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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… and worried.

"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 behind me?

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 television’s effect on a child’s brain.  Our brain’s "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," writes Pearce.

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 practically non-existent.

"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 left…Use it or lose it is nature's dictate,"
writes Pearce.

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 drug takes.

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 book.

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:

Email: [email protected]


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