The Impact of Social Media on Children and Youth (Part 2)

That new media and technology has influenced children and youth is well-known. Comic books in the 1930s and 1940s (Part 1) captured the youth market swiftly. Part 2 will deal with the onset of television in the 1950s while Part 3 will describe and analyze the influence of contemporary social media (e.g., Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, TikTok).

These historical and contemporary out-of-school influences loom large in a growing child’s life now and in the past; such influences need to be considered when researchers, pundits and politicians assess the impact of formal schooling as students march through a dozen or more school years. That assessment of TV’s influence upon Americans remains, as with effects of comic books, clouded.

Television come to American homes (1950s)

Television came to American homes in the late-1940S. Seven percent of U.S. households had a TV set in 1950. By 1957, that percentage had soared to 83. A decade later, nearly every family had at least one set in the home. American households were then watching four and a half hours daily (By 2021, that figure has dropped to about three hours daily for American adults).

Only the oldest readers of this post might recall television hits from the 1950s. Here is a sampling:

*Lassie (1954-1973)

*Adventures of Superman (1952-1958)

*The Lone Ranger (1949-1957)

*$64,000 Question (1955-1958)

*Gunsmoke (1955-1975)

*Walter Cronkite’s You are There (1953-1972)

*Steve Allen (1953-1959) and Jack Paar (1957-1962) hosted late-night talk shows

Popular as television was in the 1950s and early 1960s, programming for both children and adults came in for increasing criticism in these years. New York Times columnist Jack Gould, for example, wrote in 1950:

If radio and television aren’t careful, somebody’s going to call the cops, In their desperation to find inexpensive fillers for their summer schedules the two media have exceeded the bounds of reasonable interest in murder, mayhem, and assorted felonies. Both the kilocycles and the channels are fairly dripping with crime and it is time that a halt was called….

Or the President of Boston University in 1950 telling graduates and their parents that:

If the television craze continues with the present level of programs, we are destined to have a nation of morons.

Too much violence, profanity, and sex, and not enough uplifting, dramatic, and educational programming led critics and parents to call TV “the boob tube” and “chewing gum for the mind” with increased numbers of daytime and evening shows becoming a “vast wasteland.” Such criticism and concern for children and youth pushed both the industry to regulate itself–which it eventually did–and get authorities to do something about this powerful medium of entertainment.

In 1951, for example, Representative E.C. Gathings (D-Ark) told his fellow Congressmen: “[M]any radio and television programs, as well as certain scurrilous books and comics are corrupting the minds and morals of the American people.” He called for public hearings about this problem. These hearings in 1952 and subsequent ones later in the decade exposed the frequency of violence on television leading to calls for federal regulation including action by the existing Federal Communications Commission (FCC), an agency founded in 1934 (when fear of radio’s influence on the young was rife) to do something about television content and programming.

Regulating Television

Not until 1950, did the National Association of Broadcasters publish a Code of Practices. As had occurred with comic books, complaints from parents, religious communities, and lawmakers over violence, foul language, and sexual innuendo in programs piled up. Alarmed, The National Association of Broadcasters (NAB), private operators of television networks and stations, adopted a Code of Practices that content producers had to follow. To air programs, television station owners had to have the NAB’s seal of approval.

Even having a seal of approval, however, failed to stem the growing criticism of how television was influencing Americans, young and old. Exposes of television executives rigging quiz shows to get high ratings, that is, producers providing answers secretly to certain telegenic contestants and other deceptive practices led to the U.S. Congress passing the Communications Act Amendments in 1960. The law tightened regulations making it a federal crime for television executives to give give answers to contestants on game shows or similar programs.

In 1961, President John F. Kennedy appointed Newton Minow to head the FCC. A few months after being appointed, Minow’s concerns about the influence of the medium on Americans came to the fore in a headline-grabbing speech before the national Association of Broadcasters:

But when television is bad, nothing is worse. I invite each of you to sit down in front of your television set when your station goes on the air and stay there, for a day, without a book, without a magazine, without a newspaper, without a profit and loss sheet or a rating book to distract you. Keep your eyes glued to that set until the station signs off. I can assure you that what you will observe is a vast wasteland.

In subsequent decades, both the U.S. Congress and the FCC monitored the content television programmed seven days and nights a week. As did broadcasters themselves. To avoid further federal regulation, the industry monitored itself. Startling events such as the rigged game shows and increasing complaints to the FCC and to newspaper media about children exposed to sexual innuendo in programs soured many legislators on the content of programs. Eventually Congress, the FCC, and private groups acted after it became clear that something had to be done to protect young children who avidly watched the screen daily.

Television for the Young

In the 1950s, television executives targeted children ages 2 to 12 for programming. All programs then generated revenue for privately-owned TV networks and individual stations by selling time to advertisers to market their products. Preschoolers and older children viewed numerous ads in every program they watched. Few readers today can remember Ding Dong School (1952), Romper Room (1953), or Captain Kangaroo (1955). All of these were studded with short commercials.

Under law, some channels were set aside for educational and public television programming. Some readers, may recall Sesame Street (1969) or for older children, Mr. Rogers Neighborhood (1968). The latter two programs were commercial-free. That American preschoolers and school-aged children spent two or more hours a day in front of television is hardly disputed.

Like comic books, television as an entertainment medium affected children in various ways depending upon how much time they spent in front of the screen, who they watched programs with (e.g., alone, with siblings, parents), and the content of those programs (i.e., cartoons, educational television, network shows). Whether these programs and similar ones, however, shaped children’s likes and dislikes, their behavior at home and school positively or negatively (or both), current researchers and policy experts continue to be divided.

Uncertainty among researchers and some parents over effects of children and youth watching TV in the 1950s and 1960s comes close to the inconclusiveness of the effects of social media used by American children and youth in the third decade of the 21st century. Part 3 takes up that point.

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “The Impact of Social Media on Children and Youth (Part 2)

  1. Few readers today can remember Ding Dong School (1952), Romper Room (1953), or Captain Kangaroo (1955). All of these were studded with short commercials.
    I can!

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