Iowa State University

Inside Iowa State
May 24, 1996

Elementary research: Prof's opinion piece inspires research by grade schoolers

by Michelle Johnson
Paula McMurray-Schwarz thought the opinion piece she wrote for USA Today, "Kid Videos Stunt Growth," might raise a few eyebrows over morning coffee. Little did she know that some of those raised eyebrows would belong not to coffee drinkers, but juicebox drinkers.

Six Council Bluffs elementary school students from the Talented and Gifted program were intrigued by McMurray- Schwarz's assertion that too much television could be stifling their creativity. So they set out to determine just how big a role TV played in the lives of their classmates.

Planning their research down to how much paper would be used to record their results, the children began interviewing more than 300 friends and siblings. Of the three surveys conducted, one showed 80 percent of the children interviewed watched 5 to 10 hours of television a week, while another revealed that 80 percent were watching more than 20 hours a week. The third said 40 percent were watching 20 hours or more.

The numbers came as no surprise to McMurray-Schwarz, who says Nielsen Media Research showed children ages 2 to 11 averaged nearly 22 hours of TV viewing each week during the 1993-94 TV season.

While the number of hours kids spend watching TV is an issue, she is more concerned with what children aren't doing while parked in front of the television, such as reading books or playing.

"Play is fundamental to children's social, emotional, physical and intellectual development," McMurray-Schwarz said. "It is how they learn to communicate and cooperate. It is how they express feelings and gain emotional control. Children create, explore and investigate new ideas through play, as well as practice physical skills and get exercise."

In February, McMurray-Schwarz traveled to Council Bluffs to talk to the young researchers about their findings.

"I was flattered and glad to know that these children were interested in issues that affect them directly," McMurray- Schwarz said. "We often don't give children enough credit for having the ability to develop their own perspectives on things."

From cartoons to talk shows, the children shared their views about what is being offered on TV today. They said they were dissatisfied with programs specifically aimed at children, like The Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, finding them predictable and unentertaining. According to 9-year-old Jonah Aney, "The good guys always win." While some still watched a few cartoons, most agreed that they were getting too old. Most talk shows were out of the question, except the occasional Oprah, as long as the subject matter was pre-approved by Mom or Dad.

Though the list was short, the children described some networks as more educational than others, because they offered programs such as National Geographic specials, Beakman's World and Bill Nye the Science Guy. Nickelodeon, which offers programming for children and families, was unanimously the favorite station among the group. McMurray-Schwarz admitted she enjoyed watching old reruns of Bewitched and The Mary Tyler-Moore Show on Nick-at-Nite, Nickelodeon's evening line-up.

Many of the children surveyed said they watched some situation comedies in the early evening, but most also played video and computer games and read books.

McMurray-Schwarz has reservations about these activities as well. Some video and computer games on the market, and even some books, are violent.

In one popular video game, Mortal Kombat, the object is to defeat and kill opponents using martial arts. Goosebumps, a series of scary stories targeted at children, doesn't offer much of an alternative.

"Violence can come in a variety of packages today," McMurray-Schwarz said. "It is certainly more readily available to children now as opposed to five years ago. For example, technological advances such as home satellite systems have enabled people to receive literally hundreds of TV stations, thus increasing the odds that children will be exposed to violence."

The children now are entering the final phase of their projects -- determining what to do about the television issue. Eight-year-old Amanda Gallup and her research partner, 9-year-old Jessica Pettit, have considered designing their own cartoon strip to relay the message that kids are watching too much television. The two also considered reading to younger children a Berenstein Bears book that discourages heavy TV viewing.

McMurray-Schwarz suggests that parents limit children's TV time. When their youngsters do watch, parents should watch with them to help them fully understand a program's characters and their actions.

Sadly, sitting in front of the TV set, eyes glued to the screen, has become a form of play for some children. However, through their research, the Council Bluffs children have been able to evaluate their own habits, learn from them and try to change. They are on the right track, she said.

"A child's imagination needs to blossom or bloom without a script from Hollywood."

The research team

Third-grade and sixth-grade researchers from the Council Bluffs School District's Talented and Gifted Program.

Lewis & Clark School
Alex Wagner
Jonah Aney

Franklin Elementary School
Jennifer Pettit
Amanda Gallup

Edison School
Kris Thompson
Tyler Bailey

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