How Are Children Affected by Television

Television may influence children's development in a variety of ways. Two broad areas for consideration are effects on children's cognitive development and academic achievement and effects on children's social development and relationships with others.

Does Television Affect Thinking and


Parents and teachers have long voiced concerns regarding television's potential effects on children's thinking and school achievement. A basis for these concerns is displacement theory, which proposes that time spent with television takes time away from more valuable activities, such as reading and imaginative play. Evidence supporting this proposal is mixed. Children who view television most heavily do seem to spend less time engaged in activities that encourage cognitive development and in turn show the lowest achievement. For light to moderate television view ers, program content, family interaction, and opportunities for other activities moderate television's effects on children's achievement and creativity.

Does Television Affect Behavior with Others?

Concern regarding television's effects on children's social development has been most apparent in the longstanding debate over the link between televised violence and children's aggression, but extends to other areas such as development of stereotypes, understanding and expressing emotions, and problems such as substance abuse and eating disorders. Several overlapping theories offer reasons why television may exert effects.

Arousal theory emphasizes physiological responses that can be produced by television programs. Programs causing emotions also produce bodily responses, such as increased heart rate from excitement during a violent or suspenseful show. The excitement of shows that produce physical arousal will attract many children. This theory, however, also predicts that with increased exposure, children need stronger stimulation to reach the same level of arousal and emotional reactions, and so they can become desensitized to violence and other themes that provoke emotions. Perhaps the most compelling evidence for this perspective is that children show reduced responses to real-life aggression after viewing televised violence.

Social cognitive theory, developed by psychologist Albert Bandura, stresses that children learn many social behaviors by observing those modeled by others. Children are more likely to try a behavior if they can identify with the person modeling the behavior and the model is successful at achieving a goal or obtaining a reward. Heavy exposure to television characters who succeed by behaving in aggressive, violent, or stereotypical ways may encourage children to use similar strategies in their own lives. Numerous studies provide evidence that heavy exposure to televised violence is linked to increased aggressive behavior in children and adolescents.

Script theories address ways in which television influences the development of children's knowledge and beliefs about the world. Based on experiences with real and media events, children build representations of what to expect in certain situations or of certain people. In turn, children's expectations may guide their behaviors. Children who observe frequent aggressive solutions to conflict situations are more likely to expect others to behave aggressively. One specific version of script theory, cultivation theory, proposes that heavy viewing leads people to see the world as it is portrayed on television. For example, television programs overrepresent the occurrence of violence and exaggerate the presence and the power of white males. Consistent with cultivation theory, heavy viewers are relatively likely to see the world as mean and threatening and to develop ethnic and gender stereotypes.

Some evidence supports each of these theories. Results from any single study, however, cannot establish a clear causal link from television to a particular behavior. The strongest argument is possible when multiple sources of evidence converge, as is the case for the conclusion that viewing televised violence contributes to aggressive behavior. Even here, heavy viewing of violent television is only one contributor to the development of aggressive behavior, and is most likely to affect children who are prone to aggressive behavior for other reasons (e.g., children from families or cultures in which aggression is an acceptable response to conflict).

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