A few weeks ago Mrs. Sleeth and I were traveling, and on Saturday evening we lodged overnight in St. Johnsbury, Vermont. The hotel served a complimentary breakfast the following morning. While enjoying toast and orange slices, I looked over at my fellow travelers.
Twenty-five or so adults were present, plus some energetic children (dressed for church but anxious to play). The adults mostly were quiet. Nestled in a granite-topped cabinet, a meter long television was tuned to country music videos. The volume was audible but certainly not loud. I watched the diners and found that they were not paying the TV much attention, although I did notice that during commercials (when the volume increases) diners would glance up and “tune into” the television for short periods of time.
When I was certain that no one was watching, I got up and turned the television off. Having done this before in settings such as auto shop waiting rooms and airport lounges, I sat back to watch the response. Just as I expected, people started talking! Their faces became animated, and a happy calm spread throughout the room. Even though they previously may have appeared to be oblivious to the TV’s presence, the television held sway over the crowd, even if they believed they had “tuned it out.”
How is this possible and how did it come to be? Since TV Turn-off Week was approaching and my wife is a teacher, and we have two children, I decided to do some research.
Television is new, very new. At the end of the World War II there were fewer television sets in America than currently exist on the Boothbay peninsula (less than 7000). Just 50 years later, over 98% of American homes have a TV and over 40 percent own three or more televisions. When surveyed, about one half of Americans report: they watch too much TV, they eat dinner in front of it, they regularly fall asleep with it on, and they have purchased one for their first grader’s bedroom. Is it any wonder that over half of these first graders, when surveyed, said they would rather spend their time watching TV than being with their mom or dad?
Television exists so that advertisers have a place to sell their wares. The average 70-year-old has watched well over 2 million TV commercials. They have lived 10 years of their life watching television—a decade! And although a U.S. child has about 5 minutes of conversation with their parents each day, they will spend over 240 minutes with the television. American youth invest 900 hours a year in school and 1023 watching TV. Suffice it to say that the major influence, educator, goal setter, and role model in our children’s lives are television shows and the commercials that sponsor them. If you believe that PBS is different or “commercial free” ask an 11 year old (i.e., my daughter Emma): Who advertises on PBS? When I asked, she rattled off: Lego, Spaghetti O’s, Kix cereal, Chuck E Cheese, and Juicy Juice …to start with.
Despite growing evidence and even warnings by organizations such as the American
Academy of Pediatrics (which recommends no TV before age 2), access to and time spent watching television continues to increase. The weight of evidence is similar to that which was known, but ignored, regarding the risks of cigarettes in the 70’s and 80’s. Television viewing has been linked to depression, attention deficit disorder, poor school performance, obesity, diabetes, and increased feelings of isolation and vulnerability. Even 8 out of 10 Hollywood executives believe that television promotes violent actions in its viewers. We teach our children not to take candy or accept rides from strangers, yet we entrust their very souls to anonymous advertisers and producers in Hollywood and Madison Avenue.
I am not proposing any new laws, legislation, or censoring software. I am advocating that parents sit down and take a serious look at the advertising (over 1/3 of TV time). Talk with your kids about what is promised in ads vs. reality. When a SUV ad shows families charging up the side of snow covered mountains, remind them that these vehicles are not trailblazers or pathfinders or explorers but rather mall finders and traffic sitters. When an ad shows “cool kids” staying “connected” via cell phones and the models are splashing water and doing somersaults while giggling with a phone to their ear, invite your children to spend an hour observing shoppers in Freeport talking on cell phones. For every one seen smiling, 20 will have an anxious or blank expression. In other words, take an active role in teaching your children to discern truth and to develop critical thinking skills.
The bottom line: If you want to add 10 years to your child’s life, simply don’t let them watch television. They will have 10 years freed up to experience life, not just watch it happening to someone else. Ask a 70 year old friend or family member if they would rather have the memories of their decade of watching TV and commercials…or if they would rather have those 10 years to do something else, with the wisdom of their age. Remember, it doesn’t take an act of Congress to sell your TV at the next yard sale! You might even find, as my fellow hotel diners did, that what you will have is the time and quiet to talk or read or meditate or pray.