Early Childhood Education



Television viewing is a part of the regular daily routine of most American children. Despite the recommendations of the American Academy of Pediatrics that young children below the age of two years should not watch television, a report funded by the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation indicated that 74 percent of children below age two have watched television, and, on a typical day, 59 percent watch an average of two hours and five minutes. In a national survey including 145 families with two- and three-year-olds, parents reported that their child watches an average of about two hours (159 minutes) each day. School-age children spend almost three hours per day watching television. Thirty percent of children up to age three and 43 percent of children four to six years old have televisions in their bedrooms. A more recent survey of parents found that the mean age infants and toddlers began watching videos and television was about six months and nine and three-quarter months respectively. The mean number of hours that infants and toddlers under two years watched television per day was about one hour and twelve minutes, slightly less time than two- and three-year-olds watch television (Singer and Singer, 2005).


Formal Features and Special Characteristics of Television

Properties, conventions, and formal features that distinguish television from other media, and that affect children’s comprehension are (1) attention demand—the continuous movements on the screen that evoke an orienting response; (2) brevity of sequence—the brief interactions among people, brief portrayal of events, the brief commercials (10-30 seconds long; (3) interference effects—the rapid succession of material that interferes with rehearsal and assimilation of material; (4) complexity of presentation—the cross-modality presentation of material (sound, sight, and printed word, especially in commercials); (5) visual orientation—television is concrete, oriented toward spatial imagery; and 6) emotional range—the vividness of action (special effects, music, lighting).

It may be difficult for a young child to comprehend slow motion or speeded motion, the juxtaposition of scenes or split-screen technique, the use of subliminal techniques (two scenes to be viewed simultaneously, used often in dream sequences), special effects such as zooming in, making things appear small, or growing gradually in front of your eyes. Other television features include “magical” effects involving distortions, fades, or dissolves, changes in figure and ground, and the rapid disappearances of persons or objects.


Research Methods

There are numerous techniques used to study the effects of television on young children: survey research, laboratory studies dealing with experimental and various control conditions, cross-sectionalfield studies, and longitudinal approaches in which data obtained are examined for their possible effects on overt behaviors over an extended period of time. Meta-analysis is a technique for examining an accumulation of separately conducted studies that have comparisons between experimental and control conditions, or of contrasting groups with respect to relevant cognitive and behavior variables.


Results of Television Exposure

In the 1980s, a series of experimental studies examined the effects of television on preschool children with a particular emphasis on imagination and aggression. Highly imaginative children tended to watch programs chiefly on the Public Broadcasting System (PBS) and had parents who also valued imagination. Children who were watching at least three hours or more a day were less imaginative than those children who only watched one hour a day. The less imaginative children had a history of watching action/adventure TV programs and cartoons, all associated with high levels of rapid activity and violence. Their parents also proved to be less likely to control their children’s TV viewing (Singer and Singer, 1981). Children who watched action detective programs or particular cartoons or programs with superheroes were more likely to be aggressive both verbally and physically in the day care centers and at home than children who were lighter television viewers and whose parents controlled the kinds of programs and number of hours that children viewed television. Researchers followed children over a year to four or five years later, and found that early heavy TV viewing of more violent programming was associated with subsequent overt aggressive behavior at home and in school (Singer and Singer, 2005).

Another example of a longitudinal approach involved a long-term follow-up from preschool-age to middle and high school and included children who predominantly watched programs on Public Television such as Sesame Street. These children performed better in school academically and behaviorally than children who chiefly watched commercial programs. Large-scale longitudinal studies have presented evidence linking frequent exposure to violent media in childhood with aggression later in life (Anderson et al., 2003).

Educational programs that include fantasy elements and offer solutions to problems have been shown to foster imagination and creativity and prosocial behaviors such as sharing, taking turns, and cooperation. Research, however, employing a content analysis of the five most popular prime-time family sitcoms among children ages two to eleven years found that, while sitcoms featured child characters in the major story line, the emphasis was primarily on negative emotions such as fear and anger. In experiments with infants aged ten to twelve months, the older children showed increases in negative emotions after viewing an actress who vividly expressed these negative emotions. It appears from this study that by one year, a child is able to process the social information and the emotional state of people depicted on television (Singer and Singer, 2005). Research concerning television’s effects on children’s fears has been summarized by Cantor (2006). As children grow older, they become more responsive to realistic dangers than to those depicted in fantasy programs.

In terms of health, studies have found that viewing frightening material raised children’s heart rates and that the more children watched television the less likely they were to engage in physical activity (Durant et al., 1994). Obesity and its relationship to television is being investigated by researchers, but most of the data reported are correlational rather than causal. Young children are influenced by advertising of toys and food products, and children as young as two years already have established beliefs about particular brands (Hite and Hite, 1995).

In a meta-analysis of twenty-three studies, television was found to be negatively correlated with reading ability; the magnitude of the correlation rises sharply after 20 hours of television viewing (Walberg and Haertel, 1992). Viewing more than three hours per day seems to be the critical peak in the decline of reading ability. It may be that television viewing displaces the time needed for practicing reading. Researchers have found a significant association between the amount of television watched between ages one and three, and subsequent attention problems at age seven (Christakis et al., 2004). Children who watch heavy amounts of television tend to have shorter attention spans.

In a longitudinal study by Lemish and Rice (1985), observations of children’s behaviors were recorded while they watched television in their own homes. The children were newborn to three years of age, actively involved in the process of language acquisition. The main categories of children’s verbalizations were as follows: labeling objects on the screen, asking questions about the program, repeating television dialogue or parent comments about the content, and describing the content. Parents acted as mediators, with their verbalizations paralleling the child’s. Linebarger and Walker (2005) concluded from experimental studies with babies observed every three months from age six months to the age of two that programs featuring tight narrative structures that used language-promoting strategies predicted greater vocabulary and more expressive language development than did programs like Teletubbies that emphasized baby talk and looser story content.


Controlling Television

Since broadcast television encompasses stations that transmit their signals through a technology that uses publicly owned airwaves, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has the power to grant broadcast licenses and to create regulations that are related to public interest. The Children’s Television Act of 1990 enacted by Congress and implemented by the FCC led to the requirement that broadcasters include three hours per week of educational programming for children aired between six in the morning and eleven in the evening. Cable and other nonbroadcast technologies are not bound by any obligation to serve the public interest since they do not use the broadcast airwaves for distribution of their programming.

The V-chip, a filtering device that parents can use to block material that has the potential of harming children, became part of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 stipulating that all new television sets must be so equipped. Commercially produced devices include lock boxes that parents can purchase to block out programming that they consider inappropriate for their children. Program ratings by age, violence, sex, adult dialogue, and fantasy violence are supposed to appear in the corner of a TV screen at the start of each show; they are inconsistently applied and there are no content descriptors. There are discrepancies often between ratings offered in newsprint, guides, and those appearing on the television screen (Singer and Singer, 2001).

Specific curricula using specially prepared manuals (and sometimes video accompaniments that explain the electronic workings of television’s special effects), that discuss commercials, violence, and fantasy/reality distinctions, and the different genres (news, drama, documentary, cartoon, quiz show) are available to schools and to parents for controlling and mediating children’s television viewing. Research indicates that children who are exposed to such curricula have a clearer understanding of how television transmits information and entertainment than children who have not been exposed to such curricula (Singer and Singer, 2001).

In addition to the industry monitoring the quality of television, a parent or other caregiver has a significant role to play concerning the content and age appropriateness of the material that a child watches. Adult caregivers can mediate by explaining TV content, asking questions to determine how accurately a child has processed the material, controlling the number of hours a child views each day, and selecting programs that are age- and content-appropriate. When the parent is an active participant with the child, television has the potential to be a good teacher. See also Attention Deficit Disorder/Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder; Development, Language; Parents and Parent Involvement.

Further Readings: Anderson, C. A., L. Berkowitz, E. Donnerstein, L. R., Huesmann, J. D. Johnson, D. Linz, N. M. Malamuth, and E. Wartella (2003). The influence of media violence on youth. Psychological Science in the Public Interest. December; Cantor, J. (2006). Protecting children’s welfare in an anxiety-provoking media environment. In Nancy E. Dowd, Dorothy G. Singer, and Robin F. Wilson, eds., Children, culture and violence. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, pp. 163-178; Christakis, D. A., F. J. Zimmerman, D. L. DiGiuseppe, and C. A. McCarty (2004). Early television exposure and subsequent attentional problems in children. Pediatrics 113(4), 708-713; DuRant, R. H., T. Baranowsk, M. Johnson, and W. O. Thompson (1994). The relationship among television watching, physical activity, and body composition of young children. Pediatrics 94(4 Pt 1), 449-455; Hite, C. F., and R. E. Hite (1995). Reliance on brand by young children. Journal of the Market Research Society 37 (2), 185; Lemish, D., and M. L. Rice (1985). Television as a talking picture book: A prop for language acquisition. Child Language 13, 251-274; Linebarger, D. L., and D. Walker (2005). Infants’ and toddlers’ television viewing and language outcomes. In E. A. Wartella, E. A. Vandewater, and J. Rideout, eds., “Electronic Media Use in the Lives of Infants, Toddlers, and Preschoolers.” American Behavioral Scientist 48(5), 624-645; Singer, Dorothy G., and Jerome L. Singer (1981). Television, imagination and aggression: A study of preschoolers. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum. Singer, Dorothy G., and Jerome L. Singer, eds. (2001). Handbook of children and the media. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications. Singer, Dorothy G., and Jerome L. Singer (2005). Imagination and play in the electronic age. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. Walberg, H., and G. Haertel (1992). Educational psychology’s first century. Journal of Educational Psychology 84, 6-21.

Dorothy G. Singer and Jerome L. Singer