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Can children learn creativity by watching TV?

By Robert M. PressStaff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / June 16, 1982


What is happening to children who sit in front of the family television for some 26 hours a week - the national average for children ages 2 to 11?

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Do they become more aggressive after seeing violent programs? Do the many hours of viewing slow their learning or speed it up? How does it affect the way they (and adults) view others and society?

A new round of debate on these questions has been stirred by a recent report by the National Institute of Mental Health on television's impact on behavior. Most attention so far has centered on the report's statement that evidence is ''overwhelming'' that televised violence causes aggression in children.

Experts in television research interviewed by the Monitor indicated they agreed with these findings.

But besides probing the question of television violence, a largely ignored portion of the report explores how television affects children's imagination, creativity, learning, and emotions, and how television can make or break stereotypes.

The study calls upon parents to help their children become more critical viewers of television, and help them separate fantasy from reality.

For example, the report cites research showing that watching violent programs and cartoons is tied not only to aggressive behavior among children but to less imaginative play. But television can ''enhance'' a child's imaginative play if an adult watches with the child and helps interpret what is happening.

Parents should recognize that ''television is not just entertainment or innocuous use of time,'' says Eli A. Rubinstein, a research professor at the University of North Carolina's school of journalism and one of the consultants for the report.

''Television has a profound effect on the way our children learn,'' says George Gerbner, another consultant on the report and Dean of the Annenberg School of Communications at the University of Pennsylvania.

These and other researchers interviewed called for changes in TV programming to make television a better educational tool, placing more emphasis on society's best traits and less on negative ones.

They want to see women in less stereotyped roles, to have more working-class and elderly people portrayed, less alcohol used, and less violence, in what they call a truer reflection of American life today.

But TV network officials said in interviews that television's main role is ''entertainment.''

''Television is not supposed to be a true reflection of society,'' says Gene Mater, senior vice-president of CBS Broadcast Group. The main aim of television is not education, but ''entertainment,'' he said.

''I'll go home after a day and riding the (commuter) railroad and I'll have a snack and say to my wife: 'I'm going in to (to watch TV),' and I want to laugh. I'm not there to be informed, to be instructed,'' said Mr. Mater.

Avoiding negative stereotypes is a good goal, but ''it gets complicated,'' said J. Ronald Milavsky, vice-president of news and social research for NBC.

What some viewers may see as a stereotype sometimes reflects what is actually happening in society, and therefore is appropriate to include in the program, he says.

Recasting the role of television the way some social researchers would have it ''can't be done,'' said Mr. Milavsky.

As for the report's finding that television violence is clearly linked to aggression in child viewers -- something all three networks dispute -- ABC's director of community relations, Jane Paley, contends such studies are not ''conclusive.'' Violence among child viewers is ''due to the people in their life -- not the television in their life,'' she said, but did not supply any study tosupport her statement.

Findings from the report, along with comments from some of the researchers, include the following: TV AND AGGRESSION

The lightening rod of the National Institute of Mental Health's (NIMH) report is the finding that ties televised violence to aggression among children. Even cartoons were found to be aggression-inducing among young viewers.

''The research question (on the link between TV and aggression in children) has moved from asking whether or not there is an effect to seeking explanations for the effect,'' the report states.

''Hundreds of studies'' find that televised violence causes aggression among children, while only a few studies find otherwise, says Dean Gerbner.

One study supporting the TV-aggression link was funded by CBS. It found that teenage boys in London, according to the boys' accounts, were more likely to engage in ''serious violence'' after exposure to television violence.