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Alberta Siegel, 70; Studied Effects of TV Violence

November 16, 2001|ELAINE WOO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Alberta E. Siegel, a Stanford University psychologist whose concerns about the effects of television violence on children led to important early studies, died Nov. 3 of cancer at her Menlo Park, Calif., home. She was 70.

Siegel was a member of the U.S. Surgeon General's Scientific Advisory Committee on Television and Social Behavior from 1969 to 1971.

The surgeon general's report, issued in 1972, represented the first national examination of the effects of television violence on society.

Siegel's interest in the impact of television began at Stanford in the 1950s, when the medium was in its infancy. Her doctoral dissertation challenged the conventional wisdom, which said that viewing violence was cathartic and would result in less aggression.

"She was one of the earliest voices warning about the effect of television viewing on children and aggression," said John W. Hagen, executive officer of the Society for Research in Child Development.

For her dissertation, Siegel showed nursery school children film strips depicting nonaggressive and violent behavior--"The Little Red Hen" versus "Woody Woodpecker." Afterward, she watched the children play. She found that watching the rowdy woodpecker had far from a cathartic effect: Those children chose toys conducive to violent play, while their schoolmates who had been shown the "Little Red Hen" engaged in much gentler activity.

"Her dissertation at Stanford was one of the first in the field that dealt with children and television," said Lynette Friedrich Cofer, a student of Siegel's. Cofer later conducted an important study comparing the effects of television violence and of the public television series "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood."

Later studies by others supported Siegel's findings about the adverse impact of televised violence. The evidence grew so strong that in 1972 the surgeon general's report stated that there was no support for the thesis that it had a cathartic effect.

"There is now evidence for a causal link between watching TV violence and subsequent aggressive behavior by the viewer," Siegel said at Senate hearings in 1972 to clarify the report's recommendations.

"In TV entertainment, children may observe countless acts of murder and mayhem, may learn through observation how to perform these acts, and may learn that such acts are admired by other people. Thus commercial television is itself a school for violence," she said. "And American children are attending this school as many hours a year as they attend the schools sponsored by their local school boards."

She said that although a minority of children were vulnerable to violent programming--those who might be predisposed to violence by other influences in their lives, such as abusive parents--"it is important to remember that we are talking about millions of children."

Siegel believed that social science research should influence public policy. As chairwoman of the social policy committee of the Society for Research in Child Development, she established a fellowship program in the 1970s that placed scholars in the Washington offices of members of the House of Representatives and the Senate. "She was ahead of her time in that," Hagen said.

She also was editor of the Journal of Child Development from 1964 to 1968. During that time, the journal became known for publishing research with a strong scientific basis. "The rejection rate became very high during her tenure. She was a stickler for experimental design," Hagen said.

Siegel grew up in Pasadena, where she was a high school debate champion and had her own radio show by the age of 15.

She earned a bachelor's degree in psychology in 1951 and a master's in 1954, both at Stanford. She was only 23 when she obtained her doctorate there in 1955.

She taught for several years at Pennsylvania State University and was a fellow at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences in Palo Alto before she joined the Stanford faculty in 1963. She was the first woman to become a tenured professor at the Stanford medical school, where she taught child development. She also was a longtime board member of the Menninger Clinic, the renowned psychiatric hospital in Topeka, Kan.

She was famous for her sense of humor, as well as for her loathing of commercial TV. Although she owned a set, she kept it in a closet. "It was an annoyance," said her sister, Betty Newcomb.

Siegel was widowed at 30 when her husband, Sidney, died of a heart attack. She is survived by a son, Jay, and a granddaughter, Sydney, of Menlo Park; and three sisters, Newcomb, of Irvine, Ruth Anne Barton of Santa Monica and Portia Oldmen of Newport Beach.

Her family asks that any donations be made to the American Friends Service Committee or Planned Parenthood.

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