It's not what's on TV, it's TV itself

Too much television time creates children uninterested in self-restraint or empathy

by David Kopel

March 27, 2004

Last week, my counterpart Michael Tracey wrote an open letter to Denver's television stations, asking them to drastically restrict advertising before 9 p.m., to avoid the risk that children might see commercials for "foodstuffs the consumption of which would tend to create poor physical specimens" or "products that are characterized by violent acts."

Tracey does have a point, sort of. But Tracey's combination of neo-Puritanism and anti-capitalism goes way too far, and misses the larger point. Cheetos, Doublestuff Oreos, McDonald's french fries, and all the other foods that are abhorred by the food nannies are not necessarily unhealthy - as long as they're consumed in moderation.

Tracey notes that advertising might "unintentionally nurture positive attitudes toward drinking in children as young as 9." That's great news, because drinking alcohol, in moderation, is very good for one's health. That 9-year-olds might develop "positive attitudes" toward drinking doesn't mean they will start drinking at age 10. Automobile advertisements nurture positive attitudes toward driving, and even though children should not drive, it's a good idea to nurture positive attitudes toward responsible elements of adult behavior.

As for banning "advertisements for products that are characterized by violent acts," that means we'll get rid of ads for G.I. Joe, The Lord of the Rings,Harry Potter, Hansel and Gretel (children kill a cannibal witch), football, books and movies about the Civil War, and the American flag (the red in the flag symbolizes blood). As some of these examples show, violence can be socially positive, and it would be harmful for our society to fail to nurture positive attitudes toward responsible violence - such as violence in defense of freedom.

Rather than complaining about television advertising, we ought to focus on the fundamental problem of television, which is television itself. English professor Barry Sanders, in his book A is for Ox: Violence, Electronic Media, and the Silencing of the Written Word,argues that a sense of the self, the ability to use abstract categories, and many other cognitive abilities are dependent on literacy. If children live in what Sanders calls an "orality" environment where parents tell stories and engage in constant dialogue, then children are eager to master written language. Deprived of orality, children perceive writing as a hostile set of rules to resist and never master. Sanders identifies a number of reasons for the decline of orality (and hence of literacy).

At the center of Sanders' indictment is electronic entertainment. Although television surrounds children with words, it is a one-way medium that encourages passivity and retards the development of language skills. Television promotes instant gratification and does not allow children a second of boredom. Because boredom is the garden from which creativity grows, subliterate television-oriented children become present-oriented, uninterested in self-restraint, and less capable of human empathy.

John Taylor Gatto, an award- winning teacher in New York, writes, "I soon discovered I could tell which kids were heavy TV watchers. They showed signs of being radically incomplete as human beings, as if their growth had been artificially retarded. TV-addicted kids were irresponsible and needed constant admonition and policing. They were malicious to each other and sunk in chronic boredom much of the time.

"Above all they lacked any sustaining purpose. It was as if they consumed too many of other people's stories to write their own stories. . . ."

As movie critic Michael Medved notes, "The biggest problem is not the low quality of TV, though most TV is of low quality. No, the worst problem is the high quantity of TV. The average American now watches four hours a day - 28 hours a week. You could make every show pass a strict virtue test and that would improve some things, but the real problem would still be there, particularly for our children: TV would still be taking them away from reading, away from exercise, away from the world, away from the community, away from life."

In short, complaining about the content of advertising on television is like telling a guy who weighs 450 pounds and who eats 9,000 calories a day he better start worrying about the pesticide residues in his hamburger catsup.

Although there is nothing unhealthy about moderate consumption of television, tobacco, Oreos, or beer, four hours a day of television is more destructive than a pack a day of unfiltered Camels. Tobacco addicts, on the average, die about three to six years sooner than they otherwise would. Television addiction directly wastes about 10 years of one's life, plus the health damage from the higher risk of obesity.

If a family cuts back on television, studies show that the parents and children will spend much more time talking together. Eliminating television at least one night a week means more time for family games, reading, exercising and hundreds of other "reality" activities. In short, one of the very best ways to use a firearm to protect your family may be to shoot your television.


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