August 20, 1999


COMMENTARY

Should Kids Be Kept Away From TV? Three Young People Weigh In

EDITOR'S NOTE; A report recently issued by the American Pediatrics Assn. recommends keeping children away from the television set. We asked three young writers for YO! Youth Outlook what role television played in their childhoods, and got three distinct answers suggesting the problem may be more complex than it first appears to be.

 

TELEVISION — A NUMBING DISTRACTION

By Kate Baggot

(Kate Baggot, 17, dropped out of school at 15 and lives on her own in Oakland, Ca.)

TV reminds me of microwave dinners and my father passed out in his reclining chair with a cigar hanging out the side of his mouth. Memories of children's television and Saturday morning cartoons leave me with a strange empty feeling in my stomach. I watched TV alone most of the time, when there was nobody around.

I don't watch much television anymore. I decided a couple years ago that I could be doing more productive things in my spare time than sitting in front of a box zoning out on the screen. It made me depressed and lazy.

ABC television recently launched an advertising campaign urging viewers to tune in with statements such as " don't worry, you've got billions of brain cells" and, " eight hours a day, that's all we ask." This was supposed to be a form of dark humor, but I did not find it very amusing. I live with people who spend all day, every day, shoveling powder up their noses and staring at the boob tube. I know kids who can't sleep without the television on. It is impossible to ever reach the deepest level of sleep (where we get most of our actual rest) with white noise in the background.

At one time, I couldn't sleep without sound in the background. I eventually weaned myself off it when I figured out that in the silence I thought too much, worried too much about life, and my problems seemed to overwhelm me. TV was a distraction, it numbed my mind — like drugs, the Internet, video games, and any number of other devices we've invented so we could stop thinking, or feeling, or acting. Why do anything about the decline of western civilization when you can watch it, safely, from a distance, from your living room, on the 10 o'clock news?

I grew up around disempowered, disillusioned, tired people. Sometimes, I would confront my parents or their friends about why they talked so much and never did anything. They could never answer me except to say that the reality was that they, themselves, could never change anything. I think most of us believe that, as individuals, we have no voice, no pull. Either people don't know how to organize or they just don't have the motivation. I hear people insisting that they are too busy — the same people who watch six hours of television every night. This is their time to unwind, relax, and forget. Not to take on the world.

Television does not promote violence, it reflects a violent culture. Pointless sit-coms like "Friends" or "Melrose Place" are shallow on purpose. They either mirror the superficiality of modern suburban culture so that we can relate to the pretty people and feel less alone, or they help distract us from what might otherwise be too disturbing.

The world is not a pretty place. I walk down the street and I see people dying, people being violated, people violating themselves, people selling themselves. I see fiends screaming at tin cans, pushing valium, pulling out the remains of their last functional tooth. Everybody suffers, not everyone is strong enough to endure it.

There are occasional moments of happiness and I believe those are the moments we live for. TV, for some, fills the space in between.

I don't blame "American culture" for copping out. I think it's a natural response to take shelter anywhere you can find it even at the expense of your mind.

If we are to attack television we are essentially attacking ourselves. And the fact of the matter is we enjoy it. It's OK to do things that make us happy but, at the same time, I think it's important to identify and admit our crutches. If you are conscious of what TV does to you and you continue to partake in the viewing of it, that's different than pretending that it's a healthy or productive pastime.

 

TELEVISION — FRIEND, TEACHER, FAMILY

By Escalet Cordoba

(Escarlet Cordoba, 17 and a high school student, came to the U.S. with her family from Nicaragua when she was a child.)

Television is more than entertainment — it is my friend, my teacher, my family.

Television is something many people depend on. It is our source of information just as it is our source of imagination.

Many feel television is unimportant and unnecessary, especially for children, but to me it is something that has been useful and has taught me a lot — if television did not exist, I would have a lot to learn.

When I was small, television allowed me to use my imagination with Scooby-Doo or The Jetsons. I couldn't play outside because it was too cold or too dangerous. I had no one to play with. My only friend was television and my parents, but I knew television was not going to leave and would always be there.

It always caught my attention. From learning my alphabet with Sesame Street to seeing how a lion gives birth on The Discovery Channel, television has always been my way of exploring the outside world without leaving my house.

Even if it was entertainment, it taught me a lot. If there had been no television when I was small, I would never have had a chance to see important things that school has never been able to show me.

Now all my time is focused on things other than television, but every now and then I need to watch it. I feel as if it is something I have to do.

When I have nothing else to do, I turn the TV on and there is "Real TV" or another show like it that entertains me and at the same time I learn my lessons from other's experiences.

I still have a lot to learn and television still has some things to teach me. It is also a way for me to find out what is going on in the world when I don't feel like reading about it.

After a day of hard work or a stressful day at school, I need to get out of my life and into someone else's. The only thing that allows me to do that is television.

Television has taught me a lot and will keep on teaching me. It is part of my life — without it I would feel like something really important is missing. It is like a family member that has always been in my house. So if TV didn't exist, it would be like saying, "what would life be without school?" Because television, like school, is something we have been raised with.

 

TELEVISION — DOOR TO THE WORLD

By Stanley Joseph

(Stanley Joseph, 25 and a founding editor of YO! Youth Outlook, grew up in Miami after his family immigrated from Haiti. He is a student at San Francisco State University.)

Who can ignore the power of television, especially children's television. The evangelist Jerry Falwell couldn't' — he accused Teletubbies' Tinky Winky, the purple one with the red purse, of advocating a gay image to children. Remember when either Barney, the purple T-Rex, or Arthur the four-eyed armadillo, was the toy to get for Christmas? And Nickelodeon, the number one children's network has become the "MTV" culture for grade school kids.

With new networks — such as Toon Disney, Fox Family and Noggin — aiming for kids, some would say that things are going too far. But I couldn't conceive of a world without children's television. That would mean no more cereal commercials promising prizes, not being empowered by an animated character who is not bounded by "adult" realities — and no one ever telling me how to get to Sesame Street.

Even though Headstart, a federal program for low income families with preschoolers, began in 1965, it was the televised Sesame Street, beginning in 1969, that has had the longest and strongest effect on America's youth—past and present.

Sesame Street was created for kids living in the inner city. The age requirement for Headstarters was five, but my parents had me watching television alone at age two.

Besides entertaining me with skits of Ernie bugging Bert, Sesame Street opened my perception of the world.

I was a city boy from Miami and Sesame Street took me to a farm where children would go milk cows with their fathers, feed the pigs and help their mother cook. I remember one week when the whole cast went to Hawaii, and it was then I realized that the world was a lot bigger than I could ever imagine.

I saw kids of different color— white, brown, yellow and black — playing together before I heard the "I have a dream" speech. Most importantly, the different ethnic adults that "lived" together on Sesame Street planted the idea of diversity in my head.

Sesame Street made me proud of my community. Video clips of other city kids that shopped for vegetables and fruits at bodegas, and taking a bus and the song "Who are the people in your neighborhood?" got me to interact with my mailman and local store clerks.

With more mothers going to work and more kids going to day care by six in the morning I can understand why people are concerned about television. But fear not. Sesame Street did get me prepared for school, and most importantly got me prepared socially. It was always a good ice breaker to ask another kid if they'd seen Sesame Street.

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