The impact of media saturation in our culture
BY MARINA TAYLOR
TV Turnoff Week will be celebrated April 21-27 all over the world this year. It’s a week devoted to encouraging children to find other activities than watching television, playing video and computer games and watching videos. Conversations here in Eugene have already begun, stating what many parents already know: The content of most television is lousy, and soaking up the images offered on prime time does nothing to make it any easier to be a child in our modern world.
What puzzles me is how exclusively these opinions center around the content of TV and movies, rather that the act of watching, and how they focus just on children. Some of what I’ve heard sounds like the same slightly Puritan rant against sex, drugs and rock and roll that adults have been making to their children for generations. That rant cheapens the real argument against media saturation in our culture.
When I was parenting a young child, national TV Turnoff Week was something I dreaded. My son was little, I stayed at home without a real parenting network and I used TV to get some much needed head space. I had read the statistics, I could see what was harmful for me, but I still “used” media. All the week brought me was more guilt. I strongly believe that if we as a society want to address limiting or eliminating media use, we can’t just treat the symptoms; we are responsible for finding the root causes.
Media is addictive for children and adults. A good movie is irresistible to me even now, as is a good game or web link. In her book Endangered Minds: Why Children Don’t Think and What We Can Do About It, Jane Healy writes about the creation of the seemingly harmless Sesame Street. She writes about how the show was developed by having children in a room with the TV show on and then exposing them to other stimulants as well: flashing lights, sounds etc. The creators of Sesame Street, she says, kept refining and changing the program style until the children were no longer distracted or able to turn their attention from the program to the other distracters. That’s quite some trick with the average preschooler, probably the most distractible creature on the planet. In my mind, if you add that to peer pressure, sports and consumerism, an addiction to screen watching is quite reasonable. The medium of television is designed very carefully, deliberately and professionally, to be irresistible.
But it’s an easier addiction to resist than others. Dinner time, for example, is a time when a parent might just like to work in solitude in the kitchen for a moment, and the busy activities of the day have taken their toll on patience and creativity. If we call that exhaustion a symptom, what might be its cause? Are we doing too much the rest of the day so we don’t have the energy to make our children help out in the kitchen? Are we doing enough for ourselves so we have deep wells of creativity and good humor? If we make sure that we and our children are entertained all the time, where is the space to integrate, reflect and simply be in the moment?
The organization which began TV Turnoff Week in 1994 has broadened its approach to include all media, and they now call themselves the Center for Screen-Time Awareness. Their mission is to “provide information so people can live healthier lives in functional families in vibrant communities by taking control of the electronic media in their lives, not allowing it to control them.” That’s quite a fight they have on their hands. We can’t live without media now: Can you imagine a week without access to email, web news, television shows? And what about the fabulous medium of newspapers? We are global citizens, and we live in a world where information is available to us, social change and the arts are available to us, through media. Our culture is well beyond denying those gifts.
TV Turnoff Week is a good time to look at the hidden price of media for us all. In hooking up nationally and internationally on the web, are we neglecting our local connections? Are we medicating ourselves with television to fill emotional and energetic gaps elsewhere in our lives? This is the week to simplify and reconnect with the rest of our lives, and especially the lives of our children.
Marina Taylor, a former EW staff writer, is PR and enrollment coordinator at the Eugene Waldorf School. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org