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Television and Family

The Social Uses And Influence Of Television On Families

The relationships between television and the family are not fully explored by asking about the effect of portrayals. Indeed, a significant body of research asks not what television does to families, but how families use television. These perspectives, with particular emphasis on the children within viewing families, can be roughly subdivided into three over-lapping areas of research: family image, parental mediation, and the family viewing context.

Family image. The paradigmatic question asked by researchers within this area is: What is the effect of television content about families on viewers? Research has looked for evidence that television's images of marriage and family life influence the conceptions that children and adults hold about family. Social learning theory (Bandura 1977) argues for imitative behavior and learning from television of behaviors seen as rewarding and realistic. It uses both imitation and identification to explain how people learn through observation of others in their environment. The cultivation perspective (Gerber and Gross 1976) posits the cultivation of a worldview skewed toward that of televised portrayals among heavy viewers. This worldview, although possibly inaccurate, becomes the social reality of heavy viewers. Both social learning theory and the cultivation perspective provide the theoretical linkage between exposure to content and its consequence.

Evidence suggests that depictions do have consequences. For example, those who watch more television than average, particularly children, tend to hold more traditional notions of gender roles. Television cultivates beliefs in children such as "women are happiest at home raising children" and "men are born with more ambition than women" (Signorielli 1990).

Images of family life itself may also be influenced. Heavy viewers tend to perceive being single as negative, express profamily sentiments, and believe that families in real life show support and concern for each other. On the other hand, heavy soap opera viewers tend to overestimate the number of illegitimate children, happy marriages, divorces, and extramarital affairs (Signorielli 1990). In all, these studies suggest that media portrayals reflect and reinforce views about the nature of the family in society. Changing social norms and television portrayals mean that assessing the impact of portrayals must be an ongoing effort.

Parental mediation. The paradigmatic question for those working within this area is: What is the structure and effect of parental mediation of television viewing? Within this domain researchers ask about the nature and consequences of the efforts made by parents to influence the potential outcomes of exposure. Much of the writing within the area has concentrated on coviewing, rulemaking, and interaction.

Coviewing. Television viewing with family members is common. Reports estimate that 65 to 85 percent of young children's viewing is with family members, with more than half of that viewing with parents (Van Evra 1998). Although early studies equated coviewing with mediation, research soon established coviewing was more coincidental than planned, and most likely had a modeling rather a mediative effect on children (Singer and Singer 2001). Coviewing occurred least often with younger children, who need it most, and reflected similar preferences rather than explicit mentoring. Viewing with siblings clearly influences the younger child: they watch up to the older children's preferences, and are the recipient of older siblings' interpretation.

Interaction. A number of studies convincingly demonstrate the potential for family interaction to mediate the impact of television. In experimental settings parental or adult comments have been found to aid children's understanding of program content to shape perceptions of families in the real world, to foster critical viewing skills, and to increase recall of information from educational programs (Bryant and Bryant 2001). Despite these potential benefits, little evidence exists to suggest that Coviewing between children and their parents can help the children develop critical viewing skills, increase under-standing of content, and increase recall of information.Here, a French family watches election coverage together. OWEN FRANKEN/CORBIS parents actually engage in these behaviors. Coviewing in a context of limited interaction tends to be the norm, restricting the learning that inter-action could promote.

There is a growing body of observational research that describes how interpretation of meaning is accomplished within the family viewing context. Most of the research in this area has focused on the development of children's understanding of the television medium. Empirical observation of interaction is sparse, but the existing research suggests that children as well as adults create television-related interactive sequences. Very young children interact with the television during viewing, including naming or identifying familiar objects, repeating labels, asking questions, and relating television content to the child's experience. The majority of sibling television-related interaction for these young children was interpretive in function. Younger children asked about character identification, problematic visual devices, narrative conventions, and the medium per se (Lindlof 1987).

Interview and observational data reinforce these conclusions. Mothers report frequent use of interpretive or evaluative statements. They describe a variety of interactions in which they tell children about things that could not happen in real life, including drawing complex distinctions between the improbable and the impossible and explaining disturbing images, such as immorality and poverty (Van Evra 1998). Rulemaking. In many families television gives rise to issues involving control of how much, when, and what is viewed. Control of television viewing has been studied in terms of explicit rules about amount and content of exposure, sometimes called restrictive mediation. The most consistent finding is the paucity of rules, with estimates ranging from 19 to 69 percent of families that report any rules, varying due to age of children, class, and by whether mother or child responded (Singer and Singer 2001). Parents commonly report more attempts to control the amount and time of viewing of younger children, and the viewing content of older children. Beyond the explicit rules about television viewing that operate within the family system, it is easy to miss the implicit rules that govern viewing. For example, the television may never be on during weekend days because children have learned that if parents find them "goofing off too much" they will be assigned chores. Although it is doubtful that anyone would describe this as a family rule, such practices have the force of limiting viewing contexts.

The family viewing context. The paradigmatic question within this research frame is: How do families use television within the family system? One important area of research addresses the uses and gratifications tradition that asks about the psychological needs and motivations of viewers and their gratifications from viewing. Thus, researchers in this tradition have explored family uses of media as an aggregate of individual viewing motives and gratifications.

In the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, the consumption of media became an increasingly solitary experience. Multiple television sets, as well as video games, computers, and stereos, allow members, particularly older children, to select content based on individual needs. Viewing becomes a social family activity when a special event occurs, such as a special movie rental or a major television event such as the Superbowl.

Family systems-based media research uses a communicative perspective on the role of television in family interaction and begins by examining the family as the context in which viewing is performed and made meaningful. Of the many contexts that influence meaning and behavior, none is more ubiquitous than the family. This interactionist perspective from family process research has been modified by communication researchers with a strong symbolic orientation to become the predominant position in the field of communication.

The most frequently used measure of family communication in mass communication research comes from the work of Jack McLeod and Steven Chaffee (1973). Their schema of family communication patterns is based on two communicative dimensions (socio- and concept-orientation) in which parents stress harmony and obedience on the one hand, and negotiation and self-reliance on the other. It has been linked with differences in political knowledge, exposure to types of programming, social adaptability, and family rules.

From a critical/cultural perspective, researchers have asked about how media and families consuming media are reproducing social structures of power in regard to race, class, and gender. For example, David Morley (1986) examined the construction of gender roles in his observations of the media selection process in homes in the United Kingdom. Steven Klein writes about the political economy of children's television production, and the resulting commercialization of childhood (Klein 1993). Concerns with media literacy are international in scope. Many countries have adopted media literacy programs for children, with strong emphases on understanding the commercial nature of media systems and its possible consequences (Buckingham 1998).

With the emergence of interest in qualitative investigations of how media are used in everyday life, researchers began to observe the nature and consequences of television-related interaction in the home (Lindlof 1987). One major conclusion from this line of research is that television may serve an almost limitless range of diverse uses and functions. Family members can watch television to be together, or to get away from each other; as a basis for talk or to avoid interaction; as a source of conflict, or an escape from it (Lull 1980). Because much of the time that family members spend together is in the presence of television, television at least partially defines the context within which family interaction occurs and therefore helps determine the meaning of that interaction. From this perspective, family themes, roles, or issues are carried out in a variety of contexts, and the television viewing context becomes one in which it is useful to study patterns of family interaction in general. As such, media are implicated in the accomplishment of numerous family functions, including defining role expectations, articulating the nature of relationships, and using economic and relational currencies in the negotiation of intimacy and power.


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McLeod, J. M., and Chaffee, S. (1973). "Interpersonal Approaches to Communication Research." American Behavioral Scientist 16:469–499.

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Van Evra, J. P. (1988). Television and Child Development, 2nd edition. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.



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Marriage and Family EncyclopediaModern Marriage & Family IssuesTelevision and Family - The Portrayal Of Family On Television, The Social Uses And Influence Of Television On Families