Life in a picture tube: drugging our children; rum and coke or Mr Dress Up?

The adverse effects of television on the young generation

By Kelly L Green

I am typical of those late fifties baby boomer children who know all the words to the theme songs for "Gilligan's Island," "Petticoat Junction," and "That Girl." Of course I saw the Beatles on Ed Sullivan. I have been known to lead spirited discussions of "Star Trek" and "The Dick Van Dyke Show." I am the original American television child. The influence of that little box on my life and psyche has been pervasive.

So how did I end up in a home that is a TV-free zone?

I have two sons ages two and five. They both were following in my TV-junkie footsteps. It began with my older son's troubling obsession had at age two with "Sesame Street." The walls of his kindergym class were lined with enormous pictures of Big Bird, Oscar, and Bert and Ernie. He would refuse to participate in the class, and would stand in front of the wall chanting the characters' names like a mantra. He was aggressive toward other children and I had read research reports that had linked increased aggressiveness in children with television viewing, regardless of its content. So we limited TV. When we moved into a new house, we didn't get cable. By the time Brian reached age three, we were down to one hour a day, with a maximum five hours a week, of CBC or TV Ontario programming, or a video that I had previewed. This rule was broken only for illness. Still his little life revolved around television. His younger brother was showing similar tendencies.

They started asking to watch a particular show the moment they woke up and would whine later in the day for more. Twice Brian sneaked into the T.V. room to watch Ninja Turtles and Darkwing Duck, forbidden programs which, in my opinion, exist solely to market products to children. One day, I pulled the plug, unscrewed the cable and VCR, and removed the box from its stand, "Broken!" I said cheerily to John. "Broken?" he shrieked. "No, teebee not broken. Teebee fixed!"

"Sorry, broken," I called as I took it to the basement.

When we picked Brian up from nursery school, his first words upon getting into the car were, "When we get home can I watch a little TV?" I have some bad news," I said in a serious voice. "What?" he asked, fearfully. "Teebee broken," John announced importantly, as if he himself were responsible.

The television's broken?" he asked in disbelief. "Well, we'll just have to get it fixed!"

"I'm sorry, sweetheart, but this television is old and we can't fix it."

"Then we'll just have to buy a new one."

"We really can't afford a new one right now."

"Oh no!"

Why did we lie? Why not just say "we're not having television anymore"? In general, I do not believe in lying to children. I did not want the kids to see our removal of television as punishment. They are free to watch it if we happen to visit someone who has a new video, or if they go to Grandma's house. They just think we are destitute because we can't get a new TV. I expected tears, tantrums, and ongoing behavior problems. In his Read Aloud Handbook, Jim Trelease recounted his family's decision to cut down on T.V. "They cried for four solid months. Every night, despite explanations on our part, they cried."

So it was a big surprise that our two little junkies adjusted rapidly and with little fuss. No flashbacks, no DT's, just the occasional, "Gee, Mommy, I really miss television."

My husband and I don't miss it at all. And our children behave as if they have been released from the slavery of a narcotic.

I read that children who don't watch television show more creativity, and I was encouraged by Jim Trelease's statement that after a period, "Our children's imaginations were coming back to life again." If this is true our society is indeed in trouble, for the vast majority of children watch television. The average viewing time for preschoolers exceeds 20 hours per week, despite recommendations from psychologists and doctors to limit preschool viewing to five to seven hours per week. How can this generation solve the problems they will face with anything less than their full potential? And how can they achieve their potential if approximately 25 percent of their waking hours are devoted to a passive medium? After a couple of weeks my husband and I were entertaining the children less. They could entertain themselves! Toys came off shelves. People who had never been interested in coloring started coloring with a vengeance. There were science experiments going on at all times (which can be a little scary). Trips to the library increased to two or three times a week. I used to accept the conventional wisdom about carefully monitored television viewing being good and educational. But are "Mr. Dressup" and "The Umbrella Tree" meeting some basic need that parents cannot fill? About five months into our experiment, I attended a conference on "TV Violence andour Children," organized by the C. M. Hincks Institute in Toronto. There, the Honorable Perrin Beatty announced the government's intentions to address the issue of television violence. Journalists and cameras filled the outer room. Rogers Cable televised the proceedings. We learned from Dr Edward Donnerstein of the University of California Santa Barbara that the American Psychological Association, the U.S. National Institute of Mental Health, and the Centres for Disease Control have all published studies in the last ten years linking T.V. violence to social violence. Dr Donnerstein informed us that between the ages of six and fourteen the average child views 11,000 murders. Programming for children and young people is consistently the most violent available, with cartoons averaging 26 acts of violence per hour, and MTV coming in second at 11 per hour.

New technologies like VCRs, cable, and satellite television also offer children violent programming. Sandra Campbell, an independent Canadian researcher, told us that it is the rare eight year old who has not seen the Halloween and Friday the 13th slasher movies on video. She read heart rending testimony from children who had watched these videos, often alone. They had devised various methods of coping with their fears, none of which involved turning the show off. Some would leave the room, call a friend, or put a pillow over their heads. One little boy said he just pretended he was the slasher, and then he wasn't afraid anymore.

Never having seen a slasher video, I was interested to watch a clip that a media literacy teacher brought with him. I could not watch the clip in its entirety, but this type of video is very popular with the 11 to 14 set. According to Dr Donnerstein, you may not be able to watch it the first time, but the more you are exposed to video violence, the less it bothers you. His research into desensitization has shown that viewing violence on the televison screen also desensitizes the viewer to real violence.

For the first time, representatives of the broadcast industry did not deny a link between television violence and a certain percentage of societal violence. It was disturbing, however, that many of the participants wanted the conference to establish unequivocally that any legal regulation of television content would constitute censorship, and would therefore be unthinkable. While we considered at length the effects of television violence and video games on children, we avoided discussing whether the quantity of television viewing was an issue. Perhaps this was because so many of the conference participants had a stake in the broadcast industry. Once again, I heard the old chestnut, "Children need good television. We can't deprive them of it. It enriches their lives."

In fact, families who have made the choice to live TV-free find that their children are anything but deprived. On this, a number of groups and researchers agree.

Proponents of Waldorf education, a system founded by philosopher Rudolf Steiner, maintain that choosing appropriate television programs for children is like choosing appropriate alcoholic beverages for them to drink. Researcher Marie Winn asserted in her powerful book The Plug in Drug that watching television is addictive. Winn cites studies that link heavy television viewing with poor academic performance, lack of interest in reading, decreased family interaction, and increases in juvenile crime. She also questions sacred cows like "Sesame Street," and points out that the hoped-for gains in school-readiness and elementary academic achievement remain unattained.

Winn maintains that television, with its fluttering images and hypnotic quality, is unsuitable for young children, who retain disturbing images that adults can shrug off. She studied families who did not watch television. Their experiences were overwhelmingly positive in educational terms and enhanced family life.

Michele Landsberg has decried the hypnotic, addictive effect of television on children resulting in "cultivated parents with post-literate children," acceptance of violence as a way to deal with conflict, and a violent "TV culture" shared by virtually all children. So why does the average kindergarten graduate have 6,000 hours of television under his belt?

I had feared getting rid of television because I used it once in a while as a quick way to get a break when somebody was cranky. Telling acquaintances about our experiment, I noticed the same fear-what would the kids do all day without TV? We would have to entertain them! One mother said, "That's my time, when they watch TV. I need that time."

Our children don't need television, but our society does. Before we can get rid of the plug-in drug, we must establish support systems for families and caregivers, for whom the extended family, the caring neighborhood, and the carefree unsupervised play in the backyard, are past. We will have to become a truly child-centred society, and we have a long way to go.

Peace Magazine Jun-Jul 1993

Peace Magazine Jun-Jul 1993, page 8. Some rights reserved.

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