How Do Children Use Television

To understand television's potential impact on development, one must consider how much children watch television, how they direct their attention, and what they comprehend.

How Much Do They Watch?

Children are consumers of a variety of media, including computers, video games, print media, videotapes, music, and television. Although television is the most commonly used medium, viewing time varies with age. From two to seven years of age, children's viewing time is about two hours per day. Increasing through childhood, it peaks at about three and a half hours per day during middle school before dropping off to about two and a half hours per day during adolescence. The family environments of those who view more television tend to share certain characteristics: parents who watch a lot of television, television left on as background noise, and a television in the child's room.

How Do They Watch?

Children often have been characterized as ''zombie'' viewers who stare mindlessly at television for hours. Instead, naturalistic and laboratory studies of how children watch television indicate that children typically divide television viewing among a variety of activities. At all ages, children primarily monitor television content with short looks and only occasionally engage in extended looks at the television. Just as total viewing time changes across age, the percentage of time children spend actually looking at the television increases through middle school then drops slightly during adolescence.

Another common misconception is that the changing sights and sounds of television passively ''capture'' young children's attention. Certain formal, noncontent features of television production do sometimes cause children to orient automatically (e.g., a sudden loud noise, a rapid movement). Nevertheless, many features that attract or hold children's attention are informative, signaling content that children are likely to find relevant or entertaining. For example, the presence of children's voices, peculiar voices, sound effects, animation, and puppets cue children to the child-relevance of the content. Children's ongoing comprehension also influences their attention. If children are making sense of a program and judging it to be ''for them,'' they are more likely to keep attending to it than if it seems confusing or adult-oriented.

What Do They Understand?

Many have claimed that until late in elementary school, children make little sense of most programs because they are poor at selecting important events, connecting events, and inferring causes of events. Nonetheless, if plots depend on concrete action sequences, if dialogue and action support one another, and if story events relate to children's experiences, even preschool children can understand relatively complex stories.

To comprehend a televised story, one must understand information that is conveyed by production techniques. For example, a viewer needs to infer that a cut between a shot of a house's exterior and a shot of characters at a kitchen table conveys the exact location of the characters. Young children are capable of making such inferences, if they comprehend simple

Displacement theory suggests that time spent with television leads to a decrease in more valuable activities, such as reading and imaginative play. While evidence supporting this proposal is mixed, children who view television most heavily seem to spend less time engaged in activities that encourage cognitive development. (Robert J. Huffman/Field Mark Publications)

Displacement theory suggests that time spent with television leads to a decrease in more valuable activities, such as reading and imaginative play. While evidence supporting this proposal is mixed, children who view television most heavily seem to spend less time engaged in activities that encourage cognitive development. (Robert J. Huffman/Field Mark Publications)

relations in time and space. Another component of effective comprehension is appreciating that not all story events are equally important to the plot. Some of the most important events are those that can be connected as causes or consequences of other events. Contrary to claims that young children are unselec-tive and insensitive to such connections, events with many connections are remembered best as early as the preschool years.

There are, of course, limits on young children's comprehension of television programs and considerable development in comprehension skills during middle childhood and adolescence. Not until later in elementary school do children become consistent at understanding complex production techniques (e.g., flashbacks) and characters' emotions, intentions, and motivations. Older children and teens also become more skilled at connecting groups of events to an overall theme. With age, children add to their store of world knowledge and so become capable of appreciating a wider variety of situations.

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