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Unplugging your family from the television

By Kelly Averill Savino

One hundred years ago, many households with youn
g children stocked a bot tle of "mother's helper." A spoonful given to active, noisy children would quiet them and even put them to sleep, so that mother could have some time to herself. Few were concerned that the potion consisted of laudanum, alcohol or opiates. The children seemed happy, and they were rendered much more convenient by the dose.

That's hard to imagine now, aware as we are of the dangers of addictive drugs to children's developing minds. Still, few parents hesitate to flip on the TV to sedate noisy kids, despite decades of evidence that television is doing children irreparable harm.

The comparison between narcotics and television may be apt. Besides being addictive, TV apparently does more than hold the interest of little kids. Studies by respected figures like T. Berry Brazelton, M.D., suggest that babies and small children exposed to a barrage of visual and auditory stimuli literally shut down from sensory overload. And when the TV is turned off, kids seem to crash, becoming cranky, overstimulated and aggressive. Marie Winn, author of The Plug-In Drug, calls this "re-entry syndrome."
Much of the debate over TV and kids centers on V-chips, rating systems and adult content. By the latest estimates, the average child watches 10,000 murders, rapes and aggravated assaults per year. The connection between TV violence and violence by young viewers has been drawn by thousands of studies. While much is made of children's programming, 95 percent of children's viewing time is spent watching adult shows.
TV helps teens form attitudes about guns, drugs and morality. For little kids, the link between TV and real-world violence is proven by preschools and day-care centers that first banned Ninja Turtles and then Power Rangers because children imitating cartoon heroes were hurting each other.

Still, some experts believe that the content of what kids watch is beside the point. The sheer number of hours spent watching -- American children spend three to four hours every day in front of the tube, more time per year than they spend in school -- means that kids have all but abandoned social interaction and are bombarded by hours of advertising. Experts are concerned about how this affects not only children's learning but also their physical and emotional health.

Hey, it’s educational!
But aren't kids learning from a steady diet of Barney and Sesame Street? Maybe not. Teachers attest that real learning for children is not passive. It involves hands-on involvement, discussion and interaction between teacher and student.

Winn argues that while they may allay guilt for parents who rely on TV to occupy their kids, educational programs are relatively useless to preschoolers. They may be able to sing their ABCs and recite what they hear, but Winn contends that kids don't grasp the concepts.

The job of a preschooler, she says, is to work out family relationships, become self-directed and less dependent and learn basic communications skills like reading, writing and talking. Not only is a TV unable to teach these things, but the passivity of watching undermines a child's instinct to pursue these skills. After all, the average preschooler spends more time watching TV than in any other activity besides sleep.

Winn points out that while adults compare TV shows to real life, children (with their limited life experience) tend to do the opposite. For kids who spend more time with TV families than their own, this can be especially evident. Actors are predictable and their intentions are always clear; TV families are funny, attractive and come with their own laugh track. Problems are easily worked out in half an hour.
In comparison, real life is complicated and the plot is hard to follow. And sadly, the conversation that might help real families to connect is usually crowded out by the seven hours a day that the TV is usually on.

Obesity and the loss of play
In the last decade, doctors have focused on the physical impact of TV on children. American kids spend less and less time in healthy activity. Slowed metabolisms from inactivity, snacking while watching TV and the temptation of commercials selling candy and sweetened cereals combine for a huge physical impact. Rising obesity has been linked to the inactivity of TV couch potatoes in countless studies, though few such studies are reported on commercial TV.

While the connection between obesity and TV seems clear, a less obvious atrophy can take place. According to Winn's essay "The Importance of Play," TV robs children of the greatest motivation to invent, pretend and imagine: boredom. She is particularly concerned that busy schedules and hours of TV mean no free time for kids. Play, she points out, is serious business: It's practice for life.

Toledo-area psychologist and mom Jeanne Dennler agrees. She attributes the academic and social skills of her children, Kim, 18, and Jeff, 15, to limits on TV. "Interactive and creative play is developmentally important," she explains. Dramatic play involving costumes and pretending and interaction with siblings and neighbors is healthy for kids. Children with developmental disorders especially benefit from sequential play, such as creating stories with dollhouse families.

Dennler adds that for children with social problems, TV and videos can become a substitute for real relationships. "They may use it as an avoidance thing," she says. And teenagers, who can be antisocial anyway, may hide behind TV as well. "The worst thing a family can do is give an adolescent a TV in his room," she says, adding that at least the TV might lure teens to sit with the family.

TV and academics

As many parents can attest, TV wins out over homework every time. Some teachers have surrendered all attempts to get kids to study at home. TV remains a tough competitor even in the classroom. One teacher quipped, "I can remember when a film strip about cell division was a big deal. Now we have to compete with MTV."

Teachers complain that students have short attention spans, and one researcher has theorized that some hyperactive behavior may be a child's attempt to recreate the fast-shifting stimulus of TV. Teachers who taught before and after the easy accessibility of TV say students today are less able to read and write and passively accept information instead of thinking critically.
Seventh-grade teacher Nancy Griffin has noticed that kids tend to reproduce the latest movie or TV program in their writing assignments. She had to institute a "no blood, guts and gore" rule for stories. "I just added the word 'psychopath' to the list of words no longer allowed in my class," she adds. Winn thinks it's no coincidence that the nation's SAT scores began their decline in 1964, the first year kids "exposed to large amounts of television during their language-learning years" were tested.

Values and commercials
Some parents feel they're fighting a losing battle to teach their kids good values. Parents want daughters to have a healthy attitude about their bodies and avoid the self-criticism and disordered eating so common today. They want kids to make good decisions about sex and drugs, tobacco and alcohol, violence and guns. They want them to think for themselves and not be pressured by peers into taking risks. But in the tug of war over kids, families are pulling against TV -- and hour for hour, TV talks to children a lot more than parents do.
To complicate matters, parents have only common sense and heartfelt advice to offer, while TV is backed by millions of dollars in high-tech, slick advertising encouraging kids to conform, often making parents look foolish in the process.

Kids are the fastest-growing segment of the consumer market, and materialism is good for the economy. Little children are vulnerable because they can't question the accuracy of ads. School-age kids are sitting ducks for giant marketing machines like Disney, whose movies are combined with fast-food trinkets and movie-du-jour merchandise. Many cartoons are thinly veiled marketing promotions for action figures or spin-offs of toys already on the market.
Older kids struggling with identity and popularity issues are easy prey for ads claiming they'll be uncool unless they buy the right shampoo, shoes, designer clothes or acne cream. These commercials make teens feel dissatisfied with themselves, their appearance, their possessions and their love lives. They tempt kids to cave in to peer pressure and follow fads. The ads are profitable for advertisers but costly to the self-esteem of their viewers. This is especially frightening at a time when skeletal models and "heroin chic" are the latest trend.

TV as babysitter: what are the costs?

Many families battle daily about how much time older kids spend in "zombie mode." Why then do parents encourage little kids to sit mesmerized in front of the tube? When asked, parents admit that parking their preschoolers at the TV is easier than trying to make dinner or do household chores amid children's demands … easier than dealing with squealing kids racing through the house … easier than picking up the puzzles, crayons and toys that active children scatter.

But experience suggests that the quick fix of TV makes parenting more difficult in the long run. Kids who never learn to entertain themselves rely on TV or a parent to provide "something to do." Teachers and parents who remember childhood before TV make the same observations: kids used to be busier, happier, more resourceful and less "under foot." The childhood culture of jump rope, paper dolls and collections seems to have given way to kids huddled around a flickering TV screen at home or at a friend's.

Retired mom Betsy Ford, whose six children are grown, says, "You didn't have to keep kids occupied. They had the imagination to do it themselves." Other '50s moms recall the ways they got some time to themselves -- afternoon naps or "quiet times" that lasted well into the school years. Others found that half an hour of undivided attention initiating a tea party, making dough to mold or teaching a child to string beads could "jump start" independent play.

Notions of families singing around the piano, listening to the radio or reading aloud together sound pretty old-fashioned and impractical to some. Amidst tight schedules and the double workload of home and job, it's hard to find a moment to spare. To make things worse, many parents watch TV in one room while the children watch their own shows or play video games in another room. Two-income families and single parents who lament having only evenings and weekends to spend with kids might consider how many hours they could find by unplugging the competition.

Will my kids be weird?

According to families who are living "unplugged," once the family has regained more clout with kids than the TV, kids may not care about friends' TV-related conversations. Pediatrician Joanne Reid remembers the day her daughter came home from school and asked, "Mom, what's a Power Ranger?" Mom checked the listings, and they watched the show together on their home's seldom-used TV set. Halfway through the show, her child stood up, declared "This is stupid," and went off to play.

Kids who haven't been indoctrinated into TV culture or whose parents have lives and interests outside of TV viewing may be more objective about the value of what they watch. Some parents report that their kids can be quite smug about not watching and complain about friends who "never do anything."

Families who have unplugged the TV for a week or more list advantages like family conversations and closeness. They say kids rediscover long-forgotten games, books, hobbies and musical instruments. Parents find time for projects around the house and yard (and often find their sex lives improved dramatically). Ironically, most families eventually plug in again, subsequently reporting that life returned to the old way. Even families who limited TV time said knowing that TV was an option prevented their kids from finding other pursuits.

Families who leave TV behind during vacations often recognize what a gap its absence leaves. Kicking the habit may be especially hard for small children, who like the comfort of routines. Toledo-area mom Valerie Black was dismayed during a week-long Smoky Mountain camping trip when Symonne, age 5, kept asking for TV. Even older kids used to the passive role of being entertained by a TV set may take more than a week or two to become resourceful, stop complaining and take responsibility for amusing themselves.

While everyone is in transition, families might plan more outside activities such as visiting museums, parks or libraries. You might revive the lost art of conversation by asking kids' opinions about current events and draw out discussions at the dinner table. Still, parents should avoid the temptation to become the TV's replacement by playing social director. Many kids discover the joys of reading, playing an instrument or building a model after being driven to it by sheer boredom.
Kids can be required to take part in household duties; involvement makes little kids feel grown up and reminds big ones that they are part of the family, not guests to be entertained. And if all else fails, says veteran mom Betsy Ford, when kids come whining with nothing to do, "suggest that they vacuum. They'll suddenly come up with an idea of their own."

Life without TV -- it's something to consider. While parents would have to sacrifice an easy babysitter and give up the hard-to-kick TV habit themselves, they could give their kids important gifts: free time, study time, family time, imagination, health and the chance to do instead of watch.

Kelly Averill Savino is a potter and an attachment parenting, unschooling mother of three in Ohio.

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