Since the 1950s, television has grown to be one of the most popular media in domestic settings. It is estimated that by the turn of the millennium, 98% of households in the United States had television sets and over half of the global population could access television (Stephens). However, concerns have also grown over the years, and especially in the 21st century that children are being exposed to television earlier, for longer hours, and to increasingly complex content which is potentially detrimental to their development. An American psychologist, Gerald S. Lesser, put forth the idea that television content could be controlled and specially tailored towards imparting positive information and lessons to children in an enjoyable way. Up until 1997, he collaborated with the Childrens Television Network to produce a show, Sesame Street which demonstrated the potential of using television to steer childrens growth.
Gunter and McAleer stated that children watch television with gradually growing attentiveness from about 2 years old (4). They further noted that viewing levels rise through ages 4 to 11 and average between two and a half and three hours a day (5). Children in the latter mentioned age group could be considered to be at a very critical stage because generally that is when they start school, start participating in conversations actively at home, and start forming friendships-and antagonisms-from their interactions with peers. This underscores the need for parents to be always vigilant and aware of what their children watch.
One of the major reasons for watching television as outlined by Gunter and McAleer is that children do it as a time filler. This is especially true for children around the age of 9 (19). Another important reason is learning. However, learning itself may cover a broad scope of lessons. It is common knowledge that children learn mostly by imitating what they see others doing. Therefore, the risk persists that those children who mostly watch television as a way of passing time, when left without parental supervision, may sometimes watch harmful content such as programs containing violent scenes and crass language. The risk is compounded by the propensity of children to act out what they might have seen on television indiscriminately, sometimes with devastating effects on themselves and their peers. Furthermore, there persists the danger that watching television for long hours forestalls progress in other areas of a childs life, whether it be working on academic tasks or participating in physical exercise.
Despite its negative effects, television has been proven to be quite effective at teaching children. For instance, children who had watched Sesame Street for sustained periods were observed to have greatly improved perception of ethnic minorities among children in Canada and the United States, as well as improvements in relevant skills and abilities. Gunter and McAleer further report that those children showed clear signs of increased cooperative, helping, sharing, giving, comforting and affectionate behaviours compared with similar children who had watched programming with no overt pro-social content (119). They also point out that the positive effect of educative television can be enhanced by parental reinforcement (172).
The major lesson, as demonstrated by Gerald Lesser in Sesame Street, is that there is much to be gained by providing educative content for children on television, and balancing their viewership with other social activities to realise optimal benefits in their development.
Gunter, Barrie and Jill McAleer. Children & Television. 2. New York: Routledge, 1997.
Stephens, Mitchell. Grolier Encyclopedia. n.d. Web page. 25 Apr 2017. <https://www.nyu.edu/classes/stephens/History%20of%20Television%20page.htm>.
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