Television can be good for Your Children- literature Review

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Can Television be good for Children?

University of Westminster

The Communication and Media Research Institute

Dr. Kaoruko Kondo

There is no evidence from anybody who has taken the trouble to look, ask and properly analyse, that watching television is a ‘mindless’ activity- for children, or for anybody else (Messenger Davies 1989: 84).


The purpose of this literature review is to identify and review research which supports the view that children’s television is a potentially beneficial medium; that in certain circumstances it can be a powerful educational tool; that it can inform and inspire; and that it is culturally relevant to today’s children. Many discussions of television’s impact on children focus only on its negative influence in relation to violence and advertising, for example, but it is also important to recognise that television can also have a positive impact. As two noted commentators point out:

Television can be of general benefit to children. It can bring them into contact with aspects of life they would not otherwise become aware of. It can provide a valuable tool in the home and at school not simply to keep children occupied but also, if used appropriately, as a constructive way to use their time….Television is not a ‘one-eyed monster’ lurking impishly in the corner of the living room, kitchen or bedroom waiting to exert an evil influence over young members of the household. It is a channel through which a range of entertainment, drama and learning can be obtained and experienced and increasingly these days it is under the control of the viewer (Gunter and McAleer, 1997: xii-xiii).
However, before starting such a review it should be noted that children’s television consumption now takes place in a much more complex media environment. When British academic Maire Messenger Davies wrote her book Television is Good for Your Kids in 1989, which challenged the view that television turned its young viewers into ‘layabouts’ and ‘morons’, most British children only had access to the terrestrial offerings of the BBC, ITV and Channel 4. This landscape has radically changed, and British children now inhabit a ‘media-rich’ environment (Livingstone 2002: 41) of multichannel television, mobile phones, the internet and computer games. According to Ofcom’s latest media literacy audit, 72% of children aged 8-15 now have access to digital TV, 64% have access to the internet at home, half own game consoles, and 65% of 8-15s own mobile phones (including 49% of 8-11year olds) (Ofcom 2006). However, although they use different media in their everyday life, television is still the most popular medium, occupying a significant proportion of children’s time, up to 13.9 hours a week, with higher viewing for those from ethnic minority (15.2 hours) and low income groups (15.5 hours) (Ofcom, 2006; see also Livingstone, 2002: 60; Rideout, 2003: 12).
Television is still an important medium for children and they use television actively. However, while children regard it primarily as a source of entertainment (see Buckingham, 1996: Livingstone 2002), many parents often see media, particularly for young children, as an important educational tool that can assist children’s intellectual development (see Rideout et al 2003: 12). In a recent American study, only 38% of parents believed that television mostly helped children’s learning, but they were relieved to make use of media, because they saw advances in the educational quality of media content (Kaiser Foundation: 2006: 32). In focus groups almost all parents pointed to ‘learning’ as one of the biggest advantages of television, and observed their children learning from television (ibid.). Buckingham and Sefton-Green, writing about the Pokemon phenomenon, point to the potential pedagogic value of non-educational programmes for children as well (i.e. those not particularly produced for educational aims), that show children how to learn (2004). They argue that education should be distinguished from learning (ibid.: 29). Children can learn skills from popular culture (e.g. Pokemon) such as how to behave, what to want and to feel and how to respond (p. 28). This type of learning is distinguished from ‘official’ educational knowledge. Viewed from this perspective the ‘learning’ that takes place via television makes it one of the major players in the socialization process alongside more traditional socializing agents such as the family, school and peer groups (Signorielli & Morgan 2001: 333), reflecting society’s values and culture (Takanishi 1982: 99).
In this review, the educational impact of television is related to a certain official curriculum while the learning impact of television has a broader meaning encompassing the socialisation process and how children develop their understanding of television. In general most of the studies that look at the educational impact of children’s programmes originate in the US. They focus predominantly on educational programming (particularly Sesame Street) aimed at children aged three to five and the extent to which these programmes promote school readiness and academic skills. As a result, there is very little existing research concerning the potential beneficial impact of children’s entertainment programming, and even less research that relates to British experiences and British programmes, where the categories of education and entertainment are often blurred (Close, 2004: 10). Finally, there is very little research on the potential beneficial impact of television, either generally or educationally, on older children.

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