If Philo T. Farnsworth, the developer of electronic television, turned up alive today, he might be surprised by the change in tone of TV's detractors. Today's critics have been weaned on television, making them slightly more sympathetic than their predecessors. Their opinions have been dissolved in sentiment, and the use of VCRs and DVDs in recent years has made it unnecessary for them to fire the full round of their critical ammunition at on-air programming. No one really bothers calling television the "boob tube" or "idiot box" anymore, especially with video games to kick around. As one media option of many, TV no longer seems to take all the lumps. Seems is the telling word. The definition of television has changed in some circles. At the nonprofit TV Turnoff Network, "TV" has become a catchall phrase for all forms of screen media, including computers, videotape, DVD, and video games. (A fact that probably would have dismayed Farnsworth, who wasn't exactly keen to begin with about the use of his own invention). We can control what our kids watch, listen to, or play on the computer, and we can blame ourselves for the consequences since we're the ones with the ultimate authority over the stop-and-play buttons. We know the basic do's and don'ts — not to put a television or video game player in a child's bedroom, not to allow television to play babysitter — and we'll still find it in our consciences to prohibit certain extreme examples of computer games, music and other media. But it's not always possible, or even desirable, to stick to the rules 100 percent. Research studies are immensely valuable, but numbers alone don't tell complete stories. In statistical studies, human voices are silent, but when they're finally heard, they simultaneously support, refute and challenge the numbers. There are no definitive answers, just endless approaches.
Study: 45 percent of parents admit using TV as a babysitter Time is the essential ingredient in media usage, especially when kids are involved, and researchers love time because it's easily measurable. Released just this past fall, Zero to Six: Electronic Media in the Lives of Infants, Toddlers and Preschoolers is full of statistics relating to time: the percentage out of the day children spend in front of the TV watching either on-air programming, videos or DVDs; the time spent playing computer games; the amount of time per day a TV is left on in the home. Plenty of numbers, accumulated nationally from more than 1,000 sources through a random-digit dial telephone survey. The study isn't comprehensive and doesn't purport to be; in fact, its developers have termed it baseline data to be used to inform the direction of future studies. The subtle message behind Zero to Six (considered to be the only large-scale national study on the subject) harks back to the idea of TV — and by extension, videotape and DVD — as "electronic babysitter". One statistic in particular bears it out: just under half (45 percent) of all parents questioned admitted to using TV as a means of occupying their children when they have something they need to get done. "We love TV," says 43-year-old Long Island City parent Mary Bogle, in reference to herself and her husband Rich. The statement could also easily apply to their 2 1/2-year-old son Owen, who, Bogle says, "would have the TV on all day long if I'd let him." The Bogles also have a 7-year-old son, Jack. Owen's media habits lean toward videotapes such as "Sesame Street" and "Thomas the Tank Engine". At 7, Jack watches an hour of TV a day after school. Bogle admits using television as a babysitter "when I need time to get things done," and also as a peacekeeper for play dates that go bad. "There's no TV during a play date, unless there's a major fight," she reports. "But I'd use it if I thought that the kids were out of control and couldn't be calmed down." Bogle's approach seems to represent the standard for 21st century parenting. There are minor refinements, depending on outlook and style: Manhattan resident Valerie Caliendo says she "definitely" uses TV for the occasional task of babysitting her 4 1/2-year-old son Gillen, who she describes as being at the point where he basically makes his decisions about what he wants to do — sometimes with a little nudging. "If I suggest that maybe he play with his toy train, he might do that," she explains. "If he's already watched his hour of TV, he might get antsy. So I can't always use it as a distraction." Caliendo's 10-month-old daughter Rebecca has not yet seen any television. "It's not because we don't think she should; we're just following the way Gillen was," Caliendo states. "He didn't become interested in TV until after a year." Rebecca, she says, "plays with her things and follows Gillen around — that's her entertainment." Brooklyn mom Melissa Hart, a grade school teacher who has worked previously at P.S. 372/The Children's School and at public schools in Manhattan, avoided introducing her son Jacob to any TV imagery until the age of 3, one year beyond the recommendation of the American Academy of Pediatrics. (Isaac, Jacob's 14-month-old brother, is more music-oriented, participating in Music Together classes and playing his toy instruments at home). Now 6, Jacob watches a family-themed movie every Friday night with his parents and "a few shows" on Saturday mornings before his parents wake up. "I was always wary of introducing something that was passive, that would replace time spent with another activity," Hart comments. Hart, who was raised almost exclusively on PBS programming, says that she would be more likely to use videotape or DVD as a babysitter rather than on-air programming, but adds, "I'm leery of relying on TV as a babysitter; as a teacher I've seen too many kids with that zoned-out frame of mind."
Is it 'how much' or 'what kind' of TV that matters? Like many similar studies, Zero to Six doesn't distinguish between the kinds of programs kids are watching. Frank Vespe, executive director of TV Turnoff Network, shares the researchers' opinion that time spent watching is ultimately of more significance than what's being watched; that more than an hour a day of television has negative consequences on schoolwork, takes away from parent/child bonding time, and contributes to physical health issues like obesity. Above all, he believes, it displaces the experience of living. "For years, the amount of time kids spent just watching television was overlooked," he says. "Everyone's been looking at the trees and missing the forest. The average schoolchild spends more time in front of the TV than they do in the classroom. No matter how good the programming, kids should be out living their own lives and not just watching other people live. People have been commenting about the junk on television for 50 years, but we should go beyond the content argument and look at our lives and what we're doing with them. These studies are about how TV has intruded itself into our lives in ways that are entirely unhealthy." How unhealthy? In terms of educational benefit, the study makes at least one form of screen media seem almost robust. Of the parents queried, 72 percent believe that computers are mostly helpful to young learners. (Television earned a 43 percent thumbs-up in that department, perhaps not a terrible percentage for such a traditionally maligned medium. Video games received approval from 40 percent of the same group). Neither Bogle, Caliendo nor Hart allow their children to keep televisions or game players in their bedrooms — a big no-no as far as many parenting experts are concerned. (Hart's son Jacob has an audio tape player in his bedroom to listen to books on tape). The study reveals that one-third of all children 6 and under has a TV in their bedroom, one in four have their own VCR or DVD player, and one in 10 have their own video game console. Such accessibility, combined with a child's ability to operate their remote control (or "clicker") and a joystick, increases their daily exposure to television by 14 minutes, and video game playing time by 15 minutes. Among their older children, Bogle, Caliendo and Hart report dexterity with both the TV remote and mouse. Bogle adds that even her 2 1/2- year-old is now working the remote.
What about computers and video games for small tykes? Computers are a different matter. Deemed smarter than either television or video games, Bogle, Caliendo and Hart have — so far — prohibited the technology from entering their children's bedrooms. Although their children cannot yet surf the Web, educational software has been used, and simple games like pinball have been played. Hart's Jacob, for example, shows a preference for an animal quiz game; while Caliendo's Gillen plays interactive games on the Thomas the Tank Engine website, which he reaches with the help of his parents. As Caliendo says, "We're always around when he's doing these things." The Bogles, who have recently moved, currently have their computer disconnected. Bogle, Caliendo and Hart have also refrained from using the myriad technologies now available that make the monitoring of TV, video game and computer use as easy as finding a wall outlet. (Electronic devices, like the new "Time Scout", police their fellow electronic gizmos simply by plugging into an outlet). Hart, for one, is confident that stations like Noggin, PBS and Disney are keeping her 6-year-old on top of things in the right way, and that the "general, but not rigid" household media structure, combined with Jacob's own interest in art activities, are serving him well enough to keep him from being too intensely monitored. "If he sees an art activity on TV, he's likely to turn it off and go try it himself," she says. Bogle describes her 7-year-old as "very good about TV," and doesn't seem particularly concerned about 2 1/2-year-old Owen's constant fascination with it. "At 2 1/2, Jack was similar to the way Owen is now," she explains calmly. Caliendo sits with her 4 1/2-year-old on those occasions when he's examining a new program for the first time. But her greater concern is with video games, with which the boy is fascinated. "He loves them, but we don't have them at home," she says. "He plays them at other people's homes or on trips when we're staying at a hotel somewhere. But the way he plays them, if we had a game player at home, he'd be at it all the time. I don't know if it would be worse if he did that or sat and watched TV all day — at least with a video game he's strategizing." Despite the strategizing, video games — depicting everything from pro football to outright murder — are blurring the line between reality and fantasy for young people in ways that television and movies never did. As Jonathan Dee gleaned from Atari's French C.E.O. Bruno Bonnell in the December 21 issue of The New York Times Magazine, video games qualify as personal expression only if "the game's creators dictate that there are some places, morally speaking, where one is not allowed to go." U.S. lags behind in launching media literacy programs "Kids are continually being encouraged into going into somebody else's imagination, not their own; the loss of space to create your own imaginary world is a troubling thing," Vespe warns. "Kids come to understand things and have empathy through imaginative play. I think this is a critical point: most children adopt their parents’ TV habits." They're adopting more than just that. According to the study, parents acknowledged that their children's imitative behavior from television is largely positive. The study does not address whether that imitation stems from the programming itself or advertising — a distinction that, in the end, may not matter. "Kids — little kids especially — can't tell the difference between advertising and TV programs," says Jean Kilbourne, visiting research scholar at the Wellesley Center for Women at Wellesley College and author of the book Can't Buy My Love. An avowed enemy of electronic and print advertising, she stresses that, along with exposing young people to "junk toys, junk foods, and later, alcohol and tobacco," advertising creates cynics. "By 8 or 9 they know it's hype, and then they expect everything to be junk. It makes them cynical about life. If it made them more critical, then it would be a good thing. It doesn't do that." In this area, media literacy courses may help — or may not, at least not as much as some might think. "Some programs are great, some are junk," Vespe says. Some, he claims, are financed by the television industry itself. "They'll say, 'Watch all you want, but be aware of advertising.' That doesn't particularly mean progress. It certainly doesn't teach them how to read or function in relationships." Kilbourne is encouraged about the positive potential of media literacy study. She notes that media literacy programs are alive and well in Canada, Australia, and throughout the United Kingdom, but as she points out in her book, the United States "is one of the few developed nations in the world" that has not yet addressed the subject formally and seriously. (The American Academy of Pediatrics, however, offers some valuable thoughts on the subject. Enter the keyword "Media Matters" on the Academy's homepage at www.aap.org). So — abstinence, monitored usage, media literacy lessons or 16-hour babysitter? The idea that shielding children day and night from electronic media may be just as damaging, socially, as overexposing them to it, is an idea that Vespe puts down without reservation: "Talking about TV is the modern equivalent of talking about the weather." As for Hart, her schoolteacher self sees some value in her son's electronic media life. "People worry about repetition with electronic media, but it can be a very positive thing," she says. "There are certain videos and books on tape that Jacob has watched and listened to over and over again, and each time he experiences something new. I don't worry about it."