following fact: the number of juveniles arrested for serious and violent crimes increased 1600 percent between the years of 1952 and 1972 according to FBI figures.
This is precisely when television became a fixture in the American home and a part of our daily diet. It is no wonder experts searched for a link.
In 1982, the National Institute of Mental Health issued a 94-page report that said there was “overwhelming” scientific evidence that violence on the air spills over into the playground and the streets. The question is no longer whether TV directly causes aggressive behavior in children and adolescents, but how. Basing its case on approximately 2,500 studies published since the early 1970’s the NIMH concluded that tale-violence leaves a lasting—not just a temporary—imprint on young minds. Although the report stresses the mediums’s potential to teach everything from good manners to proper eating habits, it points out that violence is a staple of modern TV; the percentage of programs containing violent episodes has remained the same since 1967 while the number of episodes per show has increased.
By age 5, the typical child in the U.S. has logged over 200 hours of violent images, and the average fourteen year old has witnessed the killing of 13,000 human beings; usually without pain, funeral, or grieving relatives. Studies in the late 1960’s showed six times more violence in Saturday morning children’s programming as in adult prime time. In the fall of 1978, after more than a decade of public concern about violence, the rate of violent incidents on weekend network children’s programming actually rose to a near record level of 25 incidents per hour.
To what extent does violence, when depicted so vividly and on such a scale, induce violence in children and adolescents?
A study by the Singers of the Yale University Family Television Research and Consultation Center supports findings concerning the deleterious effect of TV on children. Children who are heavy television viewers and who were the most aggressive in the sample watch action-detective shows, cartoons, news, and game shows. They found the hours spent in front of television and the program content are significant. For example, heavy viewers of educational programs do not exhibit as much aggressive behavior as viewers of action-detective shows.
In addition to the television viewing patterns of children, family interaction and behavior also influence a child’s capacity for aggression. They found that an aggressive child is more likely to be part of a family that uses television as its main socializing force. They spend little time visiting zoos, parks, relatives, or libraries. The focus of entertainment is television. Meals are even spent in front of the set, inhibiting communication. There is little to protect the child against the powerful effect of the television characters, especially those who present the models for aggression and violence.
Extensive research by a group of investigators in an upstate N.Y. county found that boys who had been watching a great many violent TV shows at age eight were rated as more aggressive by their friends and neighbors ten years later when they were eighteen. By careful statistical methods, the researchers showed that other factors (such as a preference by already aggressive children to watch violent programming, family background, or social class) could not explain away this relationship. The results were clear: the heavy viewing of action shows influenced these children toward becoming more aggressive as they grew up.
Even more recently, another researcher directed a study in Illinois which corroborated the earlier results, except that now girls as well as boys are showing similar effects of viewing heavy violence, a finding perhaps explained by the number of tough, fighting women on shows today.
Violence in American shows was not always so. Between 1954 and 1961, the percentage of prime time programming devoted to action adventures featuring violence went from 17 to 60 percent of all programming. By 1964, almost 200 hours a week were devoted to crime scenes with over 500 killings committed on the screen. This reflects a 20 percent increase of violence on television over 1958 programming and a 90 percent increase since 1952.
TV violence is most dangerous. TV is present in most homes and most children have unregulated access to it. Not only does the combination of sight and sound have particularly potent influence, but TV does not have the benefit of a box office barrier. You must have a ticket in order to view the images on a movie screen and recent movie codes were designed to limit the damaging effects of some movies to children and adolescents. You must have a book in your hand and indulge in a scholarly pursuit—reading—in order to have access to violent passages in a. book.
Most behaviors are acquired through imitation or observational learning, and some violent behavior may be copied from television. Examples of crime copied from TV have included a nine year old’s efforts to slip his teacher a box of poisoned chocolates, a seven year old’s use of ground glass in the family stew, a seventeen year old’s re-enactment of a televised rape and murder by bludgeoning the victim’s head and slashing her throat, and a fifteen year old’s real life rerun of a rape with a broomstick televised in a movie. The legal argument in a Florida murder case hinged on the argument that the teenage murderer “couldn’t help it” because he had been under the influence of television.
A study of 100 juvenile offenders commissioned by ABC found that no fewer than 22 confessed to having copied criminal techniques from television.
TV violence makes children more willing to harm others, more aggressive in their play, and more likely to select aggression as the preferred response to conflict situations. Children harness native aggression and use it to play, to learn, to dream, to care, to compete, to work. Although aggression is a fact of life, violent destructiveness is not a part of all human life. In some countries, we learn to be destructive.
Research has demonstrated that older children learn more about aggression from viewing than do younger children, who are more sensitive to constructive, prosocial programming. Children emulate undesirable attitudes as well as behaviors from watching violent TV. Many youngsters don’t grasp the cause-effect relationship that lead to fights, and they come to believe that violence is a nice, quick way of resolving problems. The pressure on writers to wind up a complex story in a half hour or sixty minutes leads them to resort frequently to a shoot-out or punch-out solution. Producers also believe that such rapid fire activities as fights and car chases will hold viewers’ attention on the screen so that they will notice the commercials which continually interrupt the story. Older children and adults may not be as impressionable as young children but even they begin to develop false assumptions about the amount of crime and violence in the world. There is a consistent relationship between fear and the amount of television watched. Heavy viewers perceive the world as much more violent and fearful than do light viewers. Another disturbing possibility exists that the television experience has not merely blurred the distinctions between the real and the unreal for steady viewers, but that by doing so it has dulled their sensitivities to real events. For when the reality of a situation is diminished, people are able to react to it less emotionally, more as spectators. American television doesn’t often show the consequences of fighting or shooting. Characters are shot, fall down, and simply disappear from the plot and the screen. The physical consequences, mental anguish, and legal ramifications from such actions are rarely explored.
Children learn to accept violence. We learn to watch brutalities on the news and in our shows and to see them on the streets without responding. Some of the following exercises and discussion questions should prove useful in helping students to realize to what extent violence has invaded our homes and how it influences our thinking.