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When TV Came to Rural Alaska

Today is March 30th. Happy Seward’s Day!

Not related to Secretary Seward or the holiday I’m grateful to have off, I recently finished the very brief report:

Forbes, Norma. 1984. Television’s effects on rural Alaska: summary of final report. Fairbanks, Alaska: Center for Cross-Cultural Studies, University of Alaska, Fairbanks.

Television was not introduced in a number of isolated communities in Bush (rural) Alaska until the late 1970s. This allowed researchers to do some before and after surveys. According to this study, it was “intended primarily for residents of the villages which participated in the study, for the staff of the schools which were involved, and for Alaskan policymakers.” Alaskan policymakers were involved because television was brought to the mostly Alaska Native communities via a State of Alaska owned satellite system.

The 23 villages studied ranged from Inupiat communities in the far north to Tlingit/Haida villages and a few logging camps in Southeast Alaska. About 593 children and their parents were interviewed at least twice.

The study sought to answer questions like:

  • Would television improve children’s English skills?
  • Would television make children more likely to leave their home villages?
  • Would seeing the variety of occupational choices on television encourage children to broaden their career choices?
  • Would television change children’s perceptions of socially acceptable behavior?

Television did not improve children’s English vocabulary. This result surprised the parents, but not the researchers who said that language acquisition is an interactive process. As a sometime watcher of Spanish television, I can attest to this result.

Surprisingly to people at the time, and to me as well, the researchers found no correlation between the amount of television viewing and the desire to leave the village for the larger world.

Another result that surprised researchers is that occupational choices did not significantly change as a result of television viewing. As the researchers put it “Television did not change the variety or the type of occupations of interest to Native children in rural areas.”

Television viewing did apparently change children’s ideas of what was acceptable in the larger society. To give one concrete example, the researchers reported this anecdote:

“A teacher in one of the villages in this study complained that he could not convince his high school students that people in the world outside the village really didn’t drive the way the people in the “Dukes of Hazard” drive. Researchers confirm that the driving behavior television portrays is usually dangerous, illegal and completely unrepresentative of the real world.”

Based on interviews with children, the researchers found:

“In other words, the longer rural Alaskans are exposed to television, the more likely they are to believe that what they see represents expected and usual behavior, even when they know programs involve actors and acting. Research done elsewhere suggests that this also is true of children who are not different or isolated from the majority culture. “

These weren’t the only questions investigated by the study. I encourage you to borrow this 11 page summary and read further. This report is a summary of a larger work called Social and Cognitive Effects of the Introduction of Television on Rural Alaskan Native Children (March 1984). If you get a copy of the summary, I also encourage you to read the “few cautionary words” on page 2 about study limitations. They mostly concern small sample size and lack of funding for a comprehensive study of attitudes. With those caveats, the researchers are reasonably confident of their results.


4 Responses

  1. I witnessed the arrival of television in 2 different villages in the late 70s & early 80s. What did I notice? From one day to the next children didn’t go outside to play and once voracious readers put down their books.

    Much like the rest of the world…

  2. Dear Ravenstick, thank you for stopping by and sharing your personal experience. Sadly this does seem to reflect other before and after studies that have been done.

  3. We were in a logging camp in SE Alaska when this great event occurred. We were all so happy to get this tv that I don’t recall a downside!! The kids in school dressed much better!! We didn’t have much daytime tv and it didn’t seem to deter any playing outside or book reading. I think it was a positive. Great article fun to remember things

  4. Hi Alice, Thanks for stopping by and letting us know about your experience. Did you have a TV before you were in the logging camp or had you been raised without television up to that point?

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