Children's Creativity and Television Use

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The question about whether and how television viewing affects children's imagination has been debated since the medium became part of everyday life, and there is still no consensus on this issue. On the one hand, television viewing is believed to produce a passive intellect and reduce imaginative capacities. On the other hand, there has been enthusiasm about educational television viewing fostering children's imaginative skills.

Before reviewing the effects literature, it is necessary to define two aspects of children's imagination that have been addressed in earlier studies, namely imaginative play and creativity. In imaginative play, children pretend that they are someone else, that an object represents something else, or that they are in a different place and time. According to Greta Fein (1981), imaginative play usually emerges at around twelve months of age, reaches its height between five and seven years, and then gradually declines. Creativity is children's capacity to generate many novel or unusual ideas, for example, in drawings or stories. Creativity is believed to start at around five or six years of age.

Although there are some obvious differences between imaginative play and creativity, the two activities are related to each other. First, both imaginative play and creativity require the generation of ideas, and in both activities associative thinking plays an important role. Second, research suggests that children who exhibit a high level of imaginative play in early childhood are more creative in the long term. Because imaginative play and creativity have so much in common, this entry discusses the effects that television viewing has on both imaginative play and creativity.

Researchers have advanced contradictory opinions about the influence of television on imaginative play and creativity. Some authors believe that television encourages play and creativity. This view is referred to as the stimulation hypothesis. Many others, however, argue that television hinders imaginative play and creativity. This view is referred to as the reduction hypothesis.

Stimulation Hypothesis

According to the stimulation hypothesis, viewing television enriches the store of ideas from which children can draw when engaged in imaginative play or creative tasks. Adherents of this hypothesis argue that television characters and events are picked up, transformed, and incorporated in children's play and products of creativity and that, as a result, the quality or quantity of their play and creative products is improved.

There is indeed evidence to suggest that children use television content in their imaginative play and creative products. However, this does not necessarily mean that children's play or creative products that are related to television content are more creative than play or products that are not related to television content. There is as yet no evidence that the quality or quantity of imaginative play or creative products is improved through television viewing in general. More specifically, none of the existing studies have as yet demonstrated that overall television viewing is positively related to imaginative play or creativity.

While a stimulating effect does not appear to be true of television viewing in general, it has been suggested that educational viewing might stimulate children's imagination. Two studies, by Jerome Singer and Dorothy Singer (1976) and Daniel Anderson and his colleagues (2001), have shown that that educational children's programs can promote imaginative play and creativity. Singer and Singer, for example, showed that preschoolers who had watched an episode of Mister Rogers' Neighborhood exhibited play with more "as-if" elements than did children who had not seen the show. However, although it is promising, the literature related to the beneficial effects that viewing educational television has on children's imaginative capacities is as yet too limited to justify decisive conclusions.

Reduction Hypotheses

Most research supports the contention that television reduces rather than increases creativity, but disagreement exists over the manner in which the reduction is brought about. In fact, six different types of reduction hypotheses have been proposed in the literature; displacement, passivity, rapid pacing, visualization, arousal, and anxiety. The first four hypotheses pertain to the effect of television viewing in general, whereas the latter two hypotheses are proposed to explain the effects of television violence on children's imaginative skills.

Displacement Hypothesis

The displacement hypothesis argues that children spend a considerable portion of their free time watching television at the expense of other leisure activities. In the case of imaginative play, the displacement hypothesis assumes that television viewing takes up time that could otherwise be spent on imaginative play. In the case of creativity, it is argued that television viewing occurs at the expense of other leisure activities, such as reading, which are thought to stimulate creativity more than does television viewing.

The displacement hypothesis was tested in three studies conducted during the introductory stage of television, when households with and without television could still be compared. Although none of the studies investigated the effect of the arrival of television on the time devoted to imaginative play, they did investigate the consequences for playtime in general. The studies by Eleanor Maccoby (1951) and Wilbur Schramm and his colleagues (1961) found that television viewing did occur at the expense of playtime in general. Because on average approximately one-third of general play is spent on imaginative play, it is likely that television viewing had a reductive effect on imaginative play as well.

In the case of creativity, there is also reason to assume that the arrival of television resulted in a displacement of other media, such as comic books and radio (for a review see Valkenburg and van der Voort, 1994). It is, however, still unknown whether this displacement of other media leads to a reduction in creativity. Linda Faye Harrison and Tannis MacBeth Williams (1986) demonstrated that the arrival of television coincided with a decrease in children's creativity (as measured by the Wallach-Kogan creativity test), but this study did not check whether this was caused by a diminished use of radio and books by children.

Passivity Hypothesis

Adherents of the passivity hypothesis see television as an "easy" medium, requiring little mental effort. With a minimum of mental effort, the child viewer consumes fantasies produced by others. According to the passivity hypothesis, this leads to a passive "let you entertain me" attitude that undermines children's willingness to use their own imagination in play and creative products.

Despite popular stereotypes of children just sitting and staring at the screen, a study by Andrew Collins (1982) suggests that the child viewer is cognitively far from passive. Even very young children actively screen television offerings for attractiveness and understandability and make an effort to interpret television images in their own terms. This does not necessarily imply that the amount of mental effort children invest in processing television programs is large. Gabriel Salomon (1984) has demonstrated that for older elementary school children, television viewing requires less mental effort than does reading. There is some evidence then that television viewing requires relatively little mental effort. However, it has never been investigated whether this leads to a general tendency to expend little mental effort, including a diminished tendency to invest mental effort in imaginative play or creative activities. Of course, child viewers consume fantasies produced by others, but there is little reason to assume that this leads to reductions in fantasy play or creativity. Children who read a story, listen to a radio story, or watch a play also consume fantasies produced by others, but nobody has ever argued that print stories or theater hinder children's imaginative play or creativity. Therefore, there is little reason to assume that television's reductive effect on imaginative play and creativity is caused by a television-induced passive attitude of "let-you-entertain-me."

Rapid Pacing Hypothesis

The rapid pacing hypothesis attributes the reductive effect that television viewing has on imaginative play and creativity to the rapid pace of television programs. According to this hypothesis, the child viewer is confronted with images that must be instantaneously processed because scenes are presented in rapid succession. Children are thus allowed little time to process the information at their own rate or to reflect on program content. The hypothesis argues that rapidly paced television programs encourage cognitive overload, impulsive thinking, hyperactivity, and a nonreflective style of thinking (see Singer and Singer, 1990). Because both imaginative play and creative tasks require children to focus their attention for a longer period of time, the quality or quantity of imaginative play and creative products could be impaired.

Of course, rapidly paced programs leave children less room for reflection on program content than slowly paced programs. However, there are no indications that a rapid program pace per se leads to cognitive overload, impulsive thinking, and shortened attention spans. It is no surprise, therefore, that none of the existing studies have demonstrated that program pace affects children's imaginative play (see Valkenburg, 2000).

Visualization Hypothesis

The visualization hypothesis has been proposed and tested only with respect to creativity, not with respect to imaginative play. This hypothesis attributes the reductive effect of television on creativity to the visual nature of the medium. According to Patricia Greenfield and her colleagues (1986), television, unlike radio and print, presents viewers with ready-made visual images and leaves them little room to form their own images. When engaged in creative thinking, children find it hard to dissociate themselves from the images supplied by television, so that they have difficulty generating novel ideas.

Seven experimental studies have been designed to test the visualization hypothesis. In all of these media-comparison experiments, children were presented with either a story or a problem. The stories or problems were presented in either television (audiovisual), radio (audio), or print (written text) format. The text of the story or problem was usually kept the same, whereas the presentation modality was varied. After the presentation of the stories and problems, children were given a creative task. They were asked, for example, to find a solution for a problem, make a drawing, or complete a story that was interrupted just prior to the end.

With the exception of one study, which was conducted by Mark Runco and Kathy Pezdek (1984), these media-comparison studies showed that verbally presented information evoked more novel ideas than did television information. According to the authors, the television presentations led to fewer novel ideas than did the radio and print presentations because children in the video condition had difficulty dissociating themselves from television images during creative thinking.

Arousal Hypothesis

Like the rapid pacing hypothesis, the arousal hypothesis assumes that television viewing promotes hyperactive and impulsive behavior. However, the hyperactivity is not seen as a result of the rapid pace of television programs; it is attributed to the arousing quality of action-oriented and violent programs. This arousing quality is assumed to foster a physically active and impulsive behavior orientation in children, which in turn disturbs the sequential thought and planning necessary for organizing the plots of make-believe games and performing creative tasks.

Although television viewing appears to be generally associated with relaxation, Dolf Zillmann (1991) has found that violent programs can produce intense arousal in children. In addition, there is evidence that the frequency with which children watch violent and/or action-oriented programs is positively related to restlessness in a waiting room and impulsivity at school.

Because research does indicate that violent programs can induce an impulsive behavior orientation, it is no surprise that many studies have demonstrated that watching violent programs can adversely affect children's imaginative play and creativity. However, although there is convincing evidence that violent programs can hinder children's imaginative play and creativity, the studies failed to investigate whether it was the arousal provoked by television violence that was responsible for the reductions in imaginative play and creativity.

Anxiety Hypothesis

The anxiety hypothesis provides a plausible rival explanation for the reductive effect of television violence on children's imagination. This hypothesis also argues that violent programs hinder children's imaginative play, but the reduction effect is attributed not to the arousal that violent programs produce, but to the fright reactions they generate. According to Grant Noble (1970), television-induced fright leads to regression in behavior, which is expressed in a reduction in the quantity or quality of imaginative play.

Although the anxiety hypothesis has only been advanced with respect to the influence of television on imaginative play, it also provides a plausible explanation for reductive effects of violent programs on creativity. First, research by Joanne Cantor (1998) has shown that there is ample evidence that violent programs can induce intense fright reactions in children. Second, there are indications that high levels of anxiety can disrupt fantasy play and creativity. However, there is not yet any conclusive proof that television-induced fright is responsible for the reductive effects on imaginative play and creativity.

With regard to these final two reduction hypotheses, there is evidence that television violence has a negative effect on children's imaginative play and creativity, and that the mechanisms proposed by the arousal and anxiety hypotheses actually operate. However, researchers have not yet determined whether it is arousal or anxiety that is responsible for television-induced decreases in imaginative play and creativity. In fact, it is possible that both the arousal and the anxiety hypotheses are valid reduction hypotheses. It is widely recognized that different types of media violence evoke different reactions in different viewers. It could be that arousing programs, such as the Power Rangers, may affect imaginative play and creativity through arousal, whereas frightening movies, such as The Exorcist, which have been shown to disturb many young viewers, may reduce children's imaginativeness through fright.


Overall, research suggests that television viewing has a negative rather than a positive effect on children's creativity. However, most television studies conducted before the year 2000 examined the relation between television viewing and imagination as an input-output measure, without attempting to explore the mechanisms that might be responsible for the reductive or stimulating effects of television. Therefore, the research does not allow one to single out which of the hypotheses discussed in this entry are the most plausible ones. Future studies should pay closer attention to the question of how television may affect imaginative play and creativity. This is important, because only when people know how television influences imaginative play and creativity, will they be able to mediate its effects adequately.

See also:Children's Preference for Media Content; Researchers for Educational Television Programs; Sesame Street; Television, Educational.


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Patti M. Valkenburg

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