Pediatric Annals

EDITORIAL 

A Pediatrician's View: Comics, Fairy Tales and Now Television

Milton I Levine, MD

Abstract

The first comic book was published in the United States in 1911 and sold 35,000 copies in its first week. The number of such publications increased rapidly and were avidly read by thousands of children. Then, during the 1940s and 1950s there was an outcry by child psychiatrists and child development authorities. They claimed that children could be emotionally disturbed by the sex, violence, and frightening episodes depicted in the comic magazines. It was also claimed that the comics kept children from other activities and interests, detracted from their studies and might even direct them toward juvenile delinquency. In the late 1940s a study at Stanford University reported that most comic books were not as harmful as many critics thought. The researchers studying boys and girls at junior or senior high school levels found no evidence to support the argument that comic books undermined the children's morals, hurt their taste in literature, or started them on the road to delinquency.

In the 1930s and 1940s there was an admonition by educators and child guidance authorities against fairy tales for children. "Little Red Riding Hood," "Hansel and Gretel," and "Jack and the Beanstalk" were all deemed anxiety-producing and unrealistic.

The movies came along and the same concerns were expressed by parents, educators and guidance groups over the effects on children. Finally all movies were rated: O (general audience), PG (parental guidance suggested), PG-13 (Parents cautioned to give special guidance to children under 13 years), R (restricted, under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guidance), and X (no one under 17 admitted). Generally, parents were able to control and direct their children's reading habits and even limit their interest in comic books; and to some extent, control the watching of movies by limiting them to those properly rated.

But television presented a much greater problem. This great advance of technological science started entering homes in the early 1940s and soon absorbed the attention of all family members - especially the children. In 1950, the Superintendent of Schools in Perth Amboy, New Jersey reported that the children in the upper elementary grades spent an average of 15 to 25 hours a week watching television. Even 5and 6-year-olds were spending about the same number of hours.

In most instances the children were not selective and parents and educators began to worry about this new problem. Some even reported that their children experienced increased anxiety and nervousness, eye strain and headaches, a lack of interest in academic studies, and a lack of participation in sports and other physical activities.

This concern has increased through the years. Today, with much more freedom in the production of television programs, there is a daily depiction of violence, substance abuse, sex encounters, rape, and illicit love.

Within the past 10 years numerous books and articles have been published on the subject. One of these publications, the Effects and Functions of Television: Children and Adolescence by Meyer and Niesen, contains a bibliography of 914 articles and books published in the United States and Europe from 1970 to 1978.

Today's pediatrician has assumed the responsibility of guiding children emotionally and physically through the formative years. In this regard it is important that he has the latest information on the effects of modern television programs on boys and girls.

A number of important questions must be answered. What effect does television have on the nutritional status of children? We all recognize three forces which may potentially influence nutrition. These are the daily advertising of sweets and high calorie foods; the long periods of inactivity, and the tendency to snack while viewing television.…

The first comic book was published in the United States in 1911 and sold 35,000 copies in its first week. The number of such publications increased rapidly and were avidly read by thousands of children. Then, during the 1940s and 1950s there was an outcry by child psychiatrists and child development authorities. They claimed that children could be emotionally disturbed by the sex, violence, and frightening episodes depicted in the comic magazines. It was also claimed that the comics kept children from other activities and interests, detracted from their studies and might even direct them toward juvenile delinquency. In the late 1940s a study at Stanford University reported that most comic books were not as harmful as many critics thought. The researchers studying boys and girls at junior or senior high school levels found no evidence to support the argument that comic books undermined the children's morals, hurt their taste in literature, or started them on the road to delinquency.

In the 1930s and 1940s there was an admonition by educators and child guidance authorities against fairy tales for children. "Little Red Riding Hood," "Hansel and Gretel," and "Jack and the Beanstalk" were all deemed anxiety-producing and unrealistic.

The movies came along and the same concerns were expressed by parents, educators and guidance groups over the effects on children. Finally all movies were rated: O (general audience), PG (parental guidance suggested), PG-13 (Parents cautioned to give special guidance to children under 13 years), R (restricted, under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guidance), and X (no one under 17 admitted). Generally, parents were able to control and direct their children's reading habits and even limit their interest in comic books; and to some extent, control the watching of movies by limiting them to those properly rated.

But television presented a much greater problem. This great advance of technological science started entering homes in the early 1940s and soon absorbed the attention of all family members - especially the children. In 1950, the Superintendent of Schools in Perth Amboy, New Jersey reported that the children in the upper elementary grades spent an average of 15 to 25 hours a week watching television. Even 5and 6-year-olds were spending about the same number of hours.

In most instances the children were not selective and parents and educators began to worry about this new problem. Some even reported that their children experienced increased anxiety and nervousness, eye strain and headaches, a lack of interest in academic studies, and a lack of participation in sports and other physical activities.

This concern has increased through the years. Today, with much more freedom in the production of television programs, there is a daily depiction of violence, substance abuse, sex encounters, rape, and illicit love.

Within the past 10 years numerous books and articles have been published on the subject. One of these publications, the Effects and Functions of Television: Children and Adolescence by Meyer and Niesen, contains a bibliography of 914 articles and books published in the United States and Europe from 1970 to 1978.

Today's pediatrician has assumed the responsibility of guiding children emotionally and physically through the formative years. In this regard it is important that he has the latest information on the effects of modern television programs on boys and girls.

A number of important questions must be answered. What effect does television have on the nutritional status of children? We all recognize three forces which may potentially influence nutrition. These are the daily advertising of sweets and high calorie foods; the long periods of inactivity, and the tendency to snack while viewing television. Other pertinent questions relate to the effect of many hours of watching TV on a child's cognitive ability, the effect of programs portraying violence, explicit sex, or the use of drugs.

Many of us have suggested that parents limit the hours children spend watching television and we have also advised that parents restrict the viewing to specific programs. But these dictates are not easily enforced. Parents are not always at home, children frequently visit friends, and there is a great deal of peer pressure.

Just what do we know about the real effect of modern television on children and adolescents? Are there studies that will enforce or disclaim the many opinions expressed?

To review this whole subject we have turned to Dr. Victor C. Strasburger, Associate Clinical Professor of Pediatrics at Yale University School of Medicine, and a member of the Task Force on Television and Children of the American Academy of Pediatrics. Dr. Strasburger will act as Guest Editor for this issue of Pediatrie Annals. (By the way, Yale University has a "Family Television Research and Consultation Center.")

The first paper in the symposium, "Children's Television: A Conflict of Interests," has been contributed by Peggy Charren, President of "Action for Children's Television (ACT)."

Charren notes that because of the many hours spent watching television, children are missing out on much of the growing up process. She brings out many of the negative impressions most of the programs present, such as violence as a solution to problems and confusing data on kidnapping and terrorism. She presents the various approaches to the problem of "too much television" or "inappropriate programs," but she realizes that for children home alone after school the television offers companionship and comfort.

Charren specifies the problems facing the producers of children's programs, since commercial investors are much more interested in financing adult programs than those for children's viewing and she emphasizes that public broadcasting, which could bring suitable programs to children, has been severely handicapped by the withdrawal of government funds. The commercial programs for today's children are largely devoted to selling toys and snacks.

The ACT organization is supporting the "Children's Television Act of 1985" in Congress. This bill would require each station to air, for a specified number of hours each week, programs to enhance children's education.

The second article is of special importance, for it deals with the effect of television on the nutritional state and cognitive development of children. It has been written by Dr. Francis M. Palumbo, Associate Professor of Pediatrics at Georgetown University School of Medicine, and Dr. William H. Dietz, Jr., Assistant Professor of Pediatrics at Tufts University School of Medicine.

These authors report, on the basis of a National Health Examination Survey, that television viewing by younger children and adolescents is "directly associated with the prevalence of obesity. " They attribute their findings to three factors: lack of physical activity, the tendency to eat high calorie foods advertised, and the tendency to snack during the viewing period.

The effect on cognitive development is not as easy to determine since learning ability is not the same for all students- But after a review of various studies and reports, the authors state that there is evidence of beneficial cognitive effects from limiting the viewing time of children.

The third contribution entitled, "Does Violent Television Produce Aggressive Children?" is written by Dorothy C. Singer of the Family Television Research and Consultation Center of Yale University.

This interesting and well-researched article covers a subject that has been discussed and debated for many years. The author reports that since 1970 over 2,500 studies on this subject have been published, many of these demonstrating an immediate aggression reaction from children following the viewing of violence. The question studied in this paper is whether such viewing would cause aggressive behavior years later.

Also discussed in this paper is the psychoanalytical theory that viewing violence, whether it be on television or watching a boxing or wrestling match, or any sport or activity of aggressive behavior is a process of catharsis, helping a child to relieve his or her hostile feelings. This is answered in the negative.

The study by the author finds that children who watch a considerable amount of television are not only aggressive, extremely restless, and have less imagination, but their view of the world is "mean and scary."

The next paper is an important contribution to the subject. It deals with "Television and Adolescents" and has been written by Dr. Victor C. Strasburger, Guest Editor of this symposium. Strasburger, associated with the Department of Pediatrics at Yale University, is also Chief of the Section of Adolescent Medicine at the Bridgeport Hospital, Bridgeport, Connecticut.

In this excellent article, Strasburger first discusses the question of whether modem television, with its emphasis on sex, pregnancy, homosexuality, drug addiction and the like, is a reflection of a changing society's attitudes, or whether television is directly responsible for some of these changes.

Is the portrayal of teenagers on television accurate? Also, at a formative stage of young people's sexuality, are the TV views of sexual relationships, the frequency of alcohol consumption, and the use of drugs a damaging influence?

The pressure of advertising on television programs is studied, with beer and wine as examples. Here the drinking adult is portrayed as sexier, having more fun and success, gaining friends, and being "macho." These programs do not note the 20,CXX) deaths annually from drunken driving, and they do not warn of chronic alcoholism.

Other negative aspects of most television programs are also discussed by Strasburger. Aside from aggressive reactions and anxiety plus the effect on cognition, television, the author states, has an "obsession with thinness. " He notes that 88% of all characters are thin or average in body build.

The recent advent of Music Television (MTV) is also considered with its deleterious effects. Suggestions are offered for limiting the viewing by teenagers.

The final contribution is a keynote address from a symposium at Yale University on "Television and Children: Fact vs. Fiction. " The address was given by Dr. George Gerbner, Professor of Communications and Dean of the Annenberg School of Communication, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia.

Gerbner notes that due to television viewing children are plunged into an accelerated version of the adult cultural environment for the first time in history. He further states that TV has replaced most storytelling by parents and either replaces or reorganizes what is learned in school or in church.

The lessons one learns from television are reviewed, among these the impression that power and violence succeed. There is, he states, a direct correlation between the amount of exposure and expressions of insecurity, vulnerability, and dependence. The United States, Gerbner notes, has fallen behind all other civilized countries in high quality children's programming. As a matter of fact, for the first time in television history the present schedule is devoid of any original programs for children produced for the Public Broadcast System by American producers. We must seek quality programs from abroad. This has been caused by a transfer of funds for programming from partly public to mostly private hands. In such a situation the first areas to suffer are those that are weakest commercially. This, the author concludes, is a national disgrace of world class proportions.

10.3928/0090-4481-19851201-04

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