One of the most important inventions of the twentieth century, the television, has grown to be one of the most influential forms of mass communication. What started off as a rare luxury enjoyed by a privileged few has now found its way into the living rooms of more than 95% of American households. This platform of entertainment, news and education has dramatically altered society. Information that could only be obtained through the written word or radio is now instantly accessible at the click of a button. Over time, this form of vicarious living has become so addictive that the average American household watches the television for about 6 hours and 47 minutes on a daily basis. Thus, it comes as no surprise that the television largely shapes an individual's attitude, behavior and knowledge. During its early years, the television was seen as an illuminating presence that sought to inform and educate. However, as the television transforms into a ubiquitous presence, it is increasingly perceived as a pervasive and invasive influence that is inhibitive and distractive.
Television viewing has often been associated with a negative effect on learning and academic achievement due to the interference and displacement of reading time. The act of reading, either leisurely or academically, has proven to be a cognitively stimulating act that is crucial for healthy cognitive development and overall academic achievement. Before the television and radio came along, reading was one of the largest and only sources of information and entertainment for society. However, the emergence of the ubiquitous television led to instant accessibility to the world from just the comfort of one’s couch resulting in less effort and time directed to other activities such as reading. Several reports indicated a decline in voluntary reading and quality of reading amongst American children and adults.
Moreover, the NCES (National Centre for Education Statistics) found that adults who reported reading any form of literature plummeted from 56% in 1982 to a 47% in 2002, implying that Americans today read far less than they did in the past. This interference of television viewing with other activities such as reading is commonly referred to as the ‘Displacement Hypothesis’. The ‘Displacement Hypothesis’ states that “television influences both learning and social behaviour by displacing such activities as reading, family interaction, socialising and exercise”. Therefore, the displacement of activities may negatively impact learning and achievement as cognitively stimulating and academically rewarding activities such as reading are neglected due to the time spent in television viewing. This form of neglect can lead to a negative impact on cultural, economic and political landscape of society.
The notion that television plays a large role in developing aggressive and violent behavior has also gained massive support. As the world further treads on the path of modernisation, television programs have started to display increasingly explicit, graphic and violent content. According to the social learning theory proposed by Bandura, it is possible to learn such violent and aggressive behaviors through mere observation. According to this theory, children can learn behavior by paying attention to the action, retaining the memory of the action, possessing the motor capabilities to reproduce the action and having the motivation to perform the action. Therefore, if children spend countless hours in front of a television screen, observing extremely violent and graphic content, researchers hypothesize that it can manifest into aggressive behavior in real life. This kind of learning is clearly demonstrated in Bandura’s classic Bobo Doll study where children ranging from ages 3 to 6 displayed aggression towards a toy simply because they observed a model for that kind of behavior. Yet another link between heavy television viewing and aggressive behavior is that individuals become desensitized to the large amounts of violence on-screen, taking violence less seriously as a result.
Television impacts the mental and emotional health of individuals and consequently society. Heavy television viewing leads to the displacement of cognitively enhancing activities such as reading and socializing. Thus, collectively, a decline in achievement can adversely impact the progress of society on numerous fronts. Moreover, the increasing feelings of desensitization towards violence as a result of heavy televised exposure can have real life implications rooted in increases in criminal activity which would be detrimental for the advancement of society.