TELEVISION VERSUS READING
Television fails most of the time as a positive educator because of the following:
1. Television is the direct opposite of reading. In breaking its programs into
eight-minute segments (shorter for shows like Sesame Street), it requires and fosters a
short attention span. Reading, on the other hand, requires and encourages longer attention
spans. Good children's books are written to hold children's attention, not interrupt it.
Because of the need to hold viewers until the next commercial message, the content of
television shows is almost constant action. Reading also offers action but not nearly as
much, and books fill the spaces between action scenes with subtle character development.
Television is relentless; no time is allowed to ponder characters' thoughts or to recall
their words because the dialogue and images move too quickly. The need to scrutinize is a
critical need among young children, and it is constantly ignored by television. Books,
however, encourage the reader to move at his own pace as opposed to that of the director
or sponsor. The reader can stop to ponder the character's next move, the feathers in his
hat, or the meaning of a sentence. Having done so, he can resume where he left off without
having missed any part of the story.
The arrival of remote control is only exacerbating the attention-span problem: the
average family "zaps" once every three minutes, twenty-six seconds, versus those
who have no remote (once every five minutes, fifteen seconds); and higher-income families
zap three times more often than poorer families.
2. For young children television is an antisocial experience, while reading is a social
experience. The three-year-old sits passively in front of the screen, oblivious to what is
going on around him. Conversation during the program is seldom if ever encouraged by the
child or by the parents. On the other hand, the three-year-old with a book must be read to
by another person - parent, sibling, or grandparent. The child is a participant as well as
a receiver when he engages in discussion during and after the story.
3. Television deprives the child of his most important learning tool: questions.
Children learn the most by questioning. For the thirty hours a week that the average
five-year-old spends in front of the set, he can neither ask a question nor receive an
4. Television interrupts the child's most important language lesson: family
conversation. Studies show the average kindergarten graduate has already seen nearly 6,000
hours of television and videos before entering first grade, hours in which he engaged in
little or no conversation. And with 30 percent of all adults watching TV during dinner and
50 percent of preteens and teenages owning their own sets (and presumably watching alone
in their rooms), the description of TV as "the great conversation stopper" has
never been more appropriate.
5. Much of young children's television viewing is mindless watching, requiring little
or no thinking. When two dozen three-to five-year-olds were shown a Scooby Doo cartoon,
the sound track of which had been replaced by the sound track from a Fangface cartoon,
only three of the twenty-four children realized the sound track did not match the
Nor does the mindless viewing stop at kindergarten. With upwards of 100 cable channels
to chose from, including all-news stations broadcasting round the clock, one would expect
today's young adults to be among the most informed citizens in our history. They are not.
A major 1990 survey of 4,890 adults concluded that "young Americans, aged 18 to 30,
know less and care less about news and public affairs than any other generation of
Americans in the past 50 years." What the X generation absorbs is seldom remembered
unless it is titillating. For example, during the Panama invasion, 60 percent said they
followed the war closely but only 12 percent were able to identify General Colin Powell.
Conversely, 37 percent could identify Donald Trump's alleged mistress, Marla Maples.
6. Television encourages deceptive thinking. In Teaching as a Conserving Activity,
Professor Neil Postman pointed out that implicit in every one of television's commercials
is the notion that there is no problem that cannot be solved by simple artificial means.
Whether the problem is anxiety of common diarrhea, nervous tension or the common cold, a
simple tablet or spray solves the problem. Seldom is mention made of headaches being a
sign of more serious illness, nor is the suggestion offered that elbow grease and hard
work are viable alternatives to stains and boredom. Instead of making us think through our
problems, television is enormous when you consider that between ages one and seventeen the
average child is exposed to 350,000 commercials (four hundred a week), promoting the idea
that solutions to life's problems can be purchased.
7. Television has a negative effect on children's vital knowledge after age ten,
according to the Schramm study of 6,000 schoolchildren. It does help, the report goes on
to say, in building vocabulary for younger children, but this stops by age ten. This
finding is supported by the fact that today's kindergartners have the highest
reading-readiness scores ever achieved at that level and yet these same students tail off
dismally by fourth and fifth grades. Since television scripts consist largely of
conversations that contain the same vocabulary words these students already know, few
gains are made.
As I mentioned earlier, shows like Cosby are written on a fourth-grade reading level,
hardly an enriching vocabulary for anyone older than eight. Moreover, a study of the
scripts from eight programs favored by teenagers showed sentences averaging only seven
words (versus eighteen words in my local newspaper). Thus we have the following contrast:
* 72 percent of the scripts consisted of simple sentences or fragments.
* In Make Way for Ducklings, by Robert McCloskey, only 33 percent of the text is
* In The Tale of Peter Rabbit, by Beatrix Potter, only 21 percent of the text is
Thus one can safely say that even good children's picture books contain language that
is twice as complex as television's. Imagine how much more complex and enriching the
8. Television stifles the imagination. A study of 192 children from Los Angeles County
showed children hearing a story produced more imaginative responses than did those seeing
the same story on film.
9. Television's conception of childhood, rather than being progressive, is regressive -
a throwback, in fact, to the Middle Ages. Postman points to Philippe Aries's research,
which shows that until the 1600s children over the age of five were treated and governed
as though they were adults. After the seventeenth century, society developed a concept of
childhood which insulated children from the shock of instant adulthood until they were
mature enough to meet it. "Television," Postman declares, "all by itself,
may bring an end to childhood". I offer these prime examples of that thesis:
In 1991, when children in the Hartford, Connecticut, area saw a network rerun of Peter
Pan, they also saw a commercial for an upcoming Hard Copy show about a serial
rapist-killer. Repeated incidents like that prompt critics like the Hartford Courant's Jim
Endrest to say, "Leaving a child in front of the TV without a parent present is like
leaving your kid in the middle of the mall, walking away and hoping he'll find a safe ride
The last five years have seen daytime and prime-time television become video
encyclopedias for deviant behavior. USA Today columnist Joe Urschel kept notes on one
week's representative viewing on such shows. Keep in mind, what you are about to read is
only one week's shows, and it was a presidential election week (November 1993). The shows
featured: "Aphrodisiacs; Women Who Love Unconditionally; Women Who Killed Their
Abusive Husbands; Runaways in Hollywood Who Turn to Prostitution; Possessive Former
Lovers; Older Women Who Love Younger Men; Thin Wives, Obese Husbands; Divorcees and
Dating; Oft-Married People in Their 20s; Wives and Girlfriends of Mama's Boys; Egotistical
Men; Men's Reproductive Rights; The Woman Who Cut Off Her Husband's Penis; Compulsive
Gamblers; pre-Menstrual Syndrome; Haunted Houses; Encounters with the Dead; People Who
Have Had Encounters with Aliens; Teens Who Kill; Girls in Gangs; Battered Women; Women Who
Hate Their Daughters; Murdering Newlyweds; Former Lovers Who Reunite; People Who Stole
Their Best Friend's Lover; and Mothers Who Stole Their Daughter's Man." Need I remind
you that these shows often were being watched by both parent and child or by a latchkey
10. Television overpowers and desensitizes a child's sense of sympathy for suffering.
Extensive research in the past twenty years clearly shows that television bombardment of
the child with continual acts of violence makes the child insensitive to violence and its
victims. Any classroom teacher or pediatrician will tell you of the connection between
children's viewing of violent films and classroom behavior. From the American Medical
Association, June 1994: "Over the past two decades a growing body of scientific
research has documented the relationship between the mass media and violent behavior ...
namely, that programming shown by the mass media contributes significantly to the
aggressive behavior and, in particular, to aggression-related attitudes by many children,
adolescents, and adults."
~ From THE READ-ALOUD HANDBOOK, by Jim Trelease, Penguin Books, 1995.