Growing up with television, c. 1950s. Worries about the effects of television viewing on young children have been around since the birth of television itself. © H. Armstrong Roberts/CORBIS.

Television was gradually introduced in the United States and Western Europe after World War II, although the medium as such was developed before the war. By the end of the 1950s most countries in the Western hemisphere had access to one or more television channels and in the 1970s the majority of the households were equipped with at least one television set. At the end of the 1990s television was still the most pervasive medium in European households: about 90 percent of children had access to a television in their home. The dissemination of television was also rapid in the Third World and by the end of the twentieth century most people, at least in urban electrified areas, had a set.

Television gradually replaced RADIO as the medium most used by children; primarily attracting children in the younger ages (up to the teenage years). The amount of television viewing is sensitive to the output of children's programs as well as the output of entertainment programs. Thus, children have increased their viewing time as a consequence of more national channels as well as the deregulation of the television market, which have led to an increased output of globally distributed commercial children's programs, such as animated cartoons and action adventure series. Time spent with television varies between different countries, depending on differences in cultural pattern as well as differences in production. By the 2000s, the average child viewer in the United States watched about three to four hours of television a day, whereas the European viewer watched about three hours, with some national variations.

Television in Europe and the United States has changed its function from the early days, when it was a medium gathering the family in the living room, to a more privatized and individual activity, as many children today have their own television set in the bedroom.

Television's Impact

Children's fascination with television has concerned researchers, parents, educators, and other groups dealing with children's well-being ever since the medium was introduced. Much of the public debate has been focused on the effects of media violence, which has resulted in much scrutiny by psychologists and sociologists and has given rise to a massive body of research. But the debate and research has also dealt with whether television viewing in itself is a passive activity, and sometimes television has been compared to a drug, which has a tranquilizing or seducing effect on the viewer. Television has also been blamed for causing negative effects on reading skills and some claim that too much television use makes children stupid. Other worries have concerned children's physical condition, such as too little exercise or that radiation from the screen may affect the brain or eyes. Television viewing has also been linked to obesity in children.

In the history of media effects, a "direct effects era" was dominant for a long period of time. The reception of television was viewed in a linear and one-dimensional manner. Later, researchers realized that children did not react uniformly to the same program, but there were intervening variables such as age, gender, predispositions, perceptions, social environment, past experience, and parental influence. However, even if years of research has stressed that there are a number of so-called intervening variables, the "direct effects model" has been very influential in the public debate about children and television.

When research was done in more realistic settings, rather than in the laboratory, the effects of exposure to television was attenuated and long-term effects were particularly weak or even nonexistent. Long-term research conducted both in the United States and in Europe came to the conclusion that television violence is but one of a number of factors responsible for violent aggressive behavior among young people. Aggressive behavior is mainly related to other factors than exposure to television violence, such as personality or sociocultural variables, for example, family conditions, school, and peers. However, researchers also point to the fact that the frequent occurrence of screen violence reinforces the idea of violence as a solution of problems. The GLOBALIZATION of the television market contributed to increased production of violent programming and to the worldwide dissemination of such programs (e.g., animated cartoons and action adventures).

Learning and the Social Benefits of Television

At the end of the 1960s and the beginning of 1970s there was a belief that television could be used for promoting learning and social behavior. The medium was deliberately used for preschool learning, often called pro-social learning, and compensatory education in the United States, in Europe, and in some countries in the Third World, for example, in the Latin American countries of Mexico and Brazil. Producers, educators, and researchers started investigating the possibility of using television to reach out to underprivileged groups in society. In the United States, the educational program Sesame Street was developed and became a success also in other countries, where the program sometimes was adjusted to the domestic child audience. For example, Brazil, Germany, Israel, and Spain developed their own versions of Sesame Street. In Scandinavia, the domestic public service companies expressed a certain resistance against Sesame Street, because of the commercial format. However, in Sweden there was a wave of program series inspired by Sesame Street, teaching elementary skills in reading, concept formation as well as promoting pro-social behavior, such as solving conflicts without violence or strengthening children's self-confidence.

Regulation and Public Service

The television market has been more regulated in most European countries than it is in the United States. As a rule, the European broadcasting landscapes are organized as dual systems with public service broadcasters as a central pillar of the broadcasting system, rather than just a supplement to commercial broadcasting. In Northern Europe, children's programs have a particular position and status. Programs for children are offered on a regular basis. For example, in Sweden, about ten percent of the output on public service television was aimed at children and young people by the 2000s. About half of this output was domestic productions, with programs in a variety of genres: fictional dramas, sports, news, documentaries, magazine programs. However, deregulation has been both a challenge and a threat against public service television. The general tendency in Europe is weakened public service television, with fewer investments in domestic children's programs in favor of cheap imports. In recent years public broadcasters have been facing increasing competition by global (American) commercial children's channels like Cartoon Network, The DISNEY Channel, Nickelodeon, and Fox Kids Network. The situation in many countries in the Third World is such that the child audience has no other choice than the output from these channels.

Children's Participation

During the 1950s there was a discussion about whether children should participate in programs or not. In England, it was legislated that children were not allowed to participate or to appear as actors. The legislation originated from the days when CHILD LABOR was a common phenomenon in society. Children's programs were mainly performed by adults, as well as by various kinds of puppets, which acted as children, for example the puppet Andy Pandy from the BBC's Watch with Mother, one of the very first children's programs. In Sweden, on the contrary, it was stated from the start of broadcasting that children were welcomed to participate in programs. One of the very first television programs for children exhibited a mother with all her children in the studio. Eventually, children came to be heard and seen in children's programs more generally. But the image of the child is highly related to cultural patterns. For example, there are differences between how children in France are portrayed, where there is a preference for well dressed and proper children, as compared to children in Scandinavia, where the idea of the "natural" child is advocated. However, in the output as a whole, children are underrepresented both in the United States and in Europe. Children are rarely addressed directly, except in advertisements, as children do not have prominent roles in programs aimed for an adult audience. When young people are portrayed, they are often represented as a problem and a threat. Another recurrent picture is the good, innocent and sweet child, which reaches its extreme in advertising.

Media Education

The issue of children and the media (particularly television) has also been a target for the United Nations since the UN CONVENTION ON THE RIGHTS OF THE CHILD, became valid in 1989. One issue of concern has been to increase children's participation in terms of media education. In the United States and in Europe, media education has been inserted into the school curriculum to varying extents. The implementation of media education has been a slow process, often met with resistance from defenders of established school ideals. Wider access to digital video cameras for domestic use as well as computer editing programs makes it easier for children themselves to produce their own programs, which strengthens their positions and makes their voices heard more easily. However, the unequal distribution of technological resources in the world, makes such a scenario realistic only in more economically developed nations.

See also: Consumer Culture; Media, Childhood and the.


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