What Television Chases Out of Life

Right now in America, the vast majority of all families have two or more television sets, and 33 percent of the two- to seven-year-olds have a television set in their bedrooms. Moreover, the time invested in TV has been increasing over the decades. While 39 percent of nine-year-olds watched three to five hours of television daily in 1982, by 1999, 47 percent watched that much. Almost 60 percent of all families watch television during meals, and not necessarily at the same TV set. When do they talk about what they did that day? When do they make plans, exchange views, share jokes, tell about their triumphs or little disasters? When do they get to be a real family?


By Marie Winn

Unlike most discussions of television's negative impact, this one does not deal with the usual suspects—violence or sex or relentless commercials. Instead, it focuses on television watching regardless of program content. Obviously kids learn from what they see on the screen. Some of what they learn is useful, some washes over them, and some of it has a negative impact.

But given the amount of time most children spend watching television, the question of quality pales in importance compared to questions about the experience itself and the time devoted to it—whether that is helpful or harmful. Sociologist Urie Bronfenbrenner dramatically posed this question by considering what else could be done during the hours spent viewing TV:

Like the sorcerer of old, the television set casts its magic spell, freezing speech and action, turning the living into silent statues for as long as the enchantment lasts. The primary danger of the television screen lies... in the behavior it prevents: the talks, the games, the family festivities, and the arguments through which much of the child's learning takes place and through which his character is formed. Turning on the television set can turn off the process that transforms children into people.

One of the clearest demonstrations of this "displacement factor," as it has been called, is a unique study titled, "The Impact of Television: A Natural Experiment in Three Communities." It documents the effects of television's arrival on a small Canadian town, Notel, that had been without television reception (due to geographic factors) for a decade into the television era. University researchers, in advance of television's arrival, studied the television-free children and families, comparing them with the populations of two demographically similar towns—one that had had only one TV channel available during the previous decade and another that had had many channels.

The findings were revealing. Before television, the Notel children tested significantly higher than the kids in the other towns on various skills like creativity and reading comprehension. When retested a year after television's introduction, the Notel children's scores had gone down to the level of the kids in the other towns. The researchers, however, did not attribute the declines to the act of watching television. Rather, they explained that watching television displaced other more valuable experiences. Can one conclude, for example, that there is something about the act of watching television that makes kids less creative? Perhaps pursuing hobbies, going camping, or joining clubs broadens their base of experience in a way that makes them more creative. Similarly, in explaining the decline in reading comprehension, the researchers wrote, "We suspect that a displacement process is involved....The absence of reading practice is, in our view, more important than television per se."

Similarly, in 1997, a large-scale study conducted in the Netherlands concluded that television viewing had a negative impact on reading comprehension, largely as a result of television's displacement of reading as a leisure-time activity.

Evidence that the more television children view, regardless of program content, the worse they do in school, has been accumulating since research on television's impact on children began. Twenty years ago in a summary of television research organized by the National Institute of Mental Health, all but one of the numerous studies cited in the section on educational achievement showed a negative relationship between the amount of television viewing and school achievement.

In addition, a National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) report assessing long-term trends in school achievement noted a strong negative relationship between time spent watching television and students' scores on the NAEP mathematics test. In all three age groups tested, the heaviest watchers scored lower than their peers who watched less. The content of programs watched was not a factor in this negative relationship.

What Television Chases Out of Family Life

A number of studies done when television was a relatively new medium demonstrated that television interfered with family activities and relationships. One survey showed that 78 percent of the respondents indicated no conversation taking place during viewing, except at specified times such as commercials. The study noted that, "The nature of the family social life during a program could be described as 'parallel' rather than 'interactive,' and the set does seem to dominate family life when it is on." Thirty-six percent of the respondents in another study indicated that television viewing was the only family activity participated in during the week.

Childhood Memories of the Ordinary Day
By its domination of the time families spend together, TV eliminates the very activities that distinguish one family from another and make childhood memorable—its rituals, games, recurrent jokes, familiar songs. A few decades ago, a parent described her family's evening this way:

In principle, we have agreed on 2Z\x hours of TV a day—Sesame Street, Electric Company (with dinner gobbled up between), and two half-hour shows between 7 p.m. and 8:30 p.m., which enables the grown-ups to eat in peace and prevents the two boys from destroying one another. Their pre-bedtime choice is dreadful because, as Josh recently admitted, "There's nothing much on I really like."

Without conjuring up fantasies of bygone years with family games and long, leisurely meals, the question arises: Isn't there a better family life available than this dismal, mechanized arrangement of children watching television for however long is allowed them, evening after evening?

Of course, families today still do things together at times—go camping in the summer, go to the zoo on a Sunday afternoon. But their ordinary daily life together is diminished: those hours of sitting around at the dinner table, the little games invented by children on the spur of the moment, the scribbling, the chatting, and even the quarreling—all the things that form the fabric of a family, that define a childhood.

Strategies that Served Parents and Children
In the pre-television era, necessity often impelled parents to resort to certain parent-directed strategies that bought them some respite from childcare. These included giving firm direction to their children instead of offering choices, observing their children in order to steer them into self-directed play, and requiring nap time for older children.

• Firmness: Parents were firmer before the television era, not because they believed this was a better way to raise kids, but simply because firmness was necessary for parents' survival. The child-rearing style so prevalent today—characterized by questions parents steadily ask their small children, such as, "Do you want to go shopping with Daddy?"—was unthinkable then. Four-year-old Nancy had to go shopping with Daddy so Mom could nurse the baby or help Buddy with his homework, and she was simply told in a nice firm voice that that's what was about to happen. Not knowing that she had a say in such affairs, the small child was more likely to comply than kids are today.

• Observation: Before television, training children to play alone for periods of time was a vital part of parenthood. But accomplishing this goal was never a simple matter. Observing children's changing development was the pathway to success in getting children to entertain themselves successfully and reliably. A mother, for instance, might take pains to discover if her three-year-old was capable of learning to cut with a pair of blunted scissors. If this activity amused the child, it would be worth the mother's while to work on it a bit—to help the child learn how to cut properly and to provide a supply of colored papers or an old magazine, a jar of paste, perhaps—because once the skill was acquired, her reward would be a self-entertaining child.

• The Nap: The most dependable survival aid for parents of the past was the nap. They saved up their telephone calls, their letter writing, reading, or sustained thinking for that interval of the day when an eye or an ear didn't have to be cocked in the direction of a small child. When at age two or three the child may have stopped physically needing the nap, the parents hadn't stopped needing it—far from it. Through firmness, based on a certain desperation as well as a strong sense that the period of quiet rest was still good for the child, parents succeeded in gradually turning the sleep nap into a quiet-play nap, during which time children were required to remain in their room, playing or listening to music, or dreaming, or puttering about quietly. Thus, the nap period begins to serve a new function: it provides children with their first regular opportunity to experience free time.

Free Time and Resourcefulness
Not so long ago, children were regularly faced with periods of time that they were required to deal with on their own. Today, not merely are children's lives packed with more meetings, lessons, and other structured activities than ever before, but all the possible chunks of empty time cropping up between these activities are filled in with the mortar of television. That curiously unvalued commodity called free time has been eliminated almost entirely from children's lives.

Whether children are so used to immediate gratification via the television set that their abilities have atrophied, or whether a simple lack of experience with free time has left them with undeveloped abilities, these days they seem to have greater difficulty dealing with free time than children of past eras did. Today's children seem less likely to enlarge their interests by trying something new: inventing games, playing make-believe, reading, or writing to pen pals—activities that grow on a child and foster growth.

Family Rituals
Family ritual is defined by sociologists as "that part of family life that the family likes about itself, is proud of, and wants formally to continue." Mealtime rituals, going-to-bed rituals, holiday rituals—how many of these have survived the inroads of the television set? A young woman who grew up near Chicago reminisces about her childhood and gives an idea of the effects of television upon family rituals:

As a child I had millions of relatives around—my parents both come from relatively large families. My father had nine brothers and sisters. And so every holiday there was this great swoop-down of aunts, uncles, and millions of cousins. I just remember how wonderful it used to be. The cousins would come and everyone would play and, ultimately, after dinner all the women would be in the front of the house, drinking coffee and talking, all the men would be in the back of the house, drinking and smoking, and all the kids would be all over the place, playing hide and seek. Christmastime was particularly nice because everyone always brought all their toys and games. Our house had a couple of rooms with go-through closets, so there were always kids running in a great circle route. I remember it was just wonderful.

And then one year I remember becoming suddenly aware of how different everything had become. The kids were no longer playing Monopoly or Clue or the other games we used to play together. It was because we had a television set, which had been turned on for a football game. All the socializing that had gone on previously had ended. Now everyone was sitting in front of the television set, on a holiday, at a family party! I remember being stunned by how awful that was. Somehow the television had become more attractive.

Sickness As a Special Event
The diminishing cohort of adults who grew up before television has strong memories of childhood illnesses. A mother thinks back:

My mother worked when I was a child, but when I was sick she stayed home for at least a few days. So I remember those times very well. I remember the endless card games and cutting out pictures from magazines with her. I remember lying in bed and calling her to come and bring me this or that, again and again and again. And I remember how wonderful it felt that she always came! I suppose I ran her ragged, but to this day, that's a very important memory for me.

Parents in those bygone days swallowed their impatience and suspended their weariness when the kids were sick. It wasn't that they were better parents than parents are today—it was because they had no alternative.

Nowadays, what makes sickness special for children is mainly that they are allowed to watch more television than ever. A mother who normally limits her children's television viewing says: "When the children are sick, I'm likely to let them watch all they want. Otherwise, I'd have to read to them all day." For today's children whose opportunities for shared experiences with their busy parents are already so limited, those stories not read, those card games not played, those quiet times not spent together are a particular loss.

Gaining Control

There's evidence that families with rules about TV viewing are better off than families without rules. In a recent study of children's media use, the researchers assessed the personal contentedness and social adjustment of a large group of children, then related the results to their media use. It turned out that children from families with rules about TV viewing scored higher (that is, were happier and better adjusted) than children in families without such rules. (The study also noted that children in families with rules were more likely to spend more time reading.) But even without rules, there are natural ways that parents can limit television.

Parental Control
Setting up and maintaining new family rules about television is more easily said than done. Here are some rules to consider. (Note that new rules are easier to establish after a period of time spent without TV, either a vacation or after a deliberate TV turn-off week.)

1. No TV on school days. That's it. No counting hours, no checking listings for one or two permissible programs. No bargaining and haggling. Eliminating television on school days effectively eliminates television as a competitor for other, more fulfilling activities (lively family meals, conversations, games, reading aloud, and, of course, studying and doing homework) during a good chunk of the week.

2. No TV at dinnertime or bedtime. This is the rule that virtually every expert agrees on. With the exception of a brief annual vacation, dinnertime is often the only regular time a family can spend together. Whatever cohesiveness and family spirit is to exist, the evening meal is where it is consolidated. As for bedtime, there is nothing that can replace the bedtime story as a uniquely valuable experience in every child's life.

3. A one-hour-a-day time limit. Some families set a strict daily time limit of no more than one hour of viewing a day. This may work to "detelevisionize" family life considerably, but the competition between television and other activities continues. Children can spend two or more hours simply marking time until their permitted program comes on the air.

4. Fewer or no "regular" programs. A rule limiting or eliminating the watching of regular weekly series programs will usually reduce the quantity of TV watching considerably. (Many kids have numerous series programs they watch regularly.) It also helps discourage families from planning their lives around the TV schedule.

Natural Limits
Although rules may be necessary, there are also ways to limit TV viewing naturally. The following strategies serve to diminish TV's negative impact on family life:

1. The Set Itself. The condition of the set itself can keep TV watching hours down. An eight-year-old boy who watches little television says, "I don't like watching television much because we have a terrible television set. It keeps messing up and either the sound is bad or the picture or both. Worst of all, we sometimes get a double picture."

2. Location of the Set. In deciding where to locate the television set, consider the following parent's testimony:

We keep our set in the basement to have it out of the way. It's there because we don't like to talk over the TV, as happens at our friends' houses, or to have other people distracted by it and lose the thread of the conversation. Also, in the basement there's less temptation to just flick it on when you enter the house. You have to make a special trip down there to watch something.

Most important of all, there should not be a TV in the children's room. In February 2001, the American Academy of Pediatrics revised its (already strong) policy statement about parents' use of television. It advised pediatricians to tell parents: "Remove television sets from children's bedrooms."

3. Number of Sets. The number of sets a family possesses makes a considerable difference in how well parents can control their children's viewing. In a study of the factors affecting parental television control, researchers observed that the number of television sets in a home was "the crucial family variable," predicting whether parents were successful in controlling television.

4. A Rich Social Life. A rich social life may also serve as a natural limit to children's television viewing. A psychiatrist explains that:

The television problem is related to small families. Amusing small kids would be perfectly easy if you had four or five kids of various ages around at all times to amuse each other. The whole idea of a mother entertaining a small child is kind of crazy anyway. It never happened prior to 1900.

A family with two children eight and ten years of age find that the TV is infrequently used in spite of a permissive attitude towards it. The mother reports:

We live on the way to Lucy's school and she almost always brings girls home with her, sometimes ten at a time! Jeremy usually brings home a couple of kids since his school is also nearby. But he has a friend who lives upstairs, an only child, and that child watches TV a great deal. Maybe there's a connection.

Outside Support
Parents respond with gratitude and relief when help is offered by powerful outside institutions. Support from local schools as well as national organizations can bolster parents' efforts:

1. School support. A few years ago, when a well-known nursery school in New York City sent a letter to its entire parent body advising them to limit their children's viewing time to a maximum of one hour a day, the step was greeted with unusual enthusiasm. An article in the New York Times quoted one mother as saying, "That letter gave me the final push into curtailing television." Another mother described her three-year-old son's campaign to watch Planet of the Apes and other popular cartoons this way, "I was under heavy pressure, so when the letter arrived, I was relieved to tell him the school didn't want him to watch."

2. The TV-Turnoff Network. The TV-Turnoff Network held its first national TV Turnoff during the last week of April 1995, and has continued to organize a similar event every year since. So far, more than 24 million people have participated, at least partially, in the national Turnoff, with 6 million signing on in 2000 alone. Today, the TV-Turnoff Network leads an alliance that counts among its supporters the American Academy of Pediatricians, the Girl Scouts of America, and the Surgeon General of the United States.

To learn more about the TV-Turnoff Network, visit www.tvturnoff.org. Let us know if your school takes steps to limit TV watching by writing to American Educator, 555 New Jersey Ave. N.W., Washington, DC 20001 or via e-mail at amered@aft.org.


Marie Winn has written for many newspapers and magazines, including the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times. She has written 13 books including Children Without Childhood and Red-Tails in Love: A Wildlife Drama in Central Park. Excerpts adapted from The Plug-In Drug, Revised and Updated by Marie Winn, © 1977, 1985, 2002 by Marie Winn Miller. Used by permission of Viking Penguin, a division of Penguin Putnam Inc.

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