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Study Finds Most TV Fare Promotes Antisocial Behavior and Stereotyping

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WASHINGTON--American television can have a positive educational impact on children, but most of what young viewers see on TV is likely to promote antisocial behavior, gender and racial stereotyping, and poor eating habits, a report by the American Psychological Association asserts.

The study, released here last week, is the result of a five-year review of research about television's impact by a nine-member task force of the association.

The 146-page book that emerged from the review concludes that the medium is neither inherently good nor bad. But it argues that television is not being used to its potential to serve "vulnerable groups,'' such as children, minorities, and the elderly.

"Many of the poorest and most vulnerable groups in our society are also the heaviest users of television,'' the report, Big World, Small Screen: The Role of Television in American Society, points out.

"There is a need to use television sensibly to minimize or mediate the effects of stereotyping, violence, or commercial exploitation of vulnerable viewers,'' added John P. Murray, a professor of human development and family studies at Kansas State University and a task-force member.

Need for 'Media Literacy'

The A.P.A. report cites, among other findings, studies indicating that:

  • Many American children spend more time watching television than they do in school. Conservative estimates are that the average child watches two to three hours per day.
  • The average child will have witnessed 8,000 murders and 100,000 other acts of violence on television by the end of elementary school.
  • A child's probability of obesity increases by 2 percent for every hour per day of television viewed.
  • Children under age 7 "have difficulty distinguishing commercials from programs and evaluating the persuasive intent of advertisements.''

The report calls on schools to teach more media-literacy and critical-viewing skills. Studies of programs designed to teach children about television and advertising have shown they can be effective, the report says, although such programs do not always lessen the appeal of advertised products.

Parents can have the most effect on children's viewing habits, the report states. But the notion "that parents can and should guide their children's viewing,'' it says, "does not relieve the television industry and public policymakers from their responsibilty to ensure that television offerings are diverse and free of clearly harmful content.''

More Public-TV Aid Sought

The report, citing "Sesame Street'' and other educational shows, lauds television for doing well when it tries to teach cognitive skills and socially beneficial behavior. The problem, it says, is that most hours of programming are not devoted to such efforts.

The study also endorses the view held by many researchers that television does not inherently encourage "intellectual or physical'' passivity.

"The predominance of pure entertainment on American television eventually leads viewers to adopt an attitude that television requires little mental effort,'' it says. Thus, some studies have shown that children in other countries learn more on average from a program such as "Sesame Street'' because American children tend to be less attentive to television, even to a strong educational program.

The report's chief policy recommendation is to increase funding for public television, which it says is more likely than commercial broadcasters to provide beneficial programming for minorities and children.

"So long as the primary goal of programming is to lure audiences to advertisements, the needs of many demographic and ethnic minorities will not be met,'' the report states.

Technologies such as cable television and videocassette recorders, it notes, have helped expand the viewing options for children and underserved groups. Cable television is now in nearly 55 percent of American homes, while 65 percent of U.S. households have a V.C.R.

The report is available for $25 through bookstores or from the University of Nebraska Press, 901 North 17th St., Lincoln, Neb. 68588; telephone (800) 755-1105.

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