Teaching Children About Television

Parents are justifiably concerned about the violence, sexuality, language and materialism shown on television. If these worries weren't enough to unnerve parents, here are some very sobering facts about families and television:

  • 98 percent of American households have a television set.
  • 87 percent of households with children under the age of 18 have two or more television sets.
  • 66 percent of children in the United States have a television set in their bedroom.
  • Children watch about 28 hours of television per week. Over the course of a year, this is about twice as much time as they spend in school.

(Source: Mediascope)

Because of this level of exposure, television exerts a powerful influence on children. It may even be a child's most prominent teacher. Unfortunately, children often learn the wrong lessons from television.

What should you and your children know about television in order to view it more critically? Here are five ideas that will help you and your kids become more aware of how television works and the role it plays in your life.

Television is not a passive, mindless experience.
Television may seem like passive entertainment, but you are actually very active as you watch. Your mind is constantly processing the information and making connections between what you see on the screen and what has happened in your life. Believe it or not, you can change what television presents by the way you watch it. You can question, challenge and contradict - or support and reinforce - what you see and hear.

Adults or children view television programs with different levels of understanding because of their stage of development, cognitive skills and life experiences. Since children have limited experiences and cognitive skills, parents should watch television with their children and "talk back" to television in front of children. If you don't say anything, children might assume that what they are seeing and hearing must be real or at least ok with you.

Television is make believe.
Everyone knows that most television programming is not real, but even adults fall for the images and illusions that television creates. Think for example about how perfect everything looks on television. Flowers never wither. Clothes are never wrinkled. In fact, the cereal never gets soggy. Did you know that in the television studio, the milk is really white glue?

Media makers are modern day story tellers. Even news programs, documentaries and "real-life" dramas are put together by very talented photographers, writers and editors who select certain images and reject others. Like you, they are sometimes fair, sometimes biased and sometimes brilliant. And like every good storyteller, they have all kinds of ways to keep their audience involved and on their toes.

Television uses identifiable techniques
You can take apart the world that media makers construct by identifying the camera angles, music, special effects and symbols that make scary scenes more scary, tyrants more evil or advertised products more alluring.

Without realizing it, children pick up on these techniques very early. Kids who make videos almost instinctively use close up and fade out to mimic the effects used in television and the movies. Children often do not realize the sheer power and manipulation these techniques have over them. It is so subtle; neither do their parents.

Counting laugh tracks in a sitcom or the number of times the music changes in a favorite video are revealing ways to demystify television, enhance appreciation of these techniques and help your child be less open to manipulation.

Another way to identify how media constructs a world that is not completely real is to ask certain questions of the media. The final two ideas suggest important questions we can ask:

Television teaches us that some ideas are more important than others.
All media carry subtle messages about who and what is important. Some people are typically cast as victims; others get to be heroes and heroines. Some characters are glamorized; others are treated with contempt. Some ideas always get the headlines; others are always left out.

Nothing we read or see in the media is ever completely objective. Sometimes, media makers use stereotypes. We should expect them, however, to strive for fairness and balance between various ideas and viewpoints.

The First Amendment of the United States Constitution protects the freedom to express diverse points of view. At the same time, less popular or new ideas can have a hard time getting aired, especially if they challenge longstanding assumptions of commonly aired beliefs.

To uncover these underlying viewpoints and potential biases in the media, ask yourself, "Who benefits and who loses?" For example, we can analyze a sitcom by asking who benefits from the way older persons are portrayed in this sitcom and who loses. Answering this question helps us teach our children to think critically about what we see and hear, an important characteristic of citizenship in a democratic society.

Television is in business to make money.
Around the world, and especially in the United States, media is big business. Producers sell programs to networks. Networks sell time to advertisers. Advertisers sell products to viewers. And the viewers are sold too! You've heard the phrase: "This program is brought to you by our sponsor." More appropriately, you are brought to the sponsor (and its product) by the program.

It is important to remind our children that television is not FREE entertainment. Its primary purpose is to sell viewers to advertisers. We pay for television through the increased prices of the products we buy. Advertising does not just entice us to buy this or that product; it manipulates us to buy. Through years of exposure, we are encouraged to feel dissatisfied unless we have the newest, the latest, or the best that is out there.

A useful question to ask is, "Who's making money from the news tonight?" Or ,"Who's making money from this sporting event?" The point is not that making money is wrong, but we need to be aware of the many underlying influences television has on us and that just about everything we see on television is influenced by a profit motive.

Source: Adapted by Tim Jahn, Human Development Specialist, Cornell Cooperative Extension of Suffolk County, from Parenting in a TV Age by the Center for Media and Values. Parent Pages was developed by Cornell Cooperative Extension of Suffolk County. HD 85


Anna Steinkraus
Family & Community Development Program Coordinator
(607) 272-2292 ext. 145

Last updated August 8, 2015