Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Review

Monday, September 8, 2014

What Effects Does TV Have on Kids?

Tales from the Crypt (comics)
Tales from the Crypt (comics) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
A distinguished colleague writes:

Michael, from my own perspective, media effects is one of the most difficult questions in sociology. Indeed, I began my career as a media researcher in 1989 with a focus on children and television advertisements. And now I have a definitive answer.

To cut to the chase, it think that Steven H. Chaffee from Stanford captured the essence in a personal conversation we had in the 1999, shortly before his death.

For many years he said, we (at Stanford) tried to answer the question, “Does television affect children?”  After 20 years, hundreds of studies and millions of dollars, we essentially failed to come up with an answer.

The reason he said was that he asked the wrong question.  The question we should have asked, Chaffee said, is: Howdoes television effect children?

In other words, would should not have asked a “yes” or no” question, but one of method and degree. How does television shape attitudes and behaviors of children? A strong or a weak force? What is the complex interplay of influences that act upon childrenat the individual and social levels — as an innocent child becomes cultured to the ways of adults? 

So Chaffee's research on television concluded impotently: "Some children, in some conditions, some of the time” — that was the summary of all his findings.  And yes, that gets you the position of Dean of Communications at Stanford University, and the approval of the advertising to children industry: "We can’t say, so it’s okay.” 

There are too many independent variables to be able to make a clear and statistically valid cause-and-effect statement.  Too many moving parts, too many inputs.

So, Michael, if you want to know about the effects of TV (specifically sitcoms) on viewers (specifically kids under 10)? I have the answer:

"Some children, in some conditions, some of the time.”   That's pretty definitive.  

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