His first polysyllabic utterance was “Bradybunch.” He learned to spell Sugar Smacks before his own name. He has seen Monte Carlo, witnessed a cocaine bust in Harlem and already has full-color fantasies involving Farrah Fawcett-Majors. Recently, he tried to karate-chop his younger sister after she broke his Six Million Dollar Man bionic transport station. (She retaliated by bashing him with her Cher doll.)
His nursery-school teacher reports that he is passive, non-creative, unresponsive to instruction, bored during play periods and possessed of an almost nonexistent attention span — in short, very much like his classmates. Next fall, he will officially reach the age of reason and begin his formal education: His parents are beginning to discuss their apprehensions — when ¡hey are not too busy watching television.
The wonder of it all is that the worry about television has so belatedly moved anyone to action. After all, the suspicion that TV is turning children’s minds to niush and their psyches toward mayhem is almost as old as the medium itself. But it is only in recent years — with the first TV generation already well into its 20s — that social scientists, child psychologists, pediatricians and educators have begun serious study of the impact of television on the young.
“The American public has been preoccupied with governing our children’s schooling,” says Stanford University psychologist Alberta Siegel. “We have been astonishingly unconcerned about the medium that reaches into our homes. Yet we may expect television to alter our social arrangements just as profoundly as printing has done over the past five centuries.”
The statistics are at least alarming. Educators like Dr Benjamin Bloom, of the University of Chicago, maintain that by the time a child reaches the age of 5, he has undergone as much intellectual growth as will occur over the next thirteen years.
Neilsen statistics on hours of TV watched
According to AC Nielsen, children under 5 watch an average of 23.5 hours of TV a week. That may be less than the weekly video diet of adults (about 44 hours), but its effects are potentially enormous. Multiplied out over seventeen years, that rate of viewing means that by his high-school graduation, today’s typical teenager will have logged at least 15,000 hours before the small screen — more time than he will have spent on any other activity except sleep. And at present levels of advertising and mayhem, he will have been exposed to 350,000 commercials, and vicariously participated in 18,000 murders.
The conclusion is inescapable: after parents, television has become perhaps the most potent influence on the beliefs, attitudes, values and behavior of those who are being raised in its all-pervasive glow. George Gerbner, dean of the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School of Communications, is almost understating it when he says: “Television has profoundly affected the way in which members of the human race learn to become human beings.”
A question of air pollution
Unquestionably, the plug-in picture window has transmitted some beneficial images. Last month’s showing of “Roots,” for example, may have done more to increase the understanding of American race relations than any event since the civil-rights activities of the ’60s. And the fact that 130 million Americans could share that experience through the small screen points up the powerful — and potentially positive — influence the industry can have on its audience.
In general, the children of TV enjoy a more sophisticated knowledge of a far larger world at a much younger age. They are likely to possess richer vocabularies, albeit with only a superficial comprehension of what the words mean.
Research on the impact of “Sesame Street” has established measurable gains in the cognitive skills of preschoolers. And many benefits cannot be statistically calibrated. A New York pre-schooler tries to match deductive wits with Columbo; a Los Angeles black girl, who has never seen a ballet, decides.she wants to be a ballerina after watching Margot Fonteyn perform on TV.
Nonetheless, the overwhelming body of evidence — drawn from more than 2,300 studies and reports — is decidedly negative. Most of the studies have dealt with the antisocial legacy of video violence.
Michael Rothenberg, a child psychiatrist at the University of Washington, has reviewed 25 years of hard data on the subject — the 50 most comprehensive studies involving 10,000 children from every possible background. Most showed that viewing violence tends to produce aggressive behavior among the young.
“The time is long past due for a major, organized cry of protest from the medical profession in relation to what, in political terms, is a national scandal,” concludes Rothenberg. An unexpected salvo was sounded last week when the normally cautious American Medical Association announced that it had asked ten major corporations to review their policies about sponsoring excessively gory shows.
“TV violence is both a mental-health problem and an environmental issue,” explained Dr Richard E Palmer, president of the AMA. “TV has been quick to raise questions of social responsibility with industries which pollute the air. In my, opinion, television … may be creating a mote serious problem of air pollution.”
Reaction was immediate: General Motors, Sears Roebuck and the Joseph Schlitz Brewing Co. quickly announced they would look more closely into the content of the shows they sponsor.
TV pre-empting the traditional development of childhood?
In their defense, broadcasting officials maintain that the jury is still out on whether video violence is guilty of producing aggressive behavior. And they marshal their own studies to support that position. At the same time, the network schedulers say they are actively reducing the violence dosage. “People have said they want another direction and that’s what we’re going to give them,” promises NBC-TV president Robert T Howard.
Finally, the broadcast industry insists that the responsibility for the impact of TV on children lies with parents rather than programmers. “Parents should pick and choose the shows their kids watch,” says CBS vice president Gene Mater. “Should TV be programmed for the young through midnight? It’s a real problem. TV is a mass medium and it must serve more than just children.”
But the blight of televised mayhem is only part of TV’s impact. Beyond lies a vast subliminal terrain that is only now being charted. The investigators are discovering that TV has affected its youthful addicts in a host of subtle ways, varying according to age and class. For deprived children, TV may; in some cases, provide more sustenance than their home or street life; for the more privileged, who enjoy other alternatives, it may not play such a dominating role.
Nonetheless, for the average kid TV has at the very least pre-empted the traditional development of childhood itself. The time kids spend sitting catatonic before the set has been exacted from such salutary pursuits as reading, outdoor play, even simple, contemplative solitude. TV prematurely jades, rendering passe the normal experiences of growing up. And few parents can cope with its tyrannical allure.
Recently, Dr Benjamin Spock brought his stepdaughter and granddaughter to New York for a tour of the Bronx Zoo and the Museum of Modern Art. But the man who has thep prescription for everything from diaper rash to bedwetting could not dislodge the kids from their hotel room. “I couldn’t get them away from the goddamned TV set,” recalls Spock. “It made me sick.”
The link between TV violence and aggressive behavior
The debate over the link between TV violence and aggressive behavior in society has had a longer run than “Gunsmoke.” Today, however, even the most chauvinist network apologists concede that some children, under certain conditions, will imitate antisocial acts that they witness on the tube.
Indeed, a study of 100 juvenile offenders commissioned by ABC found that no fewer than 22 confessed to having copied criminal techniques from TV. Last year, a Los Angeles judge sentenced two teen-age boys to long jail terms after they held up a bank and kept 25 persons hostage for seven hours. In pronouncing the sentence, the judge noted disgustedly that the entire scheme had been patterned on an “Adam 12” episode the boys had seen two weeks earlier.
Convinced that they have proved their basic case, the behavioral sleuths on the violence beat have switched their focus to less obvious signs of psychic dysfunction. They are now uncovering evidence that the tide of TV carnage increases children’s tolerance of violent behavior in others.
In one experiment, several hundred fifth-graders were asked to act as baby-sitters for a group of younger kids — shown on a TV screen — who were supposedly playing in the next room. The baby-sitters were instructed to go to a nearby adult for assistance if their charges began fighting. Those who had been shown a violent TV film just before taking up their duties were far slower to call for help than those who had watched a pro-baseball telecast. “Television desensitizes children to violence in real life,” observes University of Mississippi psychology professor Ronald Drabman, who helped conduct the survey. “They tolerate violence in others because they have been conditioned to think of it as an everyday thing.”
Beyond that, some researchers are finding that TV may be instilling paranoia in the young. Three years of tests directed by Gerbner, who is perhaps the nation’s foremost authority on the subject, established that heavy TV watchers tend to exaggerate the danger of violence in their own lives — creating what Gerbner calls a “mean-world syndrome.” As for children, he reports that “the pattern is exactly the same, only more so. The prevailing message of TV is to generate fear.”
And now a word about the sponsors. The late Jack Benny once quipped that television is called a medium because nothing it serves up is ever well-done. But as the child watchers see it, the not-so-funny problem with TV commercials is precisely that they are so well put together. “Everybody has had the experience of seeing a 2-year-old playing on the floor, and when the commercial comes on, he stops and watches it,” notes F Earle Barcus, professor of communications at Boston University. “TV ads probably have more effect on children than any other form of programming.”