Lure of television is stronger than a smile
By David Lister
November 7, 2006, p. 9.
As every parent knows, unless you are clutching a giant bowl of sweets or the world's cutest puppy, you become invisible when your child is watching television.
But just how much damage a few programmes every morning and evening do to children was revealed yesterday by a report showing that most six-year-olds would rather look at a blank screen than a human face.
In a study that raises disturbing questions about the ability of a generation of children to interact with others, psychologists discovered that children aged 6 to 8 respond to the image of a television as alcoholics do to pictures of drink.
In a series of experiments conducted in primary schools, most looked at a picture of a blank television screen as soon as it flashed up on a computer next to a smiling face.
Markus Bindemann, a researcher in psychology at the University of Glasgow and co-author of Television at Face Value: Children's Behaviour in Attention-Cueing Tasks, described the results as worrying.
He said: "Faces are important social stimuli and it is surprising that children prefer to look at television instead. We learn social interaction -- how to deal with people and how to read them -- from looking at their faces. If you just stare at a box you don't get any genuine interactions."
Previous research into the behaviour of young children and babies has shown that they prefer to look at faces and do so instinctively in order to learn and to communicate. This was borne out by an initial experiment on 34 five-year-olds, 25 eight-year-olds and 34 adults, in which they were each shown a photograph of a face alongside either a doll's house, a toy boat, a toy train, a tap, a teapot or a wall clock. The overwhelming majority looked at the image of a face before the competing object.
In a second experiment, however, 143 children aged 5 to 8 were seated in front of a computer screen on which the image of a blank television screen was shown next to a face for less than a second. The children were told to press the spacebar as soon as they saw a bar of chocolate appear on the screen.
Most of the children aged 6 to 8 pressed the spacebar fastest when the chocolate bar appeared behind the picture of the television and not the face, suggesting that they were already looking at it. Only the five-year-olds responded fastest when the chocolate was behind the face.
Martin Doherty, a lecturer in psychology at the University of Stirling, who carried out the research with Dr Bindemann, said: "One of the interesting things is that five-year-olds still have a face bias but six-year-olds don't."
The research, which will further fuel fears that children are watching an alarming amount of television, used similar techniques to those used to test alcoholics. When shown a picture of a glass of wine or a pint of beer next to a face, most alcoholics respond to the drink.
According to recent research, the average British child aged 4 to 6 watches about 16 hours of television a week. By their teens, four out of five have a television in their bedroom. Kevin Browne, Professor of Forensic and Family Psychology at the University of Birmingham, said that the study raised questions about whether parents were using television and computers as a cheap way of entertaining their children: "How a child has been socialised in the first few years of life will seriously affect whether he or she engages with people or engages with a television screen." He cautioned that there may be other reasons why children favour the television screen, including an "anticipation" about what they think they might see on it.