Its not the sex and violence … its the T.V.

February 27, 2010

I just finished a really interesting (and appalling) read; The Plug-In Drug: Television, Computers and Family Life by Marie Winn details how TV watching is harmful for children in a comprehensive way at the same time it notes just exactly how much American kids are watching today.  Although the book was originally written in the 70’s the testimonials and observations seem as pertinent as if they had been spoken yesterday and for this 25th anniversary edition she has updated to include the similar effects of other electronic media (VCRs, video games, computers in classrooms etc) and here’s the short version … its pretty much all equally bad.

The book focuses on the effects of television on small children and families but I couldn’t help flinching as I read because some of the points seemed as relevant for me as they do for toddlers.  I love TV as much as the next person – I don’t watch a lot of live network television and I don’t have cable but I can go through a season on DVD in a week pretty easily and, as that’s how they are available from my library – a season at a time and checked out for one week, I often do.  I notice on those weeks that I stay up later than I mean to, accomplish less than I plan and spend less time interacting with other people or even reading on my own.  I’m not saying I’ll never do this again – I will probably do it again quite soon.  But I am going to be keeping my eyes open a bit more for a while for just a few of the following reasons.

Winn’s argument is pretty comprehensive and includes in depth observations by parents and specialists as well as references to many studies.  I’ll hit a few of her points here but for more depth or a longer list I would highly recommend checking this one out – its not a long book and quite a page turner.  Here’s her thoughts on the TV kids are watching and why its not a very good thing:

The numbers game

With 24 hours in the day, every one spent watching TV is not spent doing other things like sleeping, studying, reading or sitting and staring at the wall while trying to figure out what to do next to amuse yourself.  Since American children are spending anywhere from 3 to 8 hours of TV they are losing out on an enormous chunk of the time kids used to spend developing in other ways.  This is time lost.


If you’ve ever seen a little kid watch TV you know what this means.  (Hell if you’ve ever seen an adult settle in and watch several hours of television the same is true – I know I do it.)  Kids especially though seem to transition instantly from little bundles of energy, bouncing off the walls and pouring out an incessant stream of “why” questions into a trance like state, limp and and zoned in on the screen.  A study by one doctor linked this behavior to a type of automatic self shut down mechanism that he identified in babies exposed to overly stimulating noise and light – the brain being unable to deal with excessive input simply tunes out – thus inducing a trance like state.

Physical Effects

TV has been linked to obesity in children.  The obvious reasons – watching is time spent not moving and often involves snacking – may also be exacerbated by the fact that metabolic rates drop to a near sleep time level while watching TV.  In other words, kids would be burning more calories sitting and staring at the wall than they are when they stare at a screen.  Excessive viewing has also been linked to Diabetes, an overall decline in physical fitness and sleep disorders.

Sesame Street

So what about TV that’s “good” for kids.  I know I watched Sesame Street as a kid and I can still sing some of the jingles – in Dutch and in English.  But it turns out that my only be because my mom was sitting beside me and singing along.  The original stated purpose of Sesame Street was to close the gap in education between privileged middle-class children who have good pre-school support from their families and low income kids who are on their own more before beginning school and tend to show up already developmentally disadvantaged.  In the years after it was first aired there was an expectation that American schools would have to totally revamp their kindergarten curricula to accommodate the wave of new more prepared kids.  But it never happened.  The gap never closed and yet people still hang on to the belief that Sesame Street an other children’s programming is improving their kids’ development.


In a world of constantly scheduled children we are placing less an less emphasis on the importance of play.  Parents today seem to be terrified that their child will be abducted by strangers if they step outside the door, or arrive at the first day of kindergarten bound for social and academic failure if they do not already demonstrate multiple skill sets honed by hours of soccer camp, music lessons and socializing “play” dates.  But there was a value in the random child-driven experimenting that used to be central to childhood.  Everything from peekaboo to hiding under the bed, throwing snow or making a fort to “helping” stir the batter or sweep the floor or “write” a letter in imitation of the adults around them were developmental steps.  Playing with other children requires some level of compromise and balancing the needs and wants of others with ones own.  When kids spend all their free hours watching TV, they miss out on this necessary experimentation.


I’m obviously a fan of reading.  I was actually a bit of a slow starter – after years of hearing books my mom found interesting read out loud to me the school’s assigned “readers” all about the tin can and the tan ant seemed pretty blah and I really dug in my heels for a few years there.  But once I read my first real book (I think it was a Trixie Belden mystery held under the covers with a flashlight just after bedtime in second grade) I walked into a world of words and never looked back.  Studies show that children who watch excessive television are much less likely to be readers and that the fictional world of TV is a poor substitute developmentally for the imaginative world of books.  TV watching is a passive experience in which a narrative of created events rolls forward at a pre-set pace.  Even with VCRs and instant replay you are ultimately at the mercy of the producer.  Reading allows the child much more control over how they absorb the ideas of the page.  They can pore over something slowly, skim through it in big leaps or go back and re read something over and over.  They can close the book and imagine a scene, putting them self into the protagonists spot.  Its an imaginatively rich and active expeirience as oposed to a passive absorbative one.  Nevertheless TV is an almost overwhelming draw.  Further TV corrodes a child’s attention span, reducing their desire or ability to focus on reading enough to enjoy it.  According to a 1992 study,

“one third of all students never read in their spare time and one theird of all eighth and tenth graders read fewer than five pages a day for school or homework.   At the same time, the report noted, while two thirds of eight graders who had been tested for reading and comprehension watched more than three hours a day, those students who watched two hours or less proved to get higher grades on the exam.” (98)

I, for one, find this pretty grim.  Although on the plus side the solution is so easy its shocking.  Turn off the TV.  Unplug it.  Put it in a closet.  Give it away.  Or if you have great strength of mind just leave it off.  Here’s a testimonial from one of my favorite blogger’s about getting the TV out of her child’s life and the positive effects it almost immediately had in a recent post, “the TV is broken.”

*All page numbers taken from the Penguin 2002 paper back edition.

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