Educating Children with Television

The question "Does television help to educate children?" will generate many different kinds of responses, because this is a highly controversial matter.  It is an important issue because television has achieved nearly universal penetration in most countries of the world.  Today's children grow up in a television environment, sometimes spending several hours a day watching television.  As more and more mothers enter into the labor force, more children are left alone with television during the day.

On the positive side, educational programs such as those developed by the Children Television Workshop in the United States and exported (sometimes after adaptation) to elsewhere in the world, should certainly be regarded as a programmatic approach to teaching children many fundamental skills and knowledge.  In fact, one has to wonder if most parents can hope to match the comprehensive coverage offered by these programs.  For older children, television also opens up vistas to worlds that they have never seen in real life.

On the negative side, there are the violence-filled cartoon programs that run on many channels all day and all night.  The violence may not be of the blood-splashing variety, but the message is still that the world is full of evildoers to whom it is necessary to apply force (like hitting them over the head or pushing them over a cliff which never seems to have dead consequence on television but may be fatal in real life).  If television induces social learning and imitation, then these are not paragons of virtue.

We will now cite some survey data from the TGI Brasil study.  This is a survey of 10,624 persons 12 to 64 years old interviewed during 2001 in Brazil.  During the survey process, the respondents were shown the statement, "Television helps to educate children."  According to the survey, 8.0% of the respondents completely agreed with this statement.  This is a fairly low rate of agreement.  Even if we throw in the next category of response, only 28.5% say that they either 'completely agreed' or 'somewhat agreed' with the statement.  Therefore, the majority of the people do not believe that television helps to educate children.

In the next chart, we show the incidences by which the age/sex groups 'completely agreed' with the statement.  No group had more than 14% incidence.  The groups with the lowest incidences are between the ages of 20 to 24 years old, and we can speculate that their dismay may be due to their discovery that their television education has ill-prepared them for the real world.

(source: TGI Brasil)

In the next chart, we show the incidences by socio-economic level and educational level.  The incidences are lower in the upper class (AB) and better educated people.  This must surely reflect the inequality in access to educational resources such as books, videos and educational toys, against which television assumes a lesser importance.

(source: TGI Brasil)

The low esteem that Brazilians hold for the educational values of television should not be regarded as an indictment of the failure of the television medium.  Rather, it must be taken as a statement on the current state of the institution of television as it exists in Brazil today.  And it does not have to be that way.  But the agent of change is by no means obvious.  Brazilian television as it exists today is dominated by commercial interests and educational television does not yield high returns on investment.

(posted by Roland Soong, 01/23/2003)

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