Since its invention, television has enjoyed an increasingly prominent presence in the homes of western families. In fact, as of 2000, the vast majority (98%) of American households owned at least one television set (Wilson 2004). Though it is indisputable that this overwhelming proliferation of television does not come without consequences for the family unit, the significance of these consequences is the cause for much debate. While some argue that the effects of television on the family environment are negligible compared to other applicable factors, the question remains whether the amount of time families spend in front of the television has a considerable influence in defining their interfamilial relationships. In considering the increased passiveness, alienation and distorted ideas regarding the family dynamic that result, one can conclude that extensive television viewing has a notably negative effect on relationships within families.
The prevalence of televisions has grown such that families are no longer content to have a single television in their home`s living room, they also feel the need to have television sets in their kitchens and bedrooms as well. This increased number of television sets throughout the household has created the opportunity for time traditionally spent on interactive family activities to be replaced with time spent in a more passive family environment. Particularly prone to the vortex of television are those in low-income families due to the fact that it is a relatively inexpensive and easily accessible form of entertainment (Yubbs, Roy and Burton 2005). According to Yubbs et al., the role of television in these families has become such that it is considered in essence another member of the family; one that is capable of directing how family interactions occur and the tone of the environment in which they do so.
While it could be argued the gravitational effects of television on the family are beneficial as they serve to bring members together in a common forum, one must consider the degree to which this time spent together actually fosters familial bonding. As Verma and Lawson (2002) noted, adolescents who spend time watching television with their families find it a passive and unfulfilling experience in comparison with other shared leisure activities, a fact that suggests that the only reason families opt to watch television together instead of participating in other mutual activities is due mainly to its convenience.
The ramifications of this convenience are substantial. The relative ease with which one can turn on a television and descend into a state of near vegetation allows not only adults to quickly forget about the stresses of their daily life, but also provides them with a way to effortlessly distract their children as well. Wilson (2004, 566) notes, “children in single-parent homes spend more time watching TV, are more likely to eat meals with the TV on, are more likely to have a TV in the bedroom (Brown et al.,1990; Roberts et al. 1999; Woodard & Gridina, 2000).” This fact supports the idea that parents are inclined to resort to utilizing television as a substitute for companionship for their children (Wilson 2004).
Additionally, family members have the tendency to turn to television in an attempt to escape feelings of stress. In a study done by Anderson, Collins, Schmitt and Jacobvitz (1996), a distinct correlation was found between the amount of television parents watched and the amount of stressful occurrences they experienced. Likewise, children have also demonstrated a proclivity to flee to television in an attempt to waylay daily anxieties. Proof of this behaviour can be seen in a study performed by Brooks, Gaines, Mueller and Jenkins (1998) that revealed children of alcoholic fathers watched considerably more television than those with fathers who didn`t abuse alcohol. While this habit could provide temporary solace from family tensions, it also allows for family members to avoid dealing with the roots of their respective issues. This choice results in the aggravation or, at the very least, the continuation of stressors that could be approached more proactively had television not been present. In fact, studies have shown that heavy television viewers are at a greater risk to become aggressive or experience fear reactions than those who watch television infrequently (Wilson 2004). All of these observations show that even though, in some cases, familial dysfunction may precede increased television use, the resulting higher dependence on television simply exacerbates the situation, or, at the very least, postpones its effective resolution. These alienating consequences are especially prevalent when televisions are present in the bedrooms of children instead of in a more central part of a household. This is due to the fact that televisions in bedrooms make it easier for children to retreat to solitary television viewing which in turn results in children missing out on other shared social events of the family (Wilson 2004).
Furthermore, the content of the television programs watched by families also plays a significant role in influencing how interfamilial relationships function. As television portrayals of exchanges within families are typically unrepresentative of real family relationships, a false sense of normal family interactions is transferred to viewers (Mares 2006).
Arguably most significant with respect to effects on viewers is the interpretation of familial conflict within television programs. In most cases, family life is shown to be relatively conflict free (Wilson 2004), and, when it is included in a program`s plot, its importance is downplayed; an act that affects viewers (particular children) drastically. For instance, in a study done by Wilson and Weiss (1996) it was noted that children who viewed examples of emotional conflict on television were impelled to believe that the overall impact of these examples would be equivalent to the impact that would be experienced should the child experience the same conflict in their own life.
The perceived ease with which family conflicts are corrected is also influenced by television. An example of this distortion can be seen in a study done by Larson (1996) which revealed that regular viewing of soap operas by adolescents lead to unrealistic views regarding single motherhood among that group. The lack of realism found in soap operas is certainly not an anomaly in television programs; in fact, most television programs usually portray many issues facing today’s families as easily resolvable (Douglas 1996). By trivializing familial social problems, television programs contribute to creating a highly idealized depiction of the family structure (Wilson 2004) that presents family viewers with the notion that rapid solutions are available to even the most severe dysfunctions.
Though seemingly benign in nature, the effortlessness with which one can fall into the trap of television has undoubtedly cost families a great deal with regards to the strength and depth of their bonds. The artificial sense of unity it creates by becoming a point of congregation for families is vastly outweighed by its detrimental effects. It has not only facilitated the movement away from engaging family interactions towards inert family togetherness, in some cases it has been found to break down the family unit even further by causing separation and the indoctrination of out of reach family ideals in children and adolescents. As television enjoys more and more control over the family dynamic, these negative consequences will certainly continue to take their toll on the family unit.
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