Watching Different Kinds of Programs

Television programming for children ranges from educational to purely entertaining (see Wright and Huston, 1995). And there are different ways of watching programs—a child may watch in isolation or with an adult. Furthermore, just as in domains like chess, physics, or teaching (see Chapter 2), people’s existing knowledge and beliefs affect what they notice, understand, and remember from viewing television (Newcomb and Collins, 1979). The same program can have different effects depending on who is watching and whether the viewing is a solo activity or part of an interactive group. An important distinction is whether the program is intended to be educational or not.

One group of preschoolers aged 2–4 and first-grade students aged 6–7 watched about 7–8 hours of noneducational programming per week; the preschool children also watched an average of 2 hours of educational programming per week, and the older students watched 1 hour. Despite the low ratio of educational to noneducational viewing, the educational programs seemed to have positive benefits. The 2- to 4-year-old preschoolers performed better than non-viewers of educational programs on tests of school readiness, reading, mathematics, and vocabulary as much as 3 years later (Wright and Huston, 1995). Specifically, viewing educational programs was a positive predictor of letter-word knowledge, vocabulary size, and school readiness on standardized achievement tests. For the older students, the viewing of educational programs was related to better performance on tests of reading comprehension and teachers’ judgments of school adjustment in first and second grades, compared with children who were infrequent viewers. Overall, the effects of television viewing were not as widespread for the older students, and there were fewer significant effects for the older children than for the preschoolers. It is important to note that the effects of watching educational programs were evident “even when initial language skills, family education, income, and the quality of the home environment are taken into account” (Wright and Huston, 1995:22).

Effects on Beliefs and Attitudes

Television also provides images and role models that can affect how children view themselves, how they see others, attitudes about what academic subjects they should be interested in, and other topics related to person perception. These images can have both positive and negative effects. For example, when 8- to 14-year-olds watched programs designed to show positive attributes of children around the world, they were less likely to say that children from their own country were more interesting or more intelligent (O’Brien, 1981), and they began to see more similarities among

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