Four social systems have the most influence on the growing up process of youth today: friends, media, family, and school. The order of their importance can be argued and certainly differs according to the life situation and style of particular young people. Television has emerged, not only as the most pervasive of media, but also as one of the most important influences on the lives of our children and adolescents. It is to be found in 99 percent of American homes, and the homes of most children and teenagers have multiple sets-a TV being a personal item watched in isolation by many young people.
Television needs to be understood as more than technology; it is a family member. In many homes children are bonded to television after their bonding to mother but before they have been bonded to a father figure. Grounded in mother’s domestic love, it is Mr. Rogers who takes them out to explore the neighborhood, and Sesame Street helps them discover a new world. Young people today trust television as a family member. Television also needs to be understood as a baby sitter and nanny. Busy parents are grateful for the entertainment given to their demanding children. Latchkey kids come home to an empty house. In the past, they would have called out to mother, at least touching base before going on to a chosen activity. Now they can only turn on the tube. A talk show host becomes mother, father, big sister, or big brother. As they grow up into the youth culture, their tribal music, along with a new way of thinking, is to be found on music video channels. The function of these channels is much more than music. They are promoting a whole new post-modern youth culture.
Children’s time is spent in the following order: (Liebert, R.M. et al. (1982). The early window: Effects of television on children and youth. Elmsford, NY: Pergamon.)
The average time spent by American children, adolescents, and adults with television is 6 hours a day. By the time an average American reaches the age of 18, he or she has watched 22,000 hours of television (equal to 2 1/2 years) compared to only spending 11,000 hours in the classroom. They have seen 350,000 commercials, witnessed about 132,000 acts of violence, 11,000 TV murders and many more acts of adultery. [Wilkins, J.A. (1982). Breaking the TV habit (pp. 10, 13, 32). New York City: Scribners.]
One concern about television is its violence. Numerous studies have documented increasing violence in each succeeding decade. Prime time in the early 1950s contained no violent programs. Six hours of violent program had appeared by 1965, and by 1985 there were twenty-seven hours of such shows. This violence is not restricted to adventure shows, but is also found in the evening news (graphic scenes of murders and suicides) and early morning cartoons.
Wilbur Schramm (1961, Stanford University Press) and colleagues conducted a classic study of 100 hours of television during the so-called children’s hours (4:00-9:00 p.m.) back in TV’s less violent days. Excluding cartoon and comedies these are just a few of the serious acts of violence they found:
Sixteen major gunfights.
Twenty-one persons shot.
Twenty-one other violent incidents with guns.
Thirty-seven hand-to hand fights.
Several attempted murders.
Four attempted suicides, three successful.
Four people pushed over cliffs.
The most significant rise in television violence is on children’s programs. Whereas 70% of adult programs use violence, that figure rises to 90% of children’s programs. Writers, directors, and broadcasting officials argue that this media violence is merely reflecting that of our society. Though this is still arguable, there is increasing evidence that exposure to violence produces more aggressive behavior-especially in children who watch violence alone or with friends in contrast to those who watch it with their parents. The studies of Bandura (1963), Robinson and Bachman (1971), Feshbach and Singer (1971), Steurer (1971), Huesmann (1984), convince most that excessive violence watched alone can desensitize all to violence, can increase aggression in many, and provide the most vulnerable viewers with examples of bizarre violence to be emulated. Sebald (1968, 1992) offers the following evidence:
Teenage girls gang-rape a San Francisco girl in imitation of a scene from the 1974 TV movie, “Born Innocent.”
An inmate escapes by helicopter from a Michigan prison. The escape was planned after seeing the movie, “Breakout.”
Teenagers commit several inventive Chicago murders, following in vivid detail the killings depicted in the TV detective series, “Shaft.”
Teenagers immolate a woman in a Boston street forcing her to douse herself with gasoline, as they had seen in the TV police story, “Fuzz” two nights earlier.
A seventeen-year-old boy stabs to death a young woman, imitating a scene from the Emmy-Award-winning TV movie, “The Marcus-Nelson Murders.” The boy had memorized the movie down to the last detail and arranged the crime scene to look exactly as it did in the movie. (Sebald, 1992)
Young people get much of their sexual information and style from television programs and role models. Our studies of television in the 1980s found certain values that were being taught by powerful messages in programs and commercials:
You can and should be a rich consumer and therefore find status and friends.
You can and should be sexy in order to become popular and find love.
You can and should be strong and violent and therefore confident and sexy.
The third message was the most troubling, and it led us into an investigation of the popular slasher films in which violence against women was a sexual turn-on. We also found that television was blurring the line between fantasy and reality. We became convinced that some young people committed suicide and homicide without realizing that it would hurt and be final. Love was being equated or limited to sex, and sex was selling everything. Males were being programmed to see women as sex objects; women to see themselves as pale reflections of distorted ideals. Television programming and commercials also promised solutions for life’s most difficult problems in a half hour or seconds. For every pain there seemed to be a pill or drug, and no pleasure could be fully enjoyed without chemical stimulant. Young people were being taught to expect immediate achievements and instant solutions.
It is neither fair nor productive to see television as an unmitigated disaster or the cause of all our ills. The positive and negative, helpful and hurtful, aspects of all cultural systems ought to be considered.
Television needs to be seen as all of the following:
The broadest of popular arts.
For many a popular ritual or evening ceremony.
Audience and ratings.
Programs and commercials.
Stories, often within stories (programs and commercials).
Television is becoming a necessity in even poor homes; amazingly remote rural villages often have a set. Global networks, satellites, cable and the VCR are spreading this medium at a rapid rate. In urban countries, many homes have multiple sets.
The most powerful critiques of television have come from three social critics: Jerry Mander (1977, Four arguments for the elimination of television.), Neil Postman (1985, Amusing ourselves to death.), and Allan Bloom (1987, The closing of the American mind.). The essence of their arguments follows:
Television replaces reality with images; it begins to shape the viewer into conformity with its artificial, commercial environment.
Television replaces words with images; active logical analysis with passive sensual entertainment; and substance with style. TV is show business; it cannot truly inform, it can only entertain.
Television is made for commercial advertisements. The profit factor drives and controls it, and that is why it cannot be reformed.
Television is destroying our democratic society since it is destroying our ability to discriminate and act.
Jerry Mander (the earliest critic and unnamed by those who followed his arguments) concludes, “I cannot answer the question (how to achieve the elimination of television). It is obvious, however, that the first step is for all of us to purge from our minds the idea that just because television exists, we cannot get rid of it.” (1977, p. 357)
On the opposite side it can be argued that these critics have too lofty an estimate of past golden ages, human cognitive powers, and the potential for democracy in contemporary society stripped of television. These people might argue that television is a good thing when
It brings world information to people, including illiterates.
It gets a nation talking about programs like “Roots” or “The Holocaust.”
It can inspire a nation around a moon landing or a city around a great athletic event.
It brings friends into the life of a very lonely, disabled person.
It allows harried persons to relax.
It brings a family together in laughter.
It helps a family or friends to talk about a serious contemporary problem like suicide or domestic abuse.
It can instruct us through honest dialogue or excellent documentaries.
It provides young people with good role models or allows them to study friendship, assess their values, test their ethics, and consider sacrifice.
It performs the function of good drama-television can be a good thing.
Studies have shown that the negative influence of violence is ameliorated when children watch TV with their parents (in contrast with watching it alone or with friends). The limitation of children’s viewing is important; discussion and instruction between parents and children is vital. This is good place to begin to discriminate between the positive and negative aspects of a culture which will become part of each child’s identity.
Questions for Reflection and Discussion
Is television the most popular medium and a global fact of life? What is it doing to world culture?
What are your and your family’s television viewing habits? What kind of program do you like most, and what are one or two of your favorite programs?
What do you see as television’s positive and negative aspects?
How has this article informed you? What questions or reactions does it raise for you?
How do you respond to the four arguments against television?
What do you say to the ten positive arguments for television?
Where, do you think, and how should this article be further discussed?
Television is a global fact of life contributing to urbanization and the rise of a “global culture.”
Television is a popular art surveying, unifying, and leading the culture.
Negative influences of television upon the must vulnerable have been studied and documented. Excessive violence, the objectification and denigration of women, irresponsible sex, and general lowering of taste and morals are among its negative features. Relief, entertainment, information, and inspiration are its positive contributions.
Families, schools, churches, and youth groups all have a responsibility to empower children and young people to resist television’s potential to manipulate and degrade.