“Mom, Can I Watch Batman?” Television News

How many of your friends don’t own a T.V.? I can’t think of one. While 50 years ago most people didn’t know what a T.V. was, television now is a part of most households. The average child between three and eleven-years-of-age watches two to four hours of T.V. a day. Most parents wonder if all that T.V. watching is doing their kids any good, but they’re also hooked on the fringe benefits it gives them–time to get dinner on the table, write a letter, or read another chapter in their book. There’s no doubt that the electronic babysitter lets you do those things which you normally couldn’t with kids on your heels.

The biggest deal is whether violence on television affects what our children do and think. A whopping 80% of all prime time T.V. programs have at least one incident of physical violence. If you thought cartoons were tame–guess again. Saturday morning cartoons alone average more than 20 violent acts every hour. Reports estimate that by the time your children reach 16-years-of-age they will have witnessed 13,000 killings on T.V.

How can an hour of Bugs Bunny do any harm? The truth is it probably won’t, but a steady diet of violence can make children (even pre-schoolers) more aggressive in their everyday lives. When Matt watches a good guy like Batman punch the Riddler in the stomach, he is getting an implicit message that aggression is okay. If Matt sees enough violence on T.V. he may eventually think, this is life–you solve problems with fighting and shooting. Large doses of televised violence may also desensitize children to aggressive acts. For instance, a kid who watches aggression on T.V. all the time may not think it’s any big deal when his friend shoots a bird with a sling shot. Researchers have found that although children don’t always repeat the actions of punished models, they still have learned the disapproved behaviors. Even though kids report not liking a model who has been rewarded for aggression, they still imitate him and report wanting to be like him. It seems even though children know aggression is wrong, they still think it is fun.

What can you do to lessen the impact of T.V. violence on your child? Your first move is to keep an eye on what your child watches on T.V. At the same time, however, don’t flick the channel every time a character gets punched in the stomach or socked in the mouth. After all your kid, sooner or later, is going to see aggression and fighting. You don’t live in a bubble. My son, for instance, loves to watch Batman. So what I do is sit down beside him while he’s watching Batman and explain why the bad guys usually lose in the end, and why people like Batman sometimes have to fight for good causes. You can use the T.V. as a tool for teaching your children valuable lessons about life.

In addition, we as parents and educators should monitor ourselves and make sure we’re not modeling or rewarding aggressive behavior. Even fairly neutral comments like, “don’t be a wimp,” “stand up for your rights,” and “don’t let anybody push you around” have a fighting edge to them. You can get a list of programs experts consider too violent for young children by writing Action for Children’s Television; 46 Austin Street; Boston, MA 02160.

Any more concerns? One is that having a T.V. in your home cuts down the amount of time you would otherwise spend doing other non-T.V. activities with your children. I see this when my husband and son go into our living room after dinner to play trains and cars. Either Nathan is losing out to the basketball game or my husband is losing out to Afraid of the Dark or some other show Nathan absolutely cannot miss. Most of the evidence says, “No, television does not compromise the quality of children’s family life.” In fact, the reverse may even be true for children having overly negative, punitive, or insensitive parents.

One aspect of T.V. viewing which has me wondering about our pre-schooler is the brain-washing effects of commercials. My son actually pays more attention to commercials than T.V. programs. We go shopping for groceries and Nathan wants Frosted Flakes because Tony the Tiger eats them, and he says, “They’re Great!” One study showed that the average kid is exposed to nearly 20,000 commercials each year. It’s not till they reach nine to eleven years of age that children realize television ads are meant to persuade and sell–not necessarily tell them the truth. You’ll find younger children are also quite resilient to your attempts at making right their wrong opinions. My easiest and best solution for this dilemma is to let Nathan try the Frosted Flakes, and find out for himself whether they’re Great! or not. First-hand experience speaks louder than a thousand words for young children–so long it doesn’t empty your wallet in the meantime.

Another worry you may have is whether T.V. is blunting your children’s curiosity or impairing their academic performance. A study done in Notel, Canada came up with some interesting results. Prior to ever having seen T.V., grade-school children in this remote community scored higher in both reading and creativity than same-aged children living in towns with T.V. However, after watching television two to four years Notel’s children dropped to the same reading and creativity levels as other Canadian children. Two other side effects were a rise in children’s aggression during free-play and a decline in teenager’s participation in community activities.

On the whole, kids who watch a lot of T.V. do less well in school; however, if kept in moderation, T.V. doesn’t seem to impair children’s academic performance or stunt their intellectual growth. In fact, a study published by the United States Department of Education suggests that primary grade students learn a lot from watching T.V.

Sesame Street is the world’s most popular children’s series. It was created to teach pre-schoolers cognitive skills such as recognition and discrimination of numbers and letters, counting, ordering and classifying objects, and solving simple problems; plus help children accept and get along better with their peers and understand each other’s emotions. Sesame Street does this in a colorful, fun and entertaining way; kids don’t even realize their learning valuable lessons about life. Mister Roger’s Neighborhood and Barney are also designed to promote children’s social and emotional development. If pre-schoolers watch these television shows over a long period of time, they often become more affectionate, considerate, cooperative, and helpful toward their classmates. The lasting benefits, however, hinge on parents being there to interpret what children are seeing, and tell them how they can try out the prosocial lessons in real life. (End of Insert)

Observational learning can also be turned around to teach your kids positive skills like sharing their toys, helping you set the table for dinner, and playing baseball. By watching other people, kids learn faster and can skip some of the unhappy consequences of unguided trial-and-error learning. If you’d like to try observational learning with your kids, make sure they can do these three skills:

  1. Pay attention to and recognize what a model is doing. Children pay closer attention to models they like or want to be like. For example, boys tend to follow boys and girls follow girls.
  1. Remember what they saw a model doing. Children’s recall is better if they can describe a model’s behavior in words or imagine it vividly in their minds.
  1. Have the coordination and physical ability to imitate the behavior.

As a footnote, rewards are not essential, but they can motivate a disinterested child to at least try imitating a model’s actions.

Another social-learning theorist, Julian Rotter, made a distinction between internally oriented people who believe reinforcers are under their own control, and externals who see little or no connection between what they do and what happens to them. Externals think reinforcers are determined by fate, luck, or other people with power. They have not learned that trying hard brings rewards. Their thinking is, “Why bother trying; it doesn’t make any difference to what I get anyway”? You can foster internal control in your children by following these four steps:

(1) Be warm and supportive to your children.

(2) Praise their accomplishments.

(3) Avoid heavy-handed control over your children.

(4) Aim for fairness and consistency in disciplining your children. This way children can learn to accept blame for their failures as well as credit for their successes.

Rotter believes that children’s personality development hinges largely on the range, diversity, and quality of their experiences with other people. The origins of healthy or unhealthy behavior are in the home, and later transfer to the school. Health is promoted by parents who encourage behavior leading to acceptance, love, and identification with others. Neglect and rejection lead to maladjustment, as do overindulgence and overprotection. The rejected child is likely to enter school with low expectations for success, while the overindulged one is prone to having unreasonably high expectations.