THE TELEVISION DISEASE
This article first appeared in the Daily Telegraph on Monday, May 21, 1979. Whilst its content, not specifically Christian, is somewhat unusual for this magazine, its warnings are surely those that believing parents should take to heart and most carefully consider. Paul gives wise counsel in regard to all our activities, hobbies and interests when he says “Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things. Phil. 4.8.
In America there are clinics wholly engaged in helping children to come off TV. In Munich the Never Again TV Club is growing. A remarkable piece of research called “Four Arguments for the Elimination of TV,” by Jerry Mander, former owner of a successful advertising agency, has become a best-seller in the United States.
And now, in England, the TV Action Group has been formed to advise parents of the dangers of television to children.
The Action Group is, of course, on slippery ground. Few appreciate the suggestion that they are not doing the best for their children, and not many would relish taking too close a look at their family life as shared with the beaming cuckoo in the living room.
Arguments for and against sex and violence on television have been bandied about for years now. Yet, while we continue to justify our letting little Johnny stay up to catch just one more gunfight, the most far-reaching observations of the effects of television make it quite clear that it is not the content at all that constitutes the essential danger, but the very nature of the medium itself. The nature of the medium presses the watcher into a passive state so that he becomes the mere receiver of a one-way transaction.
Now, in the United States pre-school children watch up to 54 hours weekly. In Germany 80 per cent of children’s replies to a questionnaire said that their favourite hobby was watching TV. In 1978 the Pye Report showed that English schoolchildren watch TV for an average of three hours daily.
A human being starts life as a helpless being at the breast; within a year or two he is using his will more and more actively to engage in his environment and discover his capacities. In front of a television set a child regresses to the passive state of an infant, and forgoes all mental and emotional growth through personal experience. He has his emotions orchestrated for him, so he need not even feel fear or excitement at the appropriate moment.
A child learns through imitation; but for as many hours as he watches TV his imitative faculty has no contact with real human situations. It would be hardly surprising, then, if without this personal experience he were less able to judge the feelings and problems of others in real life.
Moreover, the whole family will commonly watch TV together, so that once-natural family activities like conversation, telling stories, sharing joys and troubles, or playing an instrument just wither in the grip of its tyranny.
The Association of Assistant Schoolmistresses has recently published a leaflet saying that the common nursery rhyme, which they consider a fundamental part of a child’s learning process, is in danger of becoming extinct: TV advertising jingles seem to be replacing them! The TV Action Group has had hundreds of letters both describing how the introduction of TV has ruined a previously happy home, and how life has started up again in families that have taken the decision to give it up.
The image-making capacity of our imagination is as far as we know unique to man. Out of it have come the riches of the world’s mythology, stories, fairy tales and art. It is developed by the experience of all we see, hear, listen to in real life, and by all we read too, as every individual draws his own particular vision from a few lines in the same book. A child in front of a TV has his images made for him. His subsequent real-life activities will stir memories and pictures, not of his previous life experience, but of his TV viewing. One shudders at the prospect that future art forms hold out.
Most people will say they watch TV to relax. As for children, parents say it calms them down after school or before bedtime. Yet research surveys show that while children are indeed passive enough while watching TV they are afterwards irritable, nervous
and anxious. The Pye Report states that one in three schoolchildren dream about late-night programmes.
TV has an effect similar to drugs like valium, which dull the organism without doing anything to come to terms with the real cause of the suffering. For millions, TV has become a serious addiction problem: how often the remark, “What a load of rubbish that was” comes at the end of a programme.
Others find the apparent educational value of TV unquestionable. It gives us “the world and all that is in it.” Yet the main prerequisites of any programme are that, by any technical or emotional trick whatever, it must hold the attention of the viewer;
and that it must fit into a very tight programming schedule. Thus any subject will appear cut-and-dried, foisting on the viewer a simplistic analysis and standardisation of thinking.
As for schools, the TV Action Group is convinced that it is the teacher who should teach rather than any machine. It is through human contact that a child’s gifts are brought out; and this, the drawing out of latent potential, is the true meaning of the word education, and not the mere accumulation of data. Television is not even conducive to gathering facts, because of its inherent denial of the use of the will. It has been called the “Look and Forget Medium.” Even the facts children do remember are about as useful in human situations as advertising jingles are in conversation.
The most recent research into the much praised “Sesame Street,” which hoped to bridge the gap in the language development between children from middle-class background and those with less opportunities for verbal exchange, shows that the gap seems to have widened. Dr H. Fill, New York City’s former Commissioner for Mental Health, said of “Sesame Street”: “Small children are being bombarded, whipped and hit between the eyes by oversized letters and figures that rush at them screechingly. This rape of their trusting minds wounds children deeply without their even knowing. They may remember these signs, as they do other TV horrors, but their love for reading is ruined.”
A medium full of such inherent weaknesses is surely beyond reform. But are not the unconscious cravings, and fears, that are cast across the screen our very own? Is it not our own abstract dehumanised processes that the tube filters back to our hypnotised minds? The root of the problem is that we have not grown enough in inner stature to be able to assume proper responsibility for our inventions.