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“One Should Not Look to Research as a Kind of a Panacea”: Social Scientists in the 1950s Discuss Studies of Television Viewing by Children

While experimental television broadcasts were first transmitted in the 1920s, mass production of television sets did not occur until after World War II. By 1960 the number of sets in the U.S. had surpassed the number of homes. With this relatively swift introduction of television into domestic American life, concern was voiced over the harmful influence that watching television might have on the nation’s children. Although Congress held its first hearing on the subject in 1952, they chose not to take any action to interfere with the industry, in part because that year the National Association of Radio and Television Broadcasters adopted a code to regulate broadcast content. In 1954 and 1955, Congress conducted additional hearings to investigate whether television—along with other mass media products that appealed to children, such as comic books and motion pictures—had anything to do with the documented rise in incidents of juvenile crime. As the renowned media researcher Paul Lazarsfeld testified, studies showed that the hearings, which themselves were televised, only led to worry among viewers rather than to practical measures to correct any perceived problem. In the following testimony from the 1955 hearings, child psychologist Eleanor E. Maccoby discussed her research findings, while Lazarsfeld advocated the funding of long-term projects. Both stressed the limitations of research for providing reliable evidence that would definitively link juvenile delinquency to television viewing.


Dr. MACCOBY: Well, I have been asked to testify to you gentlemen on a study on television children which we did in Cambridge, Mass., about 4 years ago.

Now, you will recognize, of course, that television has changed a great deal since that time.

There was a virtue of doing it in the winter of 1950–51, however, because at that time there were many families which did not have television, and it was possible for us to compare the activities of children in families which did have television with families which did not have it.

Now, at that time, about two-thirds of the families of the area which we were studying had no television. We worked with families who had children between the ages of 4 and 17, and we drew a sample of families at random from the city of Cambridge.

We talked to about 332 mothers, and these mothers had 622 children. So we asked the mothers to describe to us exactly what each one of their children had been doing on the school day immediately preceding the interview, that is, through the afternoon and into the evening, and also during each hour of the day on the last Sunday before the interview took place.

Now, in the families which did have television we found the children were spending 2 1/2 hours per weekday and 3 1/2 hours per Sunday watching television.

One thing that interested us was the fact that children watched as much as this, regardless of how long they had their sets. Many people had told us that television was sort of a new toy and that the interest in it would wear off after the child had had a chance to see all the kind of things there were and had sort of settled down.

We did not find that to be the case. Even the children who had had their television sets as long as 2 years were still watching the viewing as much as those who had just gotten their sets. We have had results in just this last week which are not fully tabulated yet, but it looks as though the 3-hour average per day still stands up pretty well as the amount of time that the average child does spend watching TV.

Now, we have also found that children of ages 4 and 5 spend as much time watching television as children who are 9, 10, and teen-aged, and we did not investigate how early it starts. We do know that by the age of 4 the TV habit is pretty well established. . . .

Now, we did find that children in homes which have television go to bed later than the nontelevision homes.

The difference there is about a little less than a half hour difference in bedtime, the TV children going to bed on the average a half hour later.

Now, that half hour is kind of a deceptive figure, because some parents guard the bedtime of their children very closely whether they have television or not, so their children go to bed anyway, but other parents allow themselves to be wheedled. What happens is, a child wants to stay up just this once to see a special program, and then it happens again and again and finally gets to be the pattern in the family.

Now, it has been assumed in some quarters that it is safe enough to show programs that might be unsuitable for children so long as they are put on the air after 9 or 10 o’clock.

Now, it is true, of course, that a large proportion of children are in bed by these hours, but many are not, and no matter when a program is on, some children will see it.

This might be important if we remember that TV children who see late programs tend to be the ones for whom home controls are somewhat weak. The parents are not getting them in bed, you see, and therefore they are the ones who would, in any case, be most apt to pick up whatever undesirable material there was on these late programs.

Well, one question that we felt to be important was, What is television taking the place of?

If children are spending 3 hours a day watching television, they must be doing it instead of what they would have been doing in those 3 hours if they didn’t have television, and we are interested in this question of substitution of activities. So we compared the children who did have television and were spending their 3 hours a day watching it with the children who didn’t yet have it to see just exactly what they might have been doing if they were not watching television.

We found some television time is a direct transfer from radio listening, movie going, comic book reading, and regular book reading. We found, however, that television watching is so much greater in time than the time that used to be spent on those other media that the child’s total exposure to mass media is just about doubled when the family gets television. That is, the television takes away a good deal of time from other mass media, but it also takes time from hobbies, from playing outdoors, from helping mother around the house, and all the other kinds of children’s activities that would go on. As I say, the total exposure to mass media is just about doubled with the advent of television in the home.

It is interesting, too, to note that TV children who watch television a great deal are the ones who read comic books a great deal. They are not the ones who read books. There is a negative relationship there, and the more a child watches television, the less he is likely to read books.

Some of the television time, incidentally, is taken from sleep time, as I have said, because the bedtimes are later.

All right; now what about the impact of having a television set upon family life?

You are all familiar with the statement that Henry Ford took the American family out of the home and scattered them and that television has brought them back together again. That is true, in a certain sense. We found in our study that the amount of time children spend actually in the physical presence of their parents and their other family members goes up when they get television because the family spends a good deal of time sitting together and watching television.

However, the amount of time a child spends with his family, not counting television time is very drastically reduced. It is about half as great, and what happens then is that the parents and children are sitting together watching something jointly, but they are not talking together nor playing together nor working together. They are only doing that half as much time as they used to before they got television.

Now, the meaning of this was brought home to me in a particular interview that I remember. I was talking to the mother in the dining room of a little apartment because her husband was sitting in the living room watching television, and we did not want to disturb him. So we were sitting there and I was interviewing her about her children’s activities and while we were there the little boy came home from school and he went up to the living room and went up to his father and he had brought home a drawing he had made at school. He said, “Look, Daddy; see this drawing?” that he had. His father said, “Sssh.” He pushed him away because the father was in a particularly crucial part of the story, so the child sat down and watched the program.

But here was an opportunity for the parent and child to interact, and for the father to say something to his boy about the accomplishment; but here was an opportunity that was missed because of the father’s absorption in TV. I assume this is happening at a lot of times.

Particularly interesting, was, of course, the family dinner hour, which has always been a time of the family life when they discussed the doings of the day and the parents have a chance to discuss with children about telling them what was right or wrong about what happened. In the families we studied, one-sixth of the children had their supper in front of the television set every night, and almost half had their supper in front of television 2 or 3 times a week; so that the family dinner hour, in some families at least, has sort of evaporated because of the advent of television.

Please don’t misunderstand me. I know there are some families where the family dinner hour is not all sweetness and light and instruction to children, and I imagine that television is better than what one finds in the situation at the dinner table; but there is no doubt that television is cutting into that time of interaction.

Now, one final point about the matter of family influence. When children are watching television with their parents the parents may not be exercising much active influence in the sense of guiding and instructing the children, but at least they know where the children are. The children are not out on the streets unsupervised.

We find that many parents are quite at a loss to know how to control teen-age youngsters and they are thankful when there is something as interesting as television to keep them at home without an argument.

I have a quotation here from one mother who said in an interview:

I think television tends to hold a family together. There are a lot of things to say for TV in that way. I find I don’t have to go looking for my daughter at dinnertime and she stays home in the evening. She never goes out evenings now, and TV has safeguarded my daughter.

Now, another mother of a younger child, this boy was about 8 years old and very active and mischievous boy, was very pleased with television because it kept her son out of mischief and she said it is just like putting him to sleep. She can sit him down in front of the television set and he will be absorbed and happy, and will not be in the way. As a matter of fact, that is what we found mother thought best about television; it is a wonderful babysitter before the dinner hour when the children are tired and cranky and it is a great relief for her to send the children up before the television set and let them be quiet. This means she will let them watch anything on television at that hour. She is not there to monitor them because she is elsewhere, and she is simply using television as a sitter.

Now, I would like to turn to a question which is in some ways more interesting and more important than the question of how much time children spend watching TV or under what circumstances they watch.

I would like to discuss the question of the effects on children of the kind of thing that they see on television programs.

Now, I would like to say at the outset that this is a question about which we have very few solid facts. I know this committee has received contradictory evidence from different sources. Some witnesses have felt that the acts of violence that children see on TV and in comic strips simply provide a harmless outlet for the aggressive impulses that all children have anyway.

Others have felt that constantly viewing violent episodes must leave a lasting mark on the child, sometimes even providing the stimulus for outright acts of delinquency.

Now, I am sorry to have to hedge on this point, but I believe there is some truth in both points of view because some kinds of TV content does have lasting effect on some children, under some conditions, but we are just now beginning to find out what some of the conditions are that are important. . . .

Now, the theory goes that when a person is frustrated or angry, if he does something aggressive, this will discharge his anger and he will be more quiet and peaceful afterward. The next step in the theory is that it is possible to discharge one’s anger indirectly or vicariously through the activity of somebody else by watching a prize fight, for example, or watching a gun battle on television.

Now, a number of questions come to mind about this point of view: First of all, if it is true that a child can get some discharge of his aggressive feelings by viewing violent activity on television, how long does the relief last?

Presumably, if he reenters a frustrating situation when the TV situation is over, he can be made angry again and will be just as ready for relief aggression as he ever was before.

Another question is this: If a child sits down to watch a television show when he is not angry, but merely sits down out of habit or because he is bored, is there any danger that aggressive feelings will be aroused rather than quieted? . . .

There is not any doubt that children pick up all sorts of content from the programs they watch. Teen-age girls watch the movie stars and the TV stars to see very carefully what is the proper thing to wear to the theater or nightclub or how to act at a wedding or what you are supposed to do when you ride on an airplane, whether you are supposed to tip the stewardess or not, these things these girls have never had in a situation of having to experience, and some time they may, so they want to be ready so they wouldn’t be unsophisticated, so they watch closely and store up these little items of information which the television offers them for future reference if the situation ever comes up when they need it.

Now, just at the present time, we are doing a little experiment at Harvard where we are testing children for what they remember out of a movie. What we have done is to compare children who were angry and upset at the time they saw the movie with children who were not, and we have found that when a child sees a movie, this was a Dead End Kids movie, by the way, one with lots of action and violence, when a child sees a movie of that sort while he is upset and angry, he remembers the aggressive content better than if he were not angry when he saw the program. He remembers the quiet, mild material much less well, if he saw the movie while he was angry, which means, then, that what a person sees and remembers out of a television show depends upon the mood he was in at the time that he saw it. . . .

We know, however, that children remember some things and not others out of programs, and we do not know exactly how much they remember the consequences. There is a group at Boston University now who have been doing a study in which they cut up films, Hopalong Cassidy films, and rearranged them so that the film can have a different ending. Sometimes the hero wins and sometimes he loses, and although their research is not completed yet, it looks quiet clear that the effect upon the child and what he remembers is influenced by who wins in the movie, and the person the child admires most is influenced by who wins. So all we can say at this point is outcomes make a great deal of difference. We do not want to take the position that all aggression in movies is bad and something that should be filtered out, but rather it makes a great deal of difference how it is woven into the story. . . .


Mr. BOBO. Dr. Lazarsfeld, we are interested in determining the impact of television upon juvenile delinquency. I wonder, do you have a statement that you would like to make to the committee about what is known about the impact or what knowledge we have of the impact of television?

Dr. LAZARSFELD. Yes; I would like to do that very much. I was only told a few days ago that I would have the privilege to be a witness here, and so I will have to put my written statement in later.

But the reason I was so pleased that you would listen here is that in all the 30 years of work in this field, I have always been very startled by a paradox from what came clearly out of what I read of your old hearings, that in view of this question of the effect of the mass media on young people, everyone says how terribly necessary it would be to have a great deal of knowledge and, at the same time, only very little knowledge is available; and why it is that when everyone comes for data, then no one has any, has worried me a great deal; and I thought I would point out why I think this situation exists and what could be done about it. . . .

Now, as to the history of the situation, why, there is such general demand for knowledge and so little available, I think you have to look at three different factors here: First, we students in the field; you had yesterday a distinguished scholar, Dr. Maccoby from Harvard. There is more very good work done at Rutgers by the Reillys, at Yale by Hofland. But, it is traditional in academic work, a professor picks up a topic; he drops it when he gets bored with it; or he drops it if he is not a good student and as far as the academic goes, that is all right, because a hundred years more or less does not make much difference for us.

Slowly it will accumulate. But if you do not look at it only from the point of view of progress of academic work but as a burning social issue, then I think it is not possible to leave it just to the accidental initiative of scholars. I do not want to make an invidious comparison, but we certainly would not have an atomic bomb today if the development had been merely left to Ph.D. dissertations.

I don’t think that we exactly need a Los Alamos Laboratory to study the effects of television, but we need, if it is an urgent social problem, then some central planning and central organization, and some pressure; some priority has to be put on it.

[second point] Now, the question is, why has the foundation work not taken on this continuity and planning which might be necessary in this field? And that has to do with a definite policy foundations have in this matter, and which might be of interest for you to discuss.

The foundations feel two things: One, that they should never give permanent directions to academic work. They spend funds for a few years to stimulate a new field, but they then throw it back to the universities and professors to go on with it or not.

There is definite and probably very reasonable discontinuity in foundation work which makes it difficult to accumulate knowledge.

Unfortunately, the foundation field, as you probably know—there has been considerable discussion whether foundations should do work in controversial fields and the foundation has become more cautious recently, which I, as a professor, consider a very regrettable development. While, when radio came up, the Rockefeller Foundation was still quite willing to finance large-scale study of what radio does to this country, now that television is here, no foundation has dared to do—to invest considerable funds in necessary investigation. . . .

Finally, a third factor in this research picture is the industry itself.

As you probably know, and you know it from your hearings on comics, that television, the television industry, like most communications industry, do spend research money and work with academic groups. I can testify that there is certainly never any influencing of the scholar by the industry, but, again, the industry has to do the kind of research which is close to their immediate operational problems. They can never lay out large-scale plans. The people go from one little study to the next, and while industry has contributed great knowledge to this field, it could not contribute to any continuity and to any systematic work.

So, reviewing the situation over the last 30 years, and I have for a great part of it lived through it, everything has militated against the kind of systematic building and relatively quick building of knowledge which would be necessary in a field of social concern like, let us say, cancer, or, in this case, criminology.

Now, if I now turn briefly to what kind of knowledge do I refer to, then it is quite clear that what is missing from what I just mentioned is not individual fine studies, which we have in large number, and you have heard a good example of it yesterday, but this kind of knowledge, where there is large fund, or continuing work is necessary. Let me give you a few examples.

For instance, we are all concerned with, do the programs we have now have bad effects, and there is great controversy whether the programs are bad or not.

Now, undoubtedly, the much more provocative problem would be to experiment with good programs.

Now, a network, they way the American broadcasting television system is built, cannot experiment very much. I think there is great need for experimentation on a small scale with completely different kinds of programs for young people, and you ought to be aware that this is a difficult matter.

We do not know whether there is any talent; we do not know whether anyone has any ideas what good programs are. I know very little about it. We do not know whether children would listen to what I call good programs and we should study, if they listen, whether it would have a good effect.

But the strange thing is that all the discussion is the programs are bad, and do they have bad effects? Instead of experimenting, what do we really mean by a good program? I don’t think anyone really knows. Who is there, anyone around who can write it, and then what would the poor children do if they had to listen to good programs? I think it is not as bad from my experience with my children; they don’t resent good stuff as it is said, but experiments have to be made and that is obviously something, which is important.

Let me give you a second example.

All the studies which we can do on small funds in universities are short term. We put kids into a laboratory and do it this way, and do it that way, and then look for the effect.

But probably the real problems are the long-term effects. There have been some ideas on cumulative effect. What do those things do 6 years later, not 6 minutes later? . . .

One third example of needed research which, again, due to the situation described, has been omitted, is very often overlooked. How do those controversial programs get on the air? No one seriously thinks that a president of a network is a malefactor who sits here and thinks how he can corrupt little children.

It comes about, supposing that those programs are bad, by a variety of circumstances. For instance, there is a legend that children like bad programs, so here is one good reason to put them on. But maybe it is not true. We do not know.

Then it is easier to write stupid programs than good programs, and everyone overlooks the tremendous amount of stuff which has to go on television. I mean scores of hours every day. Now, there just are not enough good people in the world to write so many good programs. So you have mediocre people who use stereotypes, and very often they do not know it.

So the question of how do programs get on the air, at what point would it be possible to influence, do you have to influence advertisers, do you have to get a better writer, should you have some special educator who worries at every network? No one really quite knows how programs get on the air, because there are scores of people involved in those decisions, and, again, if that were studied, one can very easily capitalize on the good will which the industry undoubtedly has, to be cooperative. . . .

Now let me, however, before closing, make one fourth point: I do want to warn you that, while it is my duty here to say how little we know, and how urgent it would be to know more about it, and to know what should be done about it, one should not look to research as a kind of a panacea which now will solve all your problems. You should not do it on two points:

First, in this whole matter of the mass media, there are questions of convictions and taste which can never be settled by research.

Your cannot settle by research whether people should read good books rather than bad books, or whether they should listen to good music. You have to have certain convictions on the dignity of men, on the importance of the matters of the mind, and you have to stick to them irrespective of research.

If I see a cruel picture in a comic, or if I hear a stupid television program, and they exist, undoubtedly, then I do not want them and I get away from them irrespective of whether I have research data or not.

Secondly, there is a great danger that research is being used as an alibi. Let us just wait until we have enough research and then we will do something.

Now, that is not what the real role of research is. People have to make decisions; they act. We do some studies; we improve their action; their actions improve our studies because they raise new questions. There is an interaction between the responsible decisions of the policymaker and the research man. While we do not want to be drowned by your decisions, we also do not want to be used as an alibi.

Now, that brings me to the final question: Do I have any reason to think that appearing before this committee will change the situation?

I am very sorry that Senator Kefauver is not here today, because one of the interesting studies we have done was on the effect of the Kefauver hearings on crime several years ago, and one of my colleagues made a study of what effect did the television crime hearings have on the audience. Did they really become aware of the problem of crime? The finding was that it had a very great effect in making them worried, but then there was not anything they could do about it, and therefore their worry was either dissipated or even converted into intention and a desire to get away from the situation. So one of the great dangers is to say something is bad and not to say what concretely can be done about it. . . .

Source: Congress, Senate, Committee of the Judiciary, Juvenile Delinquency (Television Programs), 84th Congress, 1st Session, April 6 and 7, 1955 (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1955).