What effect has television had on our society? How does it impact the intellectual, moral, and psychological development of our children? According to numerous Gallup polls over the years, this is an enduring - and growing - concern of many parents, grandparents, and educators. The most recent of these polls (November 2002) indicates that concerns have continued to grow and parents' sense of helplessness has increased.
So what are the documented effects of television, and what control do we as parents have? How can "regular folks" make a difference in the rising tide of vulgarity, violence, and hypersexuality that seems to engulf our children?
This is not a simple topic, and we won't treat it simply. There are many aspects to the effect that television, films, and advertising have on our society and on our children. These are related and often overlap, but in many cases they have separate and distinct issues.
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The most studied of these issues has been the impact of media violence on children. Over a thousand academic studies have been completed, with remarkably consistent results: media violence makes our kids more aggressive, less patient, and more fearful of the world around them. Watching violence desensitizes children to actual acts of violence.
Portrayals of Sexual Exploitation and Attitudes
Portrayals of hypersexual behavior, casual sexual encounters without apparent consequence, exploitative programs like ABC's Are You Hot? and exploitation of sex in advertising have just the effect that parents fear. They turn up the pressure on teens to have sexual relations earlier, normalizing casual sexual encounters, and confusing younger kids who may be somewhat traumatized by too-early exposure to sexual issues.
Impact on Self-Image
Impact on self-image, particularly of teens, is substantial and well-documented. The combined effects of television (passivity, lowered physical activity, increased aggressiveness, sense of isolation, etc.) contribute to the negative changes in adolescent behavior over the last twenty years. Dramatic increases in anorexia, bulemia, depression, and self-mutilation over the last decade are certainly symptoms of an underlying cultural problem - one that television contributes to substantially. The Harvard Medical School's study on the dramatic increase of eating disorders among teen girls on Fiji after the introduction of American television is a scientific "smoking gun." Read the study.
Vulgarity and Rudeness
In a recent poll, (April, 2002) nearly eight in 10 respondents to the poll said lack of respect and courtesy is a serious national problem, and six in 10 said the problem is getting worse. This relates to increased aggressiveness, lack of consideration of others, and public vulgarity, all behaviors that are normalized by increasingly vulgar and rude television shows. Most media experts believe that television has shaped and accelerated this trend, rather than simply reflecting it, as TV execs are fond of claiming. Rude and vulgar behavior on television "normalizes" the behavior and breaks down the social barriers that help children understand when certain behaviors are appropriate (the locker room) and not appropriate (in class, at a party).
Intense and disturbing imagery
Intense and disturbing imagery, including scenes of extreme violence (but including other extreme taboos such as cannibalism), were once found only in ultraviolent films. More and more, those images are appearing on television and cable. Particularly for children and teens, these images have an effect that can best be described as a reduced version of post-traumatic stress disorder. The intense and disturbing images return unbidden and at times obsessively since the children have little ability to process and sublimate the images.
Passive watching - the "couch potato" syndrome
Television doesn't have to be violent or vulgar to have a negative effect. Excessive television watching of any sort has clear psychological and physiological effects on children. We refer to this as the "couch potato" syndrome. Several studies have documented that even benign television content decreases children's creativity and imagination, decreases physical activity, increases obesity. Lowered grades, decreased ability to handle stress and conflict, and higher levels of aggressive behavior with peers have also been clearly documented.
The effects of commercialism cannot be underestimated. Our children are besieged by manipulative commercial messages day in and day out, on TV, and even at school. Companies hire psychologists to help them target children and manipulate them; we call this the "art of whine-making." The bombardment of commercial messages has created a sense of chronic dissatisfaction in children and, many psychologists think, has contributed to the increased in teen depression.