Television's Impact on Youth and Children's Play

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Most American children live in a media-rich environment, with leisure-time use of television, movies, music, video games, and computers playing an important role in their daily lives. Young people, especially teenagers, tend to embrace new media, often employing them as tools for exploring and expressing their identity. In contrast, parents, government, and scholars have long been concerned about mass media's potentially negative impact on children's development and well-being and, ultimately, on society as a whole. While research on children and the media has been conducted in the United States since the 1920s, debates about the exact nature of media effects persist. As well, the introduction of each new medium brings with it a range of new research questions.

Following a brief overview of children's access to and use of media (which is often mediated by differences in age, gender, race, and family income level), three areas of particular importance to children's leisure-time use of media are discussed: the trend toward individualization of media use, the commercialization of children's leisure, and the potential for media such as television and computers to displace other, more developmentally beneficial leisure activities.

Children's Media Landscape

Access to media. Based on nationally representative survey data, Emory Woodard and Natalia Gridina report that 98 percent of American households have at least one television, 97 percent of homes with children aged two to seventeen have a VCR, and 68 percent of homes with children have video game equipment. With regards to computer technology, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting found that 83 percent of homes with children have a computer, and 78 percent have access to the Internet.

Income, race, and age are all significant predictors of children's access to media. Children from higher-income families are more likely than lower-income children to own almost all media, with the exception of video game equipment. Video game equipment ownership is not related to income, although it is associated with gender. Homes with at least one boy are significantly more likely to have video game equipment than homes with at least one girl. Age also plays a role in children's media access. Donald Roberts, Ulla Foehr, Victoria Rideout, and Mollyanne Brodie report that access to music media, video game equipment, computers, and the Internet tends to increase with age.

Race is a strong predictor of access to new media, with Hispanic and African American children being significantly less likely than white children to have home computers and at-home Internet access.

Media Use According to Roberts et. al. and Woodard and Gridina, American children spend close six and a half hours with media every day, on average. Screen-based media (TV, videotapes, video games, and computer) account for approximately 75 percent of daily media use. Once again, income, race, and age are associated with significant differences in media use. Generally, children from lower-income families are exposed to more media than their higher-income counterparts. On average, African American children consume more than two hours per day more of media than white children, and an hour more than Hispanic children. This is partially explained by the fact that African American children tend to live in homes that are more "television-oriented" than those of white or Hispanic children. As a result, African American children are significantly more likely than white or Hispanic children to live in homes with three or more televisions and with premium cable subscriptions.

Age also has a powerful effect on the amount of time children spend with media. Using survey data from a nationally representative sample, Roberts et al. found that leisure time media exposure begins early (two- to four-year-olds spent over four hours per day with media), increases to over eight hours per day by age twelve, and then decreases during the teen years as academic responsibilities and social activities begin to take up more time. Location of media within the home can also impact the amount of time children spend with media. In particular, the presence of bedroom media such as televisions and computers may lead to increased time spent with those items.

Bedroom Media and the Trend Toward Individualization

Sonia Livingstone argues that due to the proliferation of media within the home (which results from the availability of cheaper media products, the rise of mobile media, and media diversification) leisure time use of media is becoming increasingly individualized. Instead of families gathering in communal spaces such as the living room to watch television or listen to the radio, individual family members are now able—and often choose—to consume media on their own. For children, this has translated into the emergence of "bedroom culture" (Livingstone, p. 146).

Over 70 percent of children have books and stereos in their bedrooms, and more than 50 percent of children have bedroom TVs. Approximately 20 percent of children have computers in their rooms, and, of that number, more than half have Internet access. Thirty percent of American children have video game systems in their rooms, although boys are almost twice as likely as girls to have bedroom systems. In general, older children are significantly more likely than younger children to have bedroom media. However, a substantial 26 percent of children aged two to four have televisions in their bedrooms. Other predictors of bedroom media include income and parent education. The higher the family income, and the more education parents have, the less likely children are to have a bedroom TV, VCR, or video game system. As discussed above, African American children tend to live in television-oriented homes; as such, African American children are most likely to have bedroom TVs.

Roberts et al. explain that while young people, especially teenagers, have always been able to consume media relatively independently, the media landscape of 2004 (of which bedroom media was a defining feature) gave children unprecedented opportunity to structure their own media diets and to engage in media use free from parental supervision, comment, and, often, awareness. Studies indicated that children with bedroom televisions spent more time watching television than children without bedroom access, and that their consumption tended to include more adult-oriented programming.

The Commercialization of Leisure

Dale Kunkel estimates that American children are exposed to over 40,000 TV commercials a year. Given young children's level of cognitive development, researchers have sought to understand how this deluge of ads affects kids and, by extension, their families. Up until approximately age five or six, children are unable to distinguish between programming and commercials, and before age seven or eight, most kids cannot understand commercials' persuasive intent. As a result, young children are generally unable to watch commercials skeptically and often cannot separate commercial messages from their own wishes. Not surprisingly, research has shown that commercials targeted to children are generally effective in that they tend to succeed in getting children to request the product advertised. For example, studies show that children's food choices are affected by advertising. Since content analyses reveal that a large proportion of commercials targeted to children advertise food that is high in sugar and fat, concerns have been raised about advertising's role in contributing to childhood obesity.

Television programming can also be seen as commercials for program-themed products. Toy-based programming (where shows' debuts coincide with the introduction of related toys) first appeared on TV in the 1980s. Widely criticized for being nothing more than thirty-minute commercials, shows like the Care Bears and He-Man were developed with direct input—and often funding—from toy manufacturers. It was rare in 2004 to come across a television show that didn't have an accompanying line of toys and games. With children highly susceptible to commercial messages, watching television can influence how—and with what—children spend their non-TV leisure time. Ellen Wartella and Sharon Mazzarella explain, "Television not only provides shows for young children to watch but intrudes into other parts of their leisure time by providing the source and objects of their play" (p. 188). This trend is repeated in the movie industry, and the Internet is increasingly being used as means to supplement the marketing messages found on television and in films (for example, Web sites and online games associated with TV shows).

As children grow up, media not only provide them with the content of their play but also gives them the opportunity to explore and express their nascent identities. Livingstone argues that children's identities have become commodified as a result of their leisure time use of media.

Displacement Theory

One of the longest-standing debates in media effects research is whether (and how) the use of new media affects the amount of time children spend engaging in other leisure activities, especially those deemed to be more valuable to a child's intellectual, emotional, and social development. Referred to generally as the displacement effect, this theory posits that time spent with a new medium leads to decreased time spent with other media and non-media leisure activities. Numerous scholars have studied the displacement effect, most frequently with regard to the impact of television. (A few studies have looked at computers and displacement, which will be discussed below.) The findings, however, are not entirely consistent. In reviewing the work on displacement effects, it is useful to examine separately those studies that assess the impact of television's introduction and those that assess the medium's effect after it has been in place for many years. The introduction of a new medium may result in dramatic changes in children's (and adults') leisure, but once the medium is integrated into children's lifestyles, these "novelty effects" may dissipate.

Displacement Effects: Television

Wilbur Schramm, Jack Lyle, and Edwin Parker's landmark study examined the impact of television on children's use of a range of different media. While TV viewing led to a decrease in radio listening and movie attendance, time devoted to newspapers and books was unaffected. Tannis Williams's analysis of television's introduction in British Columbia, Canada, revealed that TV negatively affected reading by interfering with the acquisition of reading skills. Williams also found that increased TV viewing led to decreased participation in activities outside the home, especially sports. In contrast, John Murray and Susan Kippax found that the introduction of TV in rural Australia led to increases in the amount of time children spent reading.

In a two-year study, Cees Koolstra and Tom van der Voort found that television viewing had a small but significant negative effect on children's leisure-time reading. The authors suggest that this occurs because frequent television viewing led to a less favorable attitude toward book reading. Diana Mutz, Donald Roberts, and D. P. van Vuuren followed children's media habits for eight years following the introduction of TV to parts of South Africa. They found that the presence of TV led to a modest but significant decrease in reading (as well as in radio listening and movie attendance). However, over 60 percent of children's TV viewing time came from marginal activities, suggesting a simple displacement of time did not occur. And, while TV viewing began to decrease several years following its introduction, participation in other activities did not return to their pre-TV levels. Mutz et al. conclude that an asymmetric form of displacement had occurred and that TV led to a general restructuring of children's leisure time. In contrast, Susan Neuman argues that television has not displaced children's leisure time book reading, stating that the amount of time children spend reading has remained unchanged over the past fifty years, at approximately fifteen minutes per day. In their cluster analysis, Suzanne Pingree and Robert Hawkins found no evidence of a negative relationship between watching TV and the number of books and newspapers read.

Media "Synergy"

Susan Neuman rejects the displacement theory in favor of a "synergistic" approach that sees interests in one medium reflected in others. "Rather than competition there is a spirited interplay between print and video activities that may spark children's interest and enhance literacy opportunities" (p. xiv). Based on Neuman's theory, certain types of educational programming may encourage children to engage in more leisure time reading. While Neuman was unable to provide any evidence that interests generated by TV cause children to pursue more information through reading, others have found increases in requests for particular books featured on children's programming. More recent research, however, provides support for the idea that media content (and not simple usage) will predict the extent to which TV displaces reading.

While previous displacement studies failed to distinguish between the types of TV programs viewed by children, Aletha Huston, John Wright, Janet Marquis, and Samuel Green examined the effects of both educational and entertainment television on children's leisure. Changes in the amount of time young children spent watching entertainment television were negatively related to changes in time spent reading. There was no evidence that changes in the amount time children spent watching educational television was related (either positively or negatively) to changes in time spent reading. Program content was thus a key factor in displacement, providing at least partial support for Neuman's theory.

Displacement Effects: Introduction of Computers

In their review of the effects of home computer use on children's development, Kaveri Subrahmanyam, Robert Kraut, Patricia Greenfield, and Elisheva Gross note that limited research exists on how children's use of computers may displace other leisure activities. Woodard and Gridina found that children who use computers for purposes other than going online spend an average fourteen minutes less watching TV per day. However, some researchers suggest that because of the connections that exist between the content of various media (for example, TV content associated with Web content and vice versa), computer use may lead to an increase in the amount of time children spend watching TV. Subrahmanyam et al. suggest that as time spent with computers increases, children's total "screen time" (time spent using a computer, watching television, and playing video games) increases as well.

Context and Content

Media, both old and new, occupy a prominent place in children's lives, where it both shapes and is shaped by children. Effects associated with media use aren't simply a function of watching a video or playing a computer game; rather, effects depend upon a number of contextual factors, including the child's age, gender, and race; the family's education and income; the environment where media use occurs (for example, in the child's bedroom); and the content featured in the media. Although arguments that media interfere with children's pursuit of more educational activities have been made, the evidence does not support this contention. Instead, media occupy children's lives according to roles children assign each medium. For instance, children may watch a cartoon or read a comic book because they are bored or wish to be entertained; they may watch a show or visit a Web site with information on animals because they want to learn more about a giraffe. As with most activities in which children participate, media serve multiple functions according to a child's particular needs at any given moment. The most important aspect of children's media use is not that they use media; instead, it is what content they are exposed to while using a particular media device.

See also: Television's Impact on Popular Leisure


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Ariel R. Chernin and Deborah L. Linebarger

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Television's Impact on Youth and Children's Play

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