Is television ruining our children's minds?

February 14, 1992|By Alice Kahn | Alice Kahn,San Francisco Chronicle

We say it's addictive, that it causes brain damage and that it's destroying our youth. Yet 98 percent of us do TV.

While a coalition of intellectuals and fundamentalists rave about the dangers of television, 92 million U.S. households have voted with their behinds, parking them for increasingly long hours in front of the set. According to the latest Nielsen report, the average person watches TV about 4 1/2 hours a day and the average household has the set on for more than seven.

As the screen-screaming February Nielsen "sweeps" begin -- when the supposed best of TV appears -- viewers may wonder whether they're watching too much TV . . . or just too much bad TV.

If the eerie blue-white light is glowing more often, with supposedly more options from cable and video, perhaps viewers should focus on the need for "quality television" and "TV literacy" -- concepts that anti-television extremists find laughably oxymoronic. Critics charge that the much-heralded choices are just more of the same.

Once you realize the most popular program on the "highbrow" public television stations across the country is the "Lawrence Welk Show" in rerun, you may be inclined to join the extremists. If the symbol of lowbrow culture in one decade can become the icon of "quality television" in another, is it not time to nuke the medium back to at least the Print Age?

Media critic Neil Postman puts it another way: "Television makes people more aware of things and less aware about them. They know of Iraq, Nicaragua and Yeltsin, but when you ask them questions they are less informed."

He cites a study done during the Iranian hostage crisis when the majority of those questioned had watched the news on TV but did not know what religion the Iranians practiced or even who the ayatollah was.

While TV has had its defenders, such as media guru Marshall McLuhan, and its detractors, such as "Married With Children" boycotter Terry Rakolta, most parents still anguish over what is the right approach for their children.

Some, like Marilyn and Victor Ichioka of Berkeley, Calif., have decided to eliminate it from their environment altogether. The Ichiokas made a decision when they got married 20 years ago not to have a TV in their home.

"It was almost like a marriage vow," says Marilyn, a teacher and child-care worker.

"It was partly snobbishness," recalls Victor, an artist. "We were vegetarians, holier-than-thou, back-to-the-earth."

But when their kids came along it was a decision they never regretted, even as their son and daughter complained and well-meaning relatives tried to give them televisions. Instead, the family read together -- hundreds of books. Victor says that to have a TV and then try to control it would be setting up a "police state" in the house.

Marilyn admits, however, not having an electronic baby sitter leaves her "more harried than other women I know." At a friend's house recently, other mothers praised her for her fortitude. But, she says, "I realized we could only have the conversation about not watching TV because the kids were in the other room watching TV."

Sarah Ichioka, 13, used to mind not having a TV when she was younger. "It's not exactly normal," she says.

Her parents told her that it ruined minds. "I guess it's kind of true," she tentatively agrees.

Those most closely involved with the institutions that depend on the print medium, such as educators and writers, are TV's most vehement critics, says Neil Postman, author of "Amusing Ourselves to Death."

But what's wrong with amusing ourselves to death? Better we should suffer?

What's wrong, says Postman, is "you get a president who is a movie actor and another president who runs an election campaign of 30-second commercials."

It is worth noting that many of the books attacking the power of television have been written in the Reagan era. The same arguments used to decry the power of television to elect President Reagan were once used to salute the power of television to elect John F. Kennedy.

In 1964, when McLuhan gave us his sound bites on television ("the medium is the message" and "the global village"), television was the hero credited with saving us from Richard Nixon.

Its power was recognized not only in the way it undid Nixon but in the part it played in our experience of the assassination and mourning of Kennedy.

Ian Mitroff, co-author of "The Unreality Industry," argues that television has damaged our brains in two ways. One is by electronically manufacturing reality so that we cannot distinguish it from the unreal. The second is by making these distortions so entertaining we no longer even care what is real and what isn't.

The most recent Nation's Report Card, an annual study released last month, surveyed TV viewing by children ages 9, 13 and 17 and found a majority of youngsters reported watching more television in 1990 than in 1982. Achievement levels tended to fall as viewing rose.

But according to George Gerbner, professor at the Annenberg School of Communications at the University of Pennsylvania, children "start watching around 4 months and by 9 months are regular viewers. For the first time, by the time a child is able to speak he has seen thousands of stories not of his parents' choosing."

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