Off the Line
Turn It Off
by Lisa Reagan
Friends walked into our house in February, noted our television was missing from any
main rooms, and quipped, "We give you a week. It'll be back!"
It's August, and the television hasn't reappeared. It wasn't that we made an
informed, self-congratulating decision to take television out of our lives; it was just
that the &^%#$ cable company missed our turn-on date three times! After our third
turn-on date, and four weeks with no TV had passed, my husband and I sulkily surrendered
to what we perceived as a divine message of intervention: We were not destined for
the Discovery Channel.
Miraculously, we made it through this withdrawal period by developing other rituals with
our discovery of TIME. More time for everything. More time for cooking healthy
dinners, more time for walks, drives, journal entries, the perennial parade of household
chores, and of course, more precious time for our wonderful son.
More time meant less stress. And with more still fleeting, still precious time on
our hands, our lives became rich with the contact of each other - richer, and more
fulfilling than I ever imagined life could be.
But before the gods took cable television out of our home, we would have sworn that we
didn't watch "that much TV." It is only now, with 20/20 hindsight, that we
realize the amount of time we spent watching television and it's powerful, all-consuming
effect on our lives. After six TV-free months, we re-experienced this effect last
month in a Washington D.C. hotel room.
Our first evening in our hotel room we agreed to "just quickly see what was on".
One hour later, we opted for room-service instead of going out for a walk and dinner.
Two hours later, I was surprised by how terrible I was beginning to feel.
Still, we flipped and flipped, shooting past the ubiquitous violent imagery and juvenile
sex jokes, commenting on how we probably shouldn't be doing this, all the while feeling
more and more inert, foggy-headed, distant
"I didn't feel this bad watching TV before, did I?" I asked myself. If I, an
educated, adult woman, felt lousy watching the casual violence, sex and fast imagery of
television, what sort of effect would it have on my young son asleep in the next room?
Brooding over these thoughts and images, I clicked-off the hotel's TV and crawled into our
king-sized bed with my eyes pulsating weird blue light, my head throbbing, and my ears
ringing. I curled around my son's small body under the hotel sheets, gently brushed
my nose against his soft, warm hair and breathed in his innocence. I had just
navigated 6 months without cable television, how was I going to navigate the next 16 years
without cable, the computer, or video games? Crawl into a hole dragging my son
Still brooding, I placed a gentle kiss on my son's cheek, gave him the breast he was
fumbling for, and fell asleep promising to use my newly discovered extra time to find some
answers to my questions when we got home. I did and here is what I found :
Even though the AAP's policy that two year-olds and under should avoid television may seem
extreme, it actually occupies the middle of the road. At my local library I found
conflicting arguments for virtually banning television from your home, for placing limits
on viewing and becoming "media literate", or for rejecting
"mediaphobes" and letting your children watch
anything they want.
Media literacy advocates and television banners disagree over whether or not the content
of children's programs really matters. According to Joseph Chilton Pearce, author of
Evolution's End: Claiming the Potential of Our
Intelligence, it doesn't matter if your child watches Sesame Street or Power Rangers:
"The major damage of television has little to do with content: It's damage is
neurological, and it has, indeed, damaged us, perhaps beyond repair."
Both camps do agree on televisions effect on a childs
brain. Our brains "triune system" consists of the reptilian system,
old mammalian, and new mammalian brains that control action, feeling, and thought,
respectively. "The third and highest member, our neocortex, or new brain, is five
times bigger than its two lower neighbors combined and provides intellect, creative
thinking, computing, and if developed, sympathy, empathy, compassion, and love,"
Creative play, conversation with adults and story-telling are Nature's choice for
developing a child's neocortex. But with parent's spending an average of 10 minutes a day
talking to their children, and television monopolizing almost seven hours a day in the
average home, the human interaction needed by children for higher brain development is
"Failing to develop imagery means having no imagination... It means children
who can't 'see' what the mathematical symbol or the semantic words mean; nor the chemical
formulae; nor the concept of civilization
A child who can't imagine not only can't
learn but has no hope in general: He or she can't 'imagine' an inner scenario to replace
the outer one, so feels victimized by the environment
True playing is the ability to
play with one's reality."
Consider the above description of television's effect on a child's developing brain, and
then recall that the average preschooler watches 54 hours a week.
The mountain of damage is staggering.
And that is not the worst of it. At age 11, in a natural house-cleaning process, all
undeveloped neurons in the neocortex, up to 80 per cent, are dumped. Lost
forever. "Only those neural patterns stimulated and sufficiently developed are
Use it or lose it is nature's dictate,"
Pearce believes that television is second only to hospital birth in contributing to the
"current collapse of childhood." He notes that before television there were no
recorded child suicides, whereas today a child attempts to take his or her life every 78
seconds. He warns that as "our damaged children grow-up and become parents and
teachers, damage will be the
norm, the way of life."
Is the damaged way already the normal way of life? What is prohibiting parents from
taking action now to control television in their homes?
Marie Winn, author of The Plug-In Drug, believes that damaged and addicted parents and
teachers are the reasons that media literacy limits are almost impossible to follow.
Winn compares the experience of watching television to chemical dependency. She
notes that television withdrawal symptoms parallel drug withdrawal symptoms, and the need
to repeatedly watch, coupled with a lack of concern over what is being watched, is similar
to a chemically dependent person's cravings and lack of discretion over what form their
In addition to our adult reptilian brain's vulnerability to television's hypnotic glare,
we now have "a growing dependency upon television as a child-rearing tool
Despite their considerable guilt at not being able to control their children's viewing,
parent's do not take steps to extricate themselves from television's domination.
They can no longer cope without it
Surely there can be no more insidious a drug than
one that you must administer to others in order to achieve an effect for yourself."
However, Winn concedes, there were a few families in her studies that were able to control
television in their homes. Some of Winn's families employed "natural"
alternatives to controlling television viewing like placing the television in a poor
location or using a fuzzy set that didn't invite constant viewing.
For parents who want to take on the battle of controlling media in their homes, there is
Screen Smarts, A Family Guide to Media Literacy, by Gloria DeGaetano and Kathleen
Bander. This book contains tools for teaching your children to "read and
analyze images" but warns, "it takes time to learn media literacy."
Screen Smarts recommends: discussing with your children how television programs are made,
asking your children to rewrite the scripts of the programs they watch, or to count the
number of violent acts in a show. The authors' point that "media is here to
stay" is well taken along with the fact that American children suffer from a complete
void of information regarding their number one activity. In Great Britain and Australia
media literacy has been established as an integral component of the educational system for
more than a decade.
And then there is Jon Katz, a media critic who insists in his book Virtuous Reality that
"Children need more, not less access to technology, culture and information.
Responsible children have the right to participate freely in this world, and responsible
parents should worry more about getting kids on-line and less about the dirty pictures
they may occasionally find when they get there." I suggest Mr. Katz put aside his
job-security motivated opinions and undertake a quick read of Mr. Pearce's aforementioned
And as Pearce et al, from Congressional Committees to the AAP have agreed:
television viewing damages the developing minds of children. And no amount of
bickering between CBS vice-presidents and parent's watch groups over "what is
educational content" or a hundred government agencies advocating the development of
media literacy skills is going to reverse that biological, neurological fact.
Even if media education and AAP viewing guidelines are enthusiastically followed, even if
Congress gains control of Hollywood and Hollywood gives all of its billions of advertising
dollars to the "Children Damaged by Television Fund", and even if television
watching diminishes from the current seven hours a day to the AAP's pipe dream of
one hour a day, it will still be one hour a day, 365 hours a year, our children will
neglect the urgently needed development of their higher brain cells; cells that will be
lost forever at the tender age of eleven.
Which unknown potential shall we choose to forfeit the development of in exchange for an
hour with Elmo? Which potential ability will never be fully realized in our
children? Do you really want to count the number of violent scenes in a television show
with your child?
Maybe our last best hope rests with the cable company. And perhaps Nature Herself
will lend a hand and bring our evolution back on course by providing a meteoric
catastrophe that will zap all of our cable boxes and force us to wait and wait and wait
for the television-raised, damaged employees of the cable company to show-up and save
us. And maybe by the time they do, we will
have saved ourselves.
Lisa wecomes your comments in email:
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