If you have ever driven through a neighborhood at night, you have probably noticed a familiar blue glow emanating from the windows of houses. You can picture the scene inside: As the centerpiece of the room, the television has captured the complete attention of those assembled before it. Whether it is an individual, a couple or an entire family, all eyes are fixed on this modern invention with its endless barrage of images.
The Radio Corporation of America started manufacturing color television sets on March 25, 1954, at its Bloomington, Indiana plant, helping to usher in “the wonderful world of color.” Since that time, the number of households with TVs has steadily risen. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the number of homes with television sets increased from 87% in 1960 to over 98% in 2001. Most homes have more than one (2.4 per home on average), totaling 248 million in the U.S. alone—and most today do not remember a time without television.
For some, watching television consumes their entire day. This is especially true of older Americans, who watch more TV (97%) than any other age group. Those living alone or who are shut-ins often find this activity the only way to endure long lonely days.
In fact, it is projected that in 2004, the average adult will spend 1,669 hours watching television. that is the equivalent of 70 days a year—well over 4,900 days in the average lifespan! Put another way, over 13 years of the average person’s life will be spent in front of the television. No wonder it is often referred to as the “plug-in drug.”
Is “TV addiction” a real phenomenon? It may well be. Notice this February 23, 2002 article published by scientificamerican.com: “Among life’s more embarrassing moments have been countless occasions when I am engaged in conversation in a room while a TV set is on, and I cannot for the life of me stop from periodically glancing over to the screen. This occurs not only during dull conversations but during reasonably interesting ones just as well” (“Television Addiction Is No Mere Metaphor”).
Indeed, many have experienced this exact sensation of being drawn to the TV. Turn a TV on and conversation and physical activities stop. Before you know it, the entire day has disappeared.
According to the same article, “The term ‘TV addiction’ is imprecise and laden with value judgments, but it captures the essence of a very real phenomenon. Psychologists and psychiatrists formally define substance dependence as a disorder characterized by criteria that include spending a great deal of time using the substance; using it more often than one intends; thinking about reducing use or making repeated unsuccessful efforts to reduce use; giving up important social, family or occupational activities to use it; and reporting withdrawal symptoms when one stops using it.
“All these criteria can apply to people who watch a lot of television. That does not mean that watching television, per se, is problematic. Television can teach and amuse; it can reach aesthetic heights; it can provide much needed distraction and escape. The difficulty arises when people strongly sense that they ought not to watch as much as they do and yet find themselves strangely unable to reduce their viewing. Some knowledge of how the medium exerts its pull may help heavy viewers gain better control over their lives.”
But does this really mean that people are addicted to television? The article continues: “To some researchers, the most convincing parallel between TV and addictive drugs is that people experience withdrawal symptoms when they cut back on viewing. Nearly 40 years ago, Gary A. Steiner of the University of Chicago collected fascinating individual accounts of families whose set had broken—this back in the days when households generally had only one set: ‘The family walked around like a chicken without a head.’ ‘It was terrible. We did nothing…Children bothered me, and my nerves were on edge. Tried to interest them in games, but impossible. TV is part of them.’”
For some, life without television is truly unbearable. How important is it? A story out of the southwestern Florida city of Fort Myers relates how a 17-year-old boy was charged by police with soliciting to commit murder. The boy was willing to pay $2,000 to have his mother killed, but with one stipulation: “Make it look like a robbery, but don’t damage the TV!”
In this hectic world, in which it seems there are always a million things that need to be done, many desperate parents resort to television as a babysitter. After all, it’s always available any time of the day or night. It never complains and never needs to be paid. And best of all, it keeps the child amused and completely engrossed.
But is this “babysitter” a harmless electronic device? What effect does it have on children? And what kind of patterns are developing in them?
A recently released study holds some answers. Zero to Six: Electronic Media in the Lives of Infants, Toddlers and Preschoolers, published by the Kaiser Family Foundation, provides a look into the use of media among the very young and their parents. Some of its findings include:
• 80% of children use screen media, whether TV, movies or video games.
• 77% turn the television on by themselves.
• Two-thirds request a particular program or surf channels using a remote.
• 65% live in homes in which the TV is on half the time or more.
• 36% live in homes in which the TV is always on (considered a “heavy” TV household).
• In “heavy” TV households, 77% of children watch it every day.
• They are also less likely to read (59% vs. 68%).
• They are less likely to be able to read at all (34% of children ages 4-6 from heavy TV households can read, compared to 56% of others the same age).
• The majority of parents (59%) say their 4-to 6-year-old boys imitate aggressive behavior seen on TV.
• 30% of children under 2 have a TV in their bedroom.
Remember, these statistics are merely for infants to six-year-olds!
There is much debate on whether and how viewing television influences children in their formative years. But the mounting evidence from numerous studies indicates that there are real adverse affects. For example: There is a direct correlation between time in front of a TV and the rise of obesity in children. This sedentary time, often accompanied with consuming high-calorie and high-fat junk foods, replaces time that could have been spent engaging in energy-burning activities.
Consider the following:
• Number of medical studies since 1985 linking excessive television watching to increasing rates of obesity: 12
• Percentage of American children ages 6 to 11 who were seriously overweight in 1963: 4.5; in 1993: 14
• Number of ads aired for “junk-food” during four hours of Saturday morning cartoons: 202 (Source: TV STATISTICS compiled by TV Free America.)
One study, published in the June 2002 issue of Pediatrics, stated, “Almost 40% of children had a TV set in their bedroom; [and] they were more likely to be overweight and spent more time (4.6 hours per week) watching TV/video than children without a TV in their bedroom.”
It concluded, “This study extends the association between TV viewing and risk of being overweight to younger, preschool-aged children. A TV in the child’s bedroom is an even stronger marker of increased risk of being overweight. Because most children watch TV by age 2, educational efforts about limiting child TV/video viewing and keeping the TV out of the child’s bedroom need to begin before then.”
There is also evidence suggesting that early exposure to this media can perhaps “rewire” a child’s developing brain patterns. With commercials interrupting programming approximately every seven minutes, it can produce the same seven-minute attention span. This seems to be confirmed in the experiences of Odds Bodkin, a professional storyteller, who reads mostly to children. He observed that children began to be restless after about seven minutes, in anticipation of a commercial break.
An article titled “Toddler TV Time May Shorten Attention” points to a link between time spent watching TV and attention problems in children. It states, “Experts know too much TV is bad for older kids, but it may also harm the attention spans of children as young as 1 year old, a new study suggests” (HealthDay Reporter).
“We found that watching television before the age of 3 increases the chances that children will develop attentional problems at age 7,” said study author Dr. Dimitri Christakis, of the University of Washington, Seattle.
In their study, Christakis and his team examined data on nearly 1,300 children from a major government survey of children and youth. They compared rates of TV watching during the first three years of life to the development of attention problems at age 7.
The researchers found that “for each additional daily hour of television that young children watched on average, the risk of subsequently having attentional problems [by age 7] was increased by almost 10.” This means that 1- to 3-year-olds who watched eight hours of television a day “would have an 80% higher risk of attentional problems compared to a child who watched zero hours.”
Even a cursory look at the world reveals that society has become increasingly violent. Incidences of “adult crimes,” up to and including murder committed by adolescents, have become common in the news. It has long been known that the viewing of violent programs increases the number of violent acts committed—starting at an early age and continuing into adulthood.
In 1972, a U.S. Surgeon General’s committee released a six-volume Scientific Advisory Report on Television and Social Behavior, which concluded that viewing TV violence has serious consequences for children. They become more willing to respond with aggression in a conflict situation, more willing to harm others, and more aggressive when playing. Appendix III of the report, “Television and Growing Up: The Impact of Televised Violence,” concludes with the following: “The relation of third-grade television habits to later behavior now appears even more impressive. Not only is the violence of programs preferred in third grade related to peer-rated aggression in the third grade and ten years later, but it is also related positively to self-discipline and anti-social behavior ten years later on.”
With over 1,900 television broadcasting networks and stations in the U.S. alone, there is no lack of programming to watch. Gone are the days when TV viewing was limited to what could be received by over-the-air antennas. The introduction of cable and satellite systems is largely responsible for the explosion of growth in broadcasting networks.
The television industry is big business. It employs over 154,000 in just the manufacturing of television, radio and wireless communications equipment. It has an annual payroll of over $11.7 billion for the 245,000 employees of the 6,692 cable TV networks and program distribution firms alone. Television broadcasting firms paid out $10.7 billion for broadcast rights and music license fees, constituting their biggest expense. Their next biggest expense is an annual payroll of $6.5 billion.
Clearly, they need viewers to support their industry.
There are literally hundreds of channels that can be easily accessed at the press of a button. This year, viewers will spend a projected $255 per person for cable and satellite TV.
But what are they watching? What kinds of images are pouring into the minds of viewers?
The variety of shows available at the viewer’s fingertips covers a broad range—from children’s programs to the afternoon soap operas and talk shows, to the evening newscasts, then moving on to “the family hour” and finally primetime. There are the big three networks, ABC, NBC and CBS, along with PBS, joined a few years ago by The WB, UPN and, more recently, FOX. These stations (called “free TV”) are readily available simply by pulling them out of the air via a rooftop antenna.
If one has cable or satellite, the choices appear to be limitless. There is the Cartoon Network, Animal Planet, history Channel, Discovery, Discovery wings, TNN, The Learning Channel, national Geographic Channel, turner Classic Movies, ESPN, ESPN2, CNN and msn, just to name a few. Then there is the Home Shopping Network, with the deal of the hour. For the sports fanatic, an almost endless choice of NFL, NBA, NHL, and MLB channels. Then there are all the premium movie channels like HBO, Showtime, Starz and Encore. And of course all kinds of pay-per-view channels. And for the exploding number of men and women who want pornography, there exists the so-called “adult programming.”
At the other end of the spectrum, a growing number of religious networks are entering the fray. There are even channels for those who are nostalgic for days gone by, such as TV Land, which play reruns of shows from a simpler, more wholesome time. Some of these channels even play old commercials!
This plethora of channels has led to the modern phenomenon of “channel surfing.” With so many channels to choose from, a person has a hard time deciding what to watch. No matter what one is viewing, the possibility of something better or more interesting on another channel is always there. Adding in the endless commercial interruptions every seven minutes only feeds this phenomenon.
Television has changed dramatically in the last few decades. Again, in the early days, the channel choices were very few. It was much easier back then to decide what to watch. The world was different. Society was more wholesome. There was no such thing as the TV rating system. No need for ratings of “TV-PG,” “TV-14” or “TV-MA,” and now with the added designations of: “S” for sex; “V” for violence; “L” for crude language; “D” for dialogue containing sexual themes.
There was no need to worry about the content of a show. The vast majority of programming on television was suitable for the whole family. It was always family hour on TV. Even commercials were more wholesome.
But this has all changed. In part two of this series, we will continue with a look at shows from the past and programming of today. We will see that there has been a constant trend toward more foul language, violence, nudity and sex, and the degradation of families and fathers. And we will show what this means to you and your children!