How much is to much?
FTLComm - Tisdale - Friday, July 27, 2007

On Wednesday the CBC morning radio show discussed the issue of a new television channel dedicated to toddlers and interviewed some experts on child developmental psychology, to consider the sanity of such programming.

This is a sensitive topic, because we have two toddler grand daughters and both of their parents want the best for their children and as part of that, have used "Baby Einstein" and other programming aimed directly at very young children. It is interesting to note that both little girls are devoted to the books they have and the older of the two, Aurora, (seen here) who is just over two years old, can readily vocalise and respond to questions about the books she likes.

But Aurora also loves "Dora," a set of DVDs specifically tailored for people her age and intended to help out with development and cognitive ability. Aurora can load up "Dora" in the portable DVD, get it started and turn it off when she is done.

We live in an electronic age, a time where video and computer technology have merged, where the power of programming is truly impressive and yet, we are in the infant stage of understanding what these immensely capable technologies may be doing to us all. I mentioned the CBC story I had heard to Aurora's father and he was very concerned and pointed out that he and his wife figured they are doing their best with the technology available to them.

While I was thinking about the problem, I realised that though it is perfectly appropriate to be concerned about Aurora and her cousin, I really should be considering myself as well. For indeed, I am a serious consumer of network television and spend much of every evening sitting before a television clicking around the channels available, trying to find something that will interest and entertain me. The question is appropriate, how much is to much, for me and for Aurora?



Let's talk about Aurora first and the answer to the question is pretty scary. Developmental psychologists give television a total thumbs down for toddlers. After pursuing a long term longitudinal study, researchers discovered a direct link between the alarming rise in Attention Deficit Disorder and the early consumption of television.

The dirty part of this problem is that the situation goes un-noticed until the child reaches seven and starts raising hell in school, unable to concentrate and a candidate for medication. It almost is needless to point out, that this condition will be worse for boys than for girls as are almost all learning difficulties, simply because boy's development lags behind girl's language and cognitive skill development. Please don't take my word for it, check out the research yourself and you will find it remarkably compelling.

Essentially, what is believed to be happening, is that watching television interferes with the work of children, play. There is a natural progression to child development and the best teacher a child can have is his or her own curiosity. Television viewing, both directed, or passive, interferes with the inquisitive nature of the child and directs the brain to "pay attention" and by so doing, interferes with normal brain development. We all know that children and their brains are incredibly resilient and can tolerate a lot of errors, but this is one that gets that little mind at its developmental core. Miss out on normal development before age three and the window is closed forever.

As you will discover, the problem of attention deficit is hardly the only issue with small children watching television. For anyone who has ever working on preparing television production, you discover, that for it to command attention, it has to really move along and in the editing process, time is dramatically altered. The consequences of this is that everything on television, from commercials to what passes for programming, is designed to get and hold the viewers attention and the way to do that is to over speed and blast the viewer with and an overload of the unique. Repetition and low stimuli are not a part of television, or video production. The human brain is designed to seek out and latch on to the novel and unusual and so "good video" is tailored to provide surprise upon surprise.

This is where I have to diverge from toddler TV, to old guy TV. The stuff that catches the adult attention is in fact the novel and bazaar. Why else would we thrive on continuous news programming that relies implicitly on high impact video to punch up its news and on light entertainment, of which Letterman and Leno have mastered the art of adlib-ed novelty. So, surely this can't be bad for us, its just entertainment!

Think again. Why do we need 100 channels, why is it considered impossible to live with CBC and CTV which are free over the air and we pay out close to $400 a year to catch commercials on NBC, ABC, CBS, FOX, CITY-TV, Global, TBS, A&E, Discovery, Spike, Slice, Bravo, Speed, ESPN, CMT and MTV. There we sit, the lord of the manor, with remote control in hand, dodging mindless commercials, to find even more mindless content.

Amazing as it seems, network television is already a sunset industry, as we are now very certain that the future of home entertainment and information is Internet based spew, the TV that you control and in many cases contribute tol the actual content.

But I am getting ahead of myself, though network television is not dead yet, there is still a lot of bad news for adult watchers. Television is bad for you. I suspect we all know that already, it is just that like cigarette smoking, it is hard to accept that something that addictive, is so harmful.

Right up front television for adults has been proven by some serious and repeated research to raise the aggressive and violent behaviour of viewers. Everyone knows that on Monday night you will see countless rapes, murders and other acts of despicable violent behaviour, right there in your own living room and you have conditioned yourself to accept the carnage.

What has, ever since we first got a TV in our house in 1958, surprised me, is that killing and violence are just fine on TV and the level of violence is greater in children's programming, but sex and sexuality are what bring the public to their feet and raises the hackles of politicians and regulators alike. Yet, sexual violence on programmes like Law and Order and Criminal Minds seems to have no limits whatever. I am not advocating more sex on television, I am just damn concerned about the violence.

But there's more. I have for my whole adult life struggle in a failing war with an expanding waist line and I know I am not alone. Most North Americans have the same problem and the research shows that in part, television is a contributing cause. Oh, come on, surely it can't be that bad for you? Yup!

In March of this year I made the discovery that I was paying money for a bunch of television channels that I not only did not view, but I considered them hostile to my own personal mental health. So I got rid of A&E with its nightly round of bounty hunting, I dismissed the motorcycle building Discovery channel and put the boot to music channels that don't play music. But the cable package I get, is still a mess with TLC grinding out repugnant stuff on tattoos and the bazaar, a holy roller channel that is truly un-Godly, and WTBS where the content is 50/50 with the commercials and I am paying to watch this stuff.

A young woman stopped by the other night selling Star Choice and I took a look at their packages and could find little that appealed to me, it looked like about $10 more a month for a little less than I get for cable. Perhaps the off switch is better.

Though I have brought the issue of no TV for toddlers to your attention and warned you about violence and obesity for adults, there is much more that we need to consider. Ask anyone and they can immediately tell you the benefits of watching the programming that they enjoy. Sports, keeping oneself informed on world and national issues, having something meaningful to use up their time and bring a smile to their faces now and then. Those are reasonable arguments, but consider the cost. What I want to explain is that there are some things about network television that even in moderation require you to guard yourself and cover your mental health so you can be a happy person.

Two major issues come across on television both in commercials and in content and that is that one way or another, there are styles and trends in the way you should look and be, that will determine your success in life. Ugly Bettyism is a reality and the so-called reality TV is perhaps the worst offender in subtly enforcing life style attitudes that are just plainly dangerous and unhealthy for you.

The second danger is danger itself. Crime and fear sell, and television is convincing in the extreme, so that you come to believe that you need to guard yourself against the fearful society in which you live and that its right and just for cops to kill people and wear bullet proof vests, after all its a jungle out there. The fact are, it is not a jungle out there and you, as a TV viewer, are getting sucked in.

These are just two of the underlying currents of literally hundreds of attitudes that you will pick up and assimilate into your life and reality, just by watching "All My Children" and its fifteen minutes of shampoo commercials. There are so many things that the culture of TV promotes and contributes to, that are not part of real life, or are extreme exaggerations, that work their way into our lives and the way we live them. Perhaps these elements are far more dangerous than the violence and overt sexual content that might somehow subvert us, or our neighbours.

The time has come folks to not just set limits on the TV our kids watch, but to get out a stop watch on ourselves and without a doubt, it is time to go visit the public library.

Timothy W. Shire

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