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Is It Time To Tune Out the Tube?

Photo Illustration By Miles Anderson

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I can mark periods of my life by the television programs I watched. In my early years, my older brother and I revolved our Saturday routine around morning cartoons, rising during the Farmer Chambers Show so we could eat our cereal and take our places in front of the television until American Bandstand released us from our hypnotic states and we ran outside to play.

Weekdays wore on with Sesame Street and Electric Company. The Little Rascals re-runs and Donny & Marie root themselves in my primary school years, while afternoons of Gilligan’s Island re-runs were hallmarks of elementary school. Shows I was forced to mostly vicariously appreciate through friends, such as The Bionic Woman, were re-enacted daily on the playground.

On scarce, but lucky, Saturday nights my older brother and I managed to wheedle our parents into letting us stay up to watch Shock Theater on WRDW Channel 12. But it wasn’t until middle school that I routinely watched weekend programming and so developed a relationship with Julie from the Love Boat and Tattoo of Fantasy Island. And no one could ever come between me and Bo Duke of The Dukes of Hazard, except maybe my mother telling us to turn off the television.

By high school, my friends and I had to make a choice between each other and Miami Vice. Cheers made a lasting impact, as I worked a post-marriage trip to Boston around visiting the bar that inspired the production.

Much has changed since the three big networks, that once went off the air at midnight, after playing the national anthem, were eclipsed by cable networks. We have choices. We have 24/7 programming on hundreds of stations. There’s no such thing as saying, “There’s nothing on,” anymore. There’s always something on.

The Changing Nature of Television Viewing

Even when throwing out the issue of wasted time, the very nature of television viewing is problematic in itself. In general it is a solitary activity requiring no interaction or problem solving. “TV viewing is not a reciprocal social activity. It’s a passive experience,” says Bernard Davidson, Ph.D., associate professor of Psychiatry and Health Behavior at Georgia Health Sciences University, who specializes in family psychology. A child may be sitting in a room full of other children watching educational television, but receiving little or no benefit from the so-called quality programming. In fact, a child may get so immersed in what is happening on screen that he does not respond to prompting from adults or exchanges initiated by peers.

Unfortunately, television viewing by children of all ages is on the rise. According to the results of a Kaiser Family Foundation study of children ages 8-18 released in 2010, kids and teens spend nearly 4 hours a day in front of a television screen. Less than 50 percent report that they have household rules about what shows they can watch and 71 percent say they have a television in their room.

Davidson says that the estimated hours of TV time for children ages 12-17 is about 23 hours per week, which amounts to approximately 40,000 commercials per year. Over 60 percent of children say that the TV is on during meals and 45 percent say the television remains on most of the time, even if no one is watching it. Furthermore, the Kaiser Family Foundation finds that children under 6 watch an average of 2 hours of television or videos per day as do two-thirds of infants and toddlers.

These are astounding statistics, especially when one considers that “American children spend more time watching TV than they do in school,” says Davidson.

Many factors, including multiple technology platforms over which to view television shows and videos, American affluence allowing families to afford a TV (often more than one) and niche programming, have attributed to this rise in what Mike Brody, M.D., chair of the Media Committee of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, refers to as “screen time.” Parents in higher socioeconomic groups trend toward using television for social control. In other words, for them it serves as a babysitter. Parents in lower socio-economic groups trend toward using it as a resource for educational enrichment.

Television’s Impact on Children

More important, however, than an explanation for the increased screen time are the ultimate outcomes for children. “Television is serving as a displacement activity for other things that are very important; primarily play, reading, friends and exercise,” says Brody, all of which contribute to child development. The impact is decidedly detrimental but, as Ashley Merryman, co-author of Nurture Shock: New Thinking About Children, which explores recent findings of the science of child development, says, “The real question is how bad is it?”
 

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