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  • Television and Reading in the Development of Imagination
  • Jerome L. Singer (bio) and Dorothy G. Singer (bio)

When I examine myself and my methods of thought, I come to the conclusion that the gift of fantasy has meant more to me than my talent for absorbing positive knowledge.

Albert Einstein

Children today are growing up in a type of environment that never existed before in human experience. In every home there is a little box which, in increasingly vivid color, provides children with a vast array of sights and sounds: funny cartoon animals falling apart and being miraculously put together again; gangsters shooting down their victims with machine guns; cars pursuing each other down narrow roads until one of them hurtles over the side and crashes in flames; chorus girls kicking up their legs; and (in much American television, at least) incessant interruptions by commercials, in which humorous and lively figures dangle attractive candy bars or toys in front of the children. That last sentence was intentionally long. We wanted to capture some of what we feel may be the actual quality of the experience of a child who begins to look at the television set somewhere between one and two years of age and continues to watch it for as many as four or five hours daily while growing up.

Evidence of children's high exposure to television is pretty clear. According to the 1970 census report, more than 96 percent of American families own at least one television set. In our own research at Yale, we studied a group of 140 middle-class children, whose parents four times during the year kept regular records of what the children watched for a two-week period. We found that the average amount of viewing was twenty-three hours a week for [End Page 126] kindergarten children, with a range from two hours to seventy-two hours per week for our sample. Currently we are repeating the study with a new sample of approximately 200 children of lower socio-economic background. There is evidence that poor children and those from ethnic minorities tend to watch more television than higher-income children. This trend is supported by our data, based on more than 300 children. In a certain sense, then, the television set can be viewed, as we have put it elsewhere, as "a member of the family";1 it is a major source of verbal and visual stimulation for the growing child, and we must begin to take serious account of its impact on his patterns of imaginative play.

Our research has amply demonstrated the importance of such play in shaping behavior; for instance, we have shown that a child may become less aggressive if he learns to play more imaginatively. We would like to list briefly some of the specific results that have been shown by observational and experimental studies to emerge from a child's ready engagement in games of make-believe and pretend play between the ages of three and six years. Benefits occur in all the following areas: self-entertainment and positive emotionality; delaying capacity, waiting behavior, and development of defenses; vocabulary and cognitive skills; empathy; role-rehearsal; planning and foresight; esthetic appreciation and creativity.2 Not so obvious, however, is the effect of television in the ecology of the growing child.

Television, aside from its obvious characteristics—its availability in the home, its use of picture and sound, its entertainment, information, and social value—has certain properties that distinguish it from other communication media. Specific features of television that need to be studied more extensively have been delineated else-where.3 They include (1) attention demand—the continuous movement on the screen that evokes first an "orienting response" and then, as movements become rapid and music louder, a general activation of the organism; (2) brevity of sequences—the brief interactions among people, brief portrayals of events, brief commercials (30-60 seconds long); (3) interference effects—the rapid succession of material that possibly interferes with the rehearsal and assimilation by the child of new material; (4) complexity of presentation—the [End Page 127] cross-modality presentation of material (sight, sound, and printed words, especially in the commercial...


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