At this point, there is no real denying the pervasive presence of television and media in American life. It’s in our televisions, on our web pages, mixed up with out music, displayed on the fancy electronic Chapman billboard (a night with David Sedaris!), affixed to our windshields, and even stuffed under our dorm room doors. Some people have recognized this as a problem. These are self-taught experts like Marie Winn, author of The Plug-In Drug and passionate crusaders like Jerry Mander, Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television. These authorities agree on the many troubles that television brings and produces, but they present wildly different solutions to the dilemma.
Television is a crutch. It might have started out as something shiny and moving and pretty––a novelty––but now it’s a crutch. Parents use television (almost) shamelessly for respite from rambunctious four year olds. How can parents be entirely blamed, though, when there has always been the imperative of choosing the easiest course? Before television there were naps, and before naps there was the kid-tested, mother-approved opium for tots (Winn 130). Someone has to be blamed, though, when the three year olds’ natural imperative is to play and he somehow ends up in front of television for three hours before dinner. Child TV watching began as a parent-phenomenon, a babysitting device (Winn 15). However, as it grew, it became a phenomenon of its own right.
Parents put kids in front of the television for some quiet time (never mind the incessant TV noises from the other room, at least it’s not a kid screaming), and they feel a whole lot better doing it when they know their children will be learning something. Unfortunately, research shows that “in repeated instances, the child was watching with rapt attention but with limited understanding” (Winn 65). When the children are not absorbing any intellectual content, they are probably only absorbing the light stimuli of the screen. This is called habituating. When this happens, the brain literally stops absorbing and processing information (Mander 206), almost like a “shutdown mechanism” (Winn 18). Even if the children aren’t learning, per se, TV still fills up lots of time. It’s gotten to the point that some kids literally don’t know what to do with themselves when they’re not watching TV. Families who participated in Winn’s TV Turn Off initially observed that the children sort of “hung around and didn’t know what to do with themselves” (Winn 258). It might have begun as a simple parenting device, but it has turned into a most-necessary “Third Parent” (McGrane, Gunderson 2).
Television has taken over as a sensory substitute. When a human being watches a beautiful scene on a sandy beach with undulating palms, balmy breezes, and aquamarine waters, there develops a disconnect between the human and his senses. He believes that he has become familiar with the tropics when he hasn’t. “Knowledge results from personal experience and direct observation––seeing, hearing, touching, tasting, smelling” (Mander 79). After the penetrating “beauty” (Winn 28) of a HD picture, seeing is no longer believing (54).
This strange progression of human existence does not come without consequences. Primarily, there is lack of “play”––the child’s evolutionary imperative (Mander 248). Through play, a child learns social interaction, coordination, what is safe and what is not, and other natural survival instincts. Introducing an “activity” (my quotations) as passive as watching television greatly endangers this already dwindling instinct by what Winn likes to call “Gresham’s Law of Child Activity” (134). Like so many things in nature, a child will take the path of least resistance. When given the option of climbing a tree or watching a show in which some kids get to play and do some cool things in a tree house, he will (probably) chose the show. It’s the path of least resistance. This is just one of the social development issues. Putman, quoted by Winn, put a very lengthy subject succinctly saying, “More television watching means less of virtually every form of civic participation and social involvement” (204). The ramifications are nearly unfathomable. The nuclear family has observed quite a change over the past fifty years, and might this not be caused by the intrusion of television as a wedge between members to cleave them apart? In 1949 it was said that “TV has brought the family together in one room” (Winn 152). Now the family is described as “splintering” (153). When each member of the family has his or her own television set (probably) in his or her own room, there is no way that this cannot be, indeed, splintering the modern family.
However, the social consequences are not among the least. To go with them, there are the equally alarming physical and developmental issues that arise with watching too much television. Once television was recognized as a “potential pathogen” (Winn 42) in the many mysterious maladies of children of the modern world, an entire Pandora’s Box of questions was opened. So far, we have only found frightening answers. There are many neurological systems that develop primarily in the first stages of life after birth. This was observed in a litter of kittens––half of whose eyes were artificially shut for one month. The kittens whose vision had been blackened experienced severely underdeveloped eyesight that did not improve with exposure, while the kittens whose eyes opened after the first few days experienced normal kitten eyesight (Winn 79). That example along with proof of malillumination causes me great alarm. Mander cites an experiment that used fluorescent light on a plant whose roots proceeded to grow up out of the soil. Presumably, the bloom attempted to grow under the soil. To think that these are the same frequencies to which we submit in front of a glowing television set is unsettling, to say the least. Obesity and the onset of diabetes is a fact that neither expert could ignore. I was reminded strongly of the Saturday Morning Ghetto when I read about the commercials promoting “candy, junk food, and video games” (Winn 116). When Coco Puffs are “part of a great breakfast,” it’s no surprise that our country is dealing with these health issues.
Aggression and hyperactivity are issues neither solely social nor physiological, but they are issues that are unavoidable nonetheless. There are a few schools of thought on the matter, but it seems that it is most probably a combination of all of these negative influences on a child’s young and malleable body and personality. The lack of play again appears in both authors’ research as a) loss of opportunity to develop workable social skills, and b) as loss of an outlet for aggressive energy. One possible source of this aggressive energy is the television “screen time” (Winn 197) itself. The flickering of the light-stimuli “actives the child at the same time that it cuts the child off from …resolution” (Mander 168) leaving the child antsy, aggressive, and desperate for an outlet.
As in the case of aggression, television itself––not the star, not the show, not the language, not the rating––the machine of television and the “screen time” experienced produce an altered state of mind. The television is interpreted as a smooth and seamless picture on the surface of the screen, but the picture is actually thousands of little lights all flashing in only three colors cast directly into the human eye too quickly to properly sense and process. The effects of being subjected to this type of technology have been described many different ways.
Two very common ways of referring to our relationship with television are in terms of drugs/addiction and hypnosis. Like a drug, television allows the passive observer to tune out the rest of the world and enter a pleasurable state (Winn 32). Mander compiled a list of drug language descriptions of voluntary TV watching that included “television spaces me out” and “television is turning my mind to mush” (158). If the television watching experience can be like a trip, it follows that it can become like any other drug addition, a pleasure, a high, an escape from reality (Winn 25). Hypnosis is another popular context in which to relate to television. If one decides to watch television, “then there’s no choice but to accept the stream of electronic images as it comes” (Mander 200) or as McGrane and Gunderson put it in Watching TV is Not Required, watching television precludes thinking about television. Without our wonderful ability to think, to process, to cogito-ergo-sum, what are we?
Mental illness is another increasingly common (and alarming) way in which we have begun to describe our relationship to television. Many schizophrenics have described a “machine” that torments them. One woman experienced a “tell-o-vision,” a “machine of infinite power which inexorably demands that ego-alien material be told though it” (Mander 109). At least we don’t have anything like that. The fact that schizophrenics would come to this conclusion, though, is not altogether surprising. The human imperative is that “Seeing is believing” (Mander 246), but what we have acquired is a “doubting process, a sensory cynicism that would have been profoundly inappropriate, even dangerous for all previous human history” (Mander 247-8). It’s not entirely our fault that we’ve had to fabricate this mechanism, either. How else is the viewer supposed to deal with suspension of belief? The images we see are not good, bad, correct or incorrect, “they just are. There’s nothing to disagree with” (Mander 259). Mander best tried to describe it to his child in the terms that when he sees someone do something on television, yes, it’s “real,” but it’s only “made-up real” (252). Another mental illness note I picked up was the language of eating disorders, the self-destructive desires and compulsions of a sufferer. For one, TV was a “binge” that “gave no real pleasure” and was instead “very frustrating” (42). Another man would meticulously plan his evening of television and had to follow the plan to the letter. He would feel “terribly angry at [himself] for wasting all that time watching junk,” but he had a feeling that he “had” to watch (42-3). To me this very much sounds like a bulimic planning a binge and hating his- or herself for it, but being powerless to control the compulsion. It’s frightening to think of television in these stark terms and comparisons.
Regardless, whether it is or is not addition, hypnosis, or a mental illness, it is undoubtedly some sort of altered state. A natural survival instinct called the “Shutdown Mechanism” (Winn 18) was observed in infants placed in front of a flashing light (and what is television but this?). Initially, the flashing light was stimulating, if not alarming, but after time, their little bodies began to protect themselves by going into a different state of consciousness––a state closer to the surface than sleep but deeper than casual repose. They experienced a general decrease in the metabolic rate and other bodily functions. Winn also noted a similar study where, over time, a group of children became less stimulated by violent content. Furthermore, almost all parents noticed a sharp increase in aggression or crankiness in their children immediately after watching television described as an “inability to control themselves” and not knowing what to do with themselves (Winn 22). Generally speaking, cantankerous behavior in children is an indication of something being wrong, especially before they are fully developed verbally. It can mean anything from a dirty diaper to hunger to major illness (Winn 23). It can also be a symptom of what is known as Re-entry Syndrome: the body protecting itself when shifting from one state of consciousness to another, just like all those morning people. The question remains, though, if it’s another state of consciousness, just what state would that be?
This cranky behavior post-television reminds me of Vashti in E. M. Forester’s The Machine Stops. As soon as she’s outside of her cell (in the air ship, for example), she becomes prickly and easily offended––in fact, they all do. The stewardess at one point is given a severe verbal reprimand for touching a passenger––to keep him from falling. These people are so unsettled by the lack of “machine” that they lash out even when it doesn’t make sense. There might also be an interesting connection to the breach the educational television creates. Vashti, being an educated woman, knows many things––even about the surface of the earth––but when she is in the air ship and can see it for herself, her main observation was that being outside of The Machine had “greatly retarded the development of [her] soul” (Forester 10).
Up until this point, Mander and Winn have agreed on all of the problems that television presents. Where they differ greatly is in suggested solutions. Mander’s view is that television is fundamentally flawed. Television itself “actually accelerates the problem” (Mander 51), and “the bias is inherent in the technology” (261). It’s all a “conspiracy of technological and economic factors that make this inevitable and continue to” (113). We’re in a prime state to be preconditioned as a society to accept autocratic rule. While his research and logic on the matter are sound with the in depth studies of hypnotism, cult patterns, and the success of subliminal messaging in advertising, he only ends up sounding like an alarmist. Personally, I don’t think they’re trying to take over, but then again, maybe that’s what they want me to think.
Regardless, the total elimination of television, even partial elimination, is simply not possible at this point. Maybe forty years ago, but no longer. Winn has a much more workable approach to a solution. She insists that if one will watch television, it is a “matter of balance” (184) that, in the matter of children, is left up to the responsible parent (177). She proceeds to lay out various options from a well-defined set of rules a parent could employ to a list of encouragement for cowed parents all the way to the option of having a TV-free house because there’s no such thing at a TV-free life. Even the Amish end up on television, right?
I prefer Winn’s approach because for a concerned parent or even a college freshman who plans on someday having a family, it’s far more practical and therefore useful than Mander’s solution of absolutes. It seems that Winn is more in touch with the society outside of her door and perhaps even the society inside of her television set. Mander gives the impression of having been wrapped up in his own crusade (meritorious though it is) for so long that he has lost the real, workable, and ultimate goal of un-hooking America from The Tube.
Forester, E. M. “The Machine Stops.” Son of Fred. Ed. Bernard McGrane. N.p.: n.p., n.d. 4-19. Print.
Mander, Jerry. Four Arguments or the Elimination of Television. New York: Perennial, 1978. Print.
McGrane, Bernard, and John Gunderson. Watching TV Is Not Required. New York: Routledge, 2010. Print.
Winn, Marie. The Plug-In Drug. New York: Penguin Books, 1977. Print.
Major: Psychology. Minor: Religious Studies.