Harvard Educational Review
  1. Spring 1995 Issue »

    Media, Children and the Family; and Television and the Exceptional Child

    Paula M. Szuluc
    Media, Children, and the Family: Social Scientific, Psychodynamic, and Clinical Perspectives
    edited by Dolf Zillman, Jennings Bryant, and Aletha Huston.
    Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, 1994. 339 pp. $79.95, $34.50 (paper).

    Television and the Exceptional Child: A Forgotten Audience
    by Joyce Sprafkin, Kenneth Gadow, and Robert Abelman.
    Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, 1992. 171 pp. $49.95, $24.50 (paper).

    For some children, under some conditions, some television is harmful. For other children under the same conditions, or for the same children under other conditions, it may be beneficial. For most children, under most conditions, most television is probably neither particularly harmful nor particularly beneficial. . . .

    It isn't scientifically justifiable to say that television is good or bad for children. The relationship is always between a kind of television and a kind of child in a kind of situation. . . . Television enters into the whole life of the child, not merely the corner of it that happens to intersect a particular program [authors' emphasis].1

    Since the invention of television, research on its effects on children has been plagued by a consistent lack of clear-cut results. In summarizing the results of their pioneering study on children's television viewing habits in the United States and Canada, Wilber Schramm and his colleagues (1961) unabashedly used what they termed "weasel words" (e.g., "for some children, some of the time") to acknowledge their inability to predict how a particular child would react to particular television content. Schramm et al. recognized that a complex relationship exists between children's television viewing and their subsequent behavior, one that involves many variables beyond the amount and kind of programming being consumed by the child, such as their age, mental ability, and social relationships. To these authors, simplifying research questions to cause-and-effect statements involving "hours of television watched" as a sole predictor of activity was tantamount to misrepresenting any actual connection that might exist between the medium and human behavior.

    Their conclusions were ridiculed as ambiguous by social scientists desperate for causal relationships, as well as by a popular press eager to attribute definitive effects to the new medium. As a reaction to the study by Schramm et al., many social scientists interested in children and television set their sights on producing more unequivocal findings. With the enthusiastic financial support of government commissions, professional associations, and foundations, social scientists tried to generate more direct conclusions about television viewing and behavior by consciously ignoring the influence other factors in children's lives have on their relationship with television. Consequently, after four generations of researchers having avoided inconvenient intervening variables, what exists today is an artificially unitary research perspective with regard to children's behavior and television viewing. Whether the research has centered on children's behavioral, cognitive, or emotional reactions to televised program content, overly simplistic conclusions lie couched within even more elementary methods. Two recent books, however, suggest that there may yet be a break from this too facile examination of children and television.

    As the title promises, Media, Children, and the Family: Social Scientific, Psychodynamic, and Clinical Perspectives integrates the perspectives of three domains of inquiry. Reflecting the diversity of the volume itself, the book's section on developmental and educational implications includes two chapters from social scientists, one from a practitioner in a nonprofit organization, and another from a clinical psychologist. With one exception, the individual chapters in Media, Children, and the Family do not necessarily offer perspectives that have not been encountered before in discussions of children and television. Yet the volume itself is innovative, as the editors have gathered authors with contrasting views on the subject. At times the contributing authors offer conflicting messages, but it is these differing viewpoints that provoke a more complex consideration of children and television than other edited volumes provide.

    For example, in "Educating Children with Television: The Forms of the Medium," Aletha Huston and John Wright describe how critics from education and other fields have maintained that television is inherently bad for children and their families. As the argument goes, even the best educational programs employ the medium's "formal features," such as camera tricks, rapidly changing scenes, and background music. According to these critics, it is television's formal features and not its content that encourage intellectual passivity and ruin children's concentration skills. To dispute these assertions, Huston and Wright cite their own thoughtful research on the difference between the formal features of educational programs and those of commercial children's television programs. According to Huston and Wright's interpretation of their data, educational programs like Sesame Street use a combination of formal features that, unlike those of commercial television, incorporate techniques to encourage comprehension and learning. Further, Huston and Wright examine other researchers' findings to argue that far from being passive viewers, children actively attend to content. They contend that the medium's emphasis on action increases young children's understanding, that experience with television enriches children's vocabulary, and that exposure to situations in educational television programs advances their social and emotional growth. For the most part, although the authors' research avoids content-related issues, Huston and Wright convincingly refute the glib contention that television's formal features necessarily damage children's cognitive, social, and affective skills.

    In direct contrast to Huston and Wright's position, psychoanalyst Charles Ashbach, in "Media Influences and Personality Development: The Inner Image and the Outer World," consistently depicts children's television viewing as a passive activity that produces conditions similar to those of hypnotic trances and drug-induced states. True to psychoanalytic theory, the author emphasizes the repressed needs of the unconscious and the unconscious wishes that are expressed through fantasy. Children's cartoons "mimic" unconscious fantasy, as the author illustrates through examples involving the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Elmer Fudd. According to Ashbach, excessive television viewing is problematic because of children's reliance on fantasy at the cost of real experience and their developing creativity. Although several aspects of Ashbach's position are troublesome (specifically, his failure to define "excessive" television viewing, a monolithic portrayal of children's needs, and his confusion of program content with commercial content), his use of psychoanalytic theory to interpret children's need for television complements the developmental and communications theories typically encountered in this kind of research.

    The one chapter in this section that truly prompts a different appreciation for television and children is "Strategies for the 1990s: Using the Media for Good," by Ernest Allen. Allen highlights how the mass media, and television especially, can serve as unique tools for social action by helping to locate missing children. By eliciting the cooperation of the mass media, the author points out that a local search for a missing child can quickly become a national appeal for assistance and support. The author contends that federal legislation and financial support for services to locate missing children resulted from media attention in the early 1980s. Allen provides compelling data to demonstrate the efficacy of direct mail inserts, telephone hotlines, made-for-television movies, television talk shows, and other television series. The author's esteem for the efforts of television programs like America's Most Wanted and The Oprah Winfrey Show is most thought provoking and diverges from the titters, disdain, or indifference such program genres usually raise. To dispel a one-sided endorsement of using television to locate children, Allen acknowledges even-handedly that there are problems related to the media's coverage (its arbitrary decisions to cover certain stories or its potential to whip a community into a frenzy of accusations, for example). Even though his chapter does not directly deal with research, Allen's point is well taken: television serves children in ways that are easily and often overlooked.

    The three chapters above, in addition to one offered by Dorothy and Jerome Singer on the use of television as part of school curriculum, extend the usual discussion of children, television, and research through the juxtaposition of the authors' differing perspectives. Another book, Television and the Exceptional Child: A Forgotten Audience, interjects diversity via another approach, that is, by focusing on the identities of the children who compose research samples. Television and the Exceptional Child challenges the notion of a uniform television audience through a meta-analysis of research findings on exceptional populations, two "forgotten audiences" of children that lie at opposite ends of the educational spectrum.

    According to authors Sprafkin, Gadow, and Abelman, the goal behind most social science research involving children and television has been to discover what "types" of children are most influenced by the medium. Ironically, although the problems most often investigated center on television and interpersonal difficulties, aggressive behavior, and academic underachievement, little attention has been devoted to a group of children who often experience these problems — children labeled by their school districts as emotionally disturbed, learning disabled, or mentally retarded. Further, the authors accurately describe an underlying assumption in media research that intellectually gifted children are less vulnerable to television's messages because of their advanced cognitive capacities. The authors propose that an alternative situation, one with an entirely different set of implications for parents and teachers, may be that precocious children view adult-themed television programs when they are not emotionally and socially prepared. The authors argue that until social scientists exert concerted efforts to study these two groups of exceptional children, the assumptions and lack of understanding about these special children will continue.

    Sprafkin and her colleagues make a strong argument as to why television's influence on exceptional children should be emphasized in research. First, exceptional children make up a sizeable proportion of the television viewing audience of children. According to the authors, more than four million children in the United States can be classified as emotionally disturbed, learning disabled, mentally retarded, or intellectually gifted. In addition, all types of exceptional children may benefit from television in ways their non-labeled peers do not. For example, television can demonstrate appropriate social interactions for children deficient in social skills, or children who require repetition in order to learn can take advantage of the rewind buttons on videocassette recorders. Meanwhile, intellectually gifted children can find an endless array of topics on video to stimulate learning and to supplement classroom materials.

    In their assessment of past research findings, the authors are most convincing about the need to understand how television's forgotten audiences perceive the medium. The information is sobering, especially with regard to emotionally and learning disabled children who, the authors suggest, lack strategies to distinguish television from reality. According to the findings described by Sprafkin and her coauthors, emotionally disturbed school-aged children tend to watch television more often than any other group of exceptional children and their non-labeled peers. Learning disabled children, meanwhile, tend to have generally noncritical attitudes about television content. Mentally retarded children, the group of exceptional children least often studied, seem to perceive television as realistic. Sprafkin et al. cite research extrapolated from modeling studies suggesting that retarded children imitate both aggressive and prosocial behaviors and that they can benefit from television's potential to review what the teacher has taught. Finally, the authors bring together research suggesting that intellectually gifted children tend to watch more television than their peers only during the vulnerable times of preschool years and early adolescence. The authors propose that intellectually gifted preschoolers are drawn to more sophisticated content, such as programs directed at adults, while the comparatively higher rates of viewing among gifted adolescents may indicate social adjustment problems. In both cases, intellectually gifted children in these age periods demonstrate different kinds of vulnerabilities to television's messages.

    Sprafkin et al. compare the limited attention devoted to exceptional children and television over the past three decades with the relatively great strides made in educational, vocational, medical, and support services for these children. The schism is wide, and the tongue clucking that the authors direct at researchers in children's television is audible. Nevertheless, the authors conclude on a positive note that is based more on technological developments than on actual changes in research interests. Sprafkin et al. describe how opportunities to open up the children's programming market and reach exceptional children result from the plethora of satellite dishes, cable channels, VCRs, personal computers, and home videogames available today. In an earlier part of the book, however, the authors point out that children receiving special education are more likely to come from lower socioeconomic backgrounds. How optimistic, then, should low-income families with exceptional children be if programming critical to such children's needs benefits only those who can pay? Likewise, will exceptional children from poor families remain forgotten along the telecommunications superhighway? Unfortunately, the authors do not address how exceptional children and their families might fare better in a technological democracy promised by the information superhighway than they have with the conventional television industry.

    What comes through most clearly in the two books is the sense that research on children and television is undergoing a much-needed reexamination as the twenty-first century approaches. The cross-discipline collaboration of Media, Children, and the Family together with the attention paid to overlooked audiences in Television and the Exceptional Child indicate a departure from the status quo of lean methodologies and one-dimensional goals found in most media research. Schramm and his colleagues pointed out more than thirty years ago that television enters the whole, complex life of a child. With issues of diversity resonating throughout the social sciences and the prevalence of telecommunications making television's effects seem passe, researchers interested in children and television have finally recognized that the simple models that have served their field no longer reflect reality.



    1 Wilbur Schramm, Jack Lyle, and Edward B. Parker, Television in the Lives of Our Children (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1961), pp. 1, 169.
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    Spring 1995 Issue


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    Reading the World of School Literacy
    Contextualizing the Experience of a Young African American Male
    By Arlette Ingram Willis
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    Tests, Genres, and Teaching
    By Bonny Norton Peirce and Pippa Stein
    The Reading Campaign Experience within Palestinian Society
    Innovative Strategies for Learning and Building Community
    By Munir Jamil Fasheh
    Call 1-800-513-0763 to order this issue.