TV's Effect on the Family
Life in North American is now divided into sleeping, working and watching TV.
While statistics on a topic as big as television vary considerably, they all show the prevalence of the TV in American homes. 98% of US homes have at least one TV, which is turned on for an average of seven hours a day. By the time a baby boomer is sixteen, they will have watched between 12 000 and 15 000 hours of TV. This means that by the time an average American is eighteen, they will have spent more time watching TV than doing anything else besides sleep. In 1987, the average viewer watched 4.5 hours a day for a total of 31.5 hours per week. What is to be remembered is that there are many who watch substantially more than 31.5 hours a week.
Brief Historical Overview
It is clear from the statistics that TV is a dominant force in our world, particularly in
Early TV such as the Twilight Zone and Cheers and more recently, the Simpson's contain complex storytelling in which the characters and their lives are a metaphor for our own. These shows contain stories about companionship and community within different family models. They enlighten and help us understand ourselves and our place within the larger world. However, with the recent advent of reality TV, these stories seem to have disappeared from the television landscape and are instead replaced with narratives that demand nothing of the viewer. TV is now like watching a carnival freak show as people do increasingly bizarre and obscene things while competing for money. Perhaps any positive effect that TV once had will soon diminish like the sunset with the new advent of reality TV. For reality TV is not the end of civilization but it is a civilization in itself, a new reality in which people live.
It seems obvious to most people today that TV has a huge impact upon our culture and more specifically the family. Despite a change in eating patterns, kid's bedtimes and routines, letter-writing, patterns of interaction between people, reading, meeting and Church attendance due to the TV-age, it was a very quiet shift with almost no one questioning the change. Even language itself changed, with new TV slogans and jingles being incorporated into daily vocabulary. TV has become the new "hearth" or dinner table, it is warm and inviting, glowing day and night and inviting us to form our identity and reality within its world. In essence, TV is moving from merely a form of entertainment to a place in the same way that Church, school and family are considered places or centers of meaning. Christ invites us to form our identity in Him (2 Co 5:17) and so for Christian families to watch endless amounts of TV could lead to confusion about who or what we are supposed to be in this world.
TV as Place
One of the big concerns with TV is that the more time one spends watching, the less time is spent doing other, more valuable things. This is perhaps no where more evident than in the area of public life, in places such as sports arenas, Church and extended family gatherings. TV becomes a new sort of gathering place, a place where people find meaning, value and sensory communion, where "us" and "them" is readily identifiable. However, a place without location can have serious consequences because although it may serve various social and symbolic functions, the interaction is not with real people, it is too ambiguous and the scale and depth of the TV industry is unmanageable. The implication of TV as a place, taken to the extreme is that meaning is no longer found within the family. This can lead to a "family" that is in reality more like roommates all fragmented, disconnected from the real world of social interaction, whose values and norms are dictated by an industry whose sole motivation is their profit margin.
We now live in a world where there are two spaces of existence, that of reality and that of fiction, in which TV is a place of belonging, of being. In this TV world, there are no real relationships, no learning from failures, no genuine processing of data and very little connection with the past or of any of the dominant cultural traditions. While this can often happen without even noticing as TV companies provide entertainment and the masses passively watch, sometimes it does not happen like this. In a paper by White and
TV: The New Center?
The question remains as to whether TV is now the new center of our existence or is it merely a reflector of our culture? In some ways, TV cultivates culture, providing us with a world view that tells us what the world is like, and how we are to live in it. TV provides an interpretative lens through which we may view reality. But perhaps TV is merely a scapegoat, reflecting the Fall and the desire of humans to live a life apart from God. This is reflected in the materialism, mindlessness, interpersonal dysfunction and spiritual poverty that is reflected and perpetuated by TV. However, it is perhaps more a function of what we feed into it, which gets reflected back at us. While TV does play a significant role in various forms of family distress as will explored further in this paper, it is also a reflection of sin.
Positive Effects of TV
At one time, the TV revolution is heralded as what will bring the family into a new kind of togetherness. In reality, TV has much the opposite effect because in North America, with increasing wealth comes increasing numbers of TV sets within the household so that each family member is able to retreat into their own personal TV land, void of interaction. However, there are some positive impacts that should be mentioned before delving further into the negatives.
TV, in many ways has made the poorest of families rich in terms of their access to entertainment and news. TV has made child bearing less burdensome in that it is a great babysitter, time-filler, tranquilizer, punishment, reward, avoidance mechanism and substitute friend. TV is an inexpensive, immediate and socially acceptable way to pass the time and relax. In today's busy world, this is sometimes what parents and children need.
With the popularity of prime-time religious TV (Touched by an Angel/ Picket Fences) in the 1990's some positive meaning may be found. 7Th Heaven features a pastor as one of the main characters, a functional family and a means to address current issues relevant to today's families. Some of these programs are leading to a mature conversation about of God, which can only have a positive influence upon families.
The Negative Effects of TV
The literature describing what is negative about TV is abundant. On the other hand, there are very few voices arguing for the positive impact of TV upon the individual, family and culture. The positives almost seem to be an afterthought, thrown in for the sake of balanced and fair journalism or study. Numerous studies show the negative link between TV and patters of family interaction, violence, increased stress levels as well as a host of other social problems. Yet the TV remains on in American homes for an average of seven hours a day.
The Effect on Family Interaction
It is obvious that TV is a form of parallel interaction in which each family member interacts with the TV more than they interact with each other when the TV is on. This is in sharp contrast to things like games and meals where communication happens interactively. Studies have shown that when the TV is on, children and fathers are oriented towards each other less of the time, they talk less and have fewer positive facial expressions than when the TV is turned off. During commercials, interaction between family members is increased but then goes back once again to lower levels when the program resumes. With the TV on for an average of seven hours a day in American homes, interactive communication where family members are truly present with each other is substantially reduced.
By the time an American child is twelve, they will have seen 8000 murders in the media. There is an average of three to five violent acts per hour in prime-time television and over twenty in children's TV. Children, especially boys with aggressive tendencies tend to copy the aggressive acts that they see modeled on TV as they become desensitized to violence. Another problem for children as it relates to violence on TV is what is knows as the victim effect, in which kids start to blur the distinction between TV and real life and think that they will be victims of violence, as so many on TV are. To let our children become desensitized to the evil in the world around us, due to excessive TV viewing is irresponsible parenting.
Increased Stress Levels
TV is cited both as a method that is used by children to reduce stress as well as a potential stressor within the family. Kids often report using TV as a means to cope with stress, but even they realize that this is ineffective. To escape into a fantasy world of TV does not help solve problems that are found in the world of reality. To escape into the TV world as a way to deal with familial stress does nothing to increase communication and to prepare children to be effective members of society. There have also been studies showing that increased tension levels in the family correlate with increased TV viewing. This correlation is probably due more to the use of the TV to avoid tense interaction instead of the TV as the source of frustration. Although avoidance of interaction in tense situations through the TV can be what holds some families together, it does nothing to bring any resolution to the family's problems.
What TV Replaces
TV not only inhibits cognitive and social skill development but it also inhibits a host of other things as well. It is perhaps not so much because of what is being watched on TV or the physical presence of the TV within a house but the more worrying thing is what TV replaces. If the average viewer watches 4.5 hours per day, that is 4.5 hours per day that could be spent on more valuable things. For children, TV depresses reading skills and does not encourage an expansion in language skills, which has a directly negative effect on school. To compound the problem, the more TV watched, the less homework will be done. Although it may be easier for a parent to set a child in front of the TV, it is perhaps the easy way. The child as a result will grow up being less able to be alone and will not learn about social interaction with real people in the real world. TV, by its very nature offers brief and intense forms of communication which is perhaps the exact opposite of what ideal family interaction should be.
Postman, in his classis book, "Amusing Ourselves to Death" states the essence of the problem with TV in that it inhibits vs. liberates and diverts vs. enlightens. TV no longer stimulates thinking or provokes debate but it is a world in which critical thinking and logic is despised. TV is effortless and free, requiring nothing of us. In requiring nothing us, TV essentially offers nothing. It is taking this easy way, TV become a perpetuating cycle that leads to only watching more.
Harmful TV Myths
Traditionally, the only acceptable extra-familial story-tellers are found within the religious and educational settings. Times have changed with the introduction of mass media and an influence that is extremely hard to control. For the diverse North American population, TV is the new mythology which confirms and shapes beliefs common across race, language, age and sex. The problem of this new mythology or stories that shape our lives is that it offers a distorted view of reality that we feel we must live up to and which can have a strong negative impact upon the family.
A common myth lived out on TV is that happiness consists of limitless material consumption. Advertising, aimed at children even before they can talk tells us that consumption is the point of life, it is inherently good and that property, wealth and power are more important than people. In TV-land, dads make an average of $195 000, considerably more than their real-life counterparts. And clearly, these successful TV dads are not the poor, low-class, under-educated Hispanic or black American. And yet for Christians, the Gospel calls us to something more than finding happiness in material things. It tells us to deny self, take up our cross and follow Christ. Perhaps nothing is so much at odds with the Christian worldview than that which is found on TV and for Christian families to seek to follow Christ in a materialistic age is hard. It is perhaps even harder when the TV is turned on for seven hours a day, bombarding the family with unrealistic messages and myths that stand in opposition to the Gospel. Christianity along with all other religions no longer serve as a lens through which we view the world but are now reinterpreted by mass media in which TV plays a large role.
Modernity's Effect upon the Family
One way to understand modernity is to see technology as the advent to ushering in this new period. It is within modernity that traditional forms and in the case of TV, the family as a place of meaning is lost. At one time, values, expectations and common modes of behavior are found and taught within the family but with the advent of the TV age, it is often the mass-media that replaces this familial function. Amidst this changing of place of meaning away from the family comes chaos, in many areas of life as there is now no longer any standard or recognizable place where appropriate values and behavior can be modeled and it is in this model that the Mass Media becomes a teacher.
Technology, with it's advent in technology including the TV has served to disintegrate community and family life into a non-cohesive confusion. This is in part because of the lack of geographical boundaries because now we can be everywhere at once, but not really anywhere as has already been demonstrated in this paper with the discussion of TV as place.
The TV: A Family Systems Perspective
Family systems theory sees the family as an integrated whole in which the individuals are hopelessly intertwined in a series of subsystems which form part of the larger whole. Dysfunction in any part of the system can only be understood in terms of the bigger whole that is what role each part of the system plays in the cause and maintenance of the problem. TV, in many ways serves a wide range of functions within the family and family systems can help us understand this. TV may be used as a controlling mechanism in which it regulates the familial environment by providing background noise, it is a means to organize time, and it is a bartering tool when used for reward and punishment. TV may also serve as a scapegoat because it is easier to fight over what TV program to watch than to deal with the real, underlying more difficult problems within the family.
Narrative Therapy tells us that reality is constructed in social relationships and that our identity is based on the stories that they tell us. These stories are what shape our lives and relationships; it is where identity is found. These ultimate truth stories which the Western world subscribes to are at least part if not the problem of mental illness. Be thinner, richer, more successful the advertising world tells us. Live in fear, crime is rampant the evening news dutifully reports. Sitcoms show us that we deserve to be happy. Lying and cheating is okay and often needed to get ahead says reality TV. Clearly, these stories from the mass media are in direct opposition to the message of Christ and are not what we want our families to subscribe to. But yet the average child watches more TV than just about anything else besides sleep. How could this be? How could our culture evolve in such a drastic way that TV is now a place, a new center of existence where we believe that the characters are our friends? How could TV have become a substitute hearth where we find happiness in such a way that we did not even see it happen? If stories indeed are what shape our lives, then the stories of mass media are perhaps dangerous, leading to dysfunction and unrealistic expectation for the family.
While many will argue that this new generation is more influenced by computers and the internet than TV, TV still remains a dominant force in our cultural landscape. If it reflects back to us society's values and norms, it is indeed a scary picture. Or on the contrary, if TV dictates values and norms back to us in the form of stories it is an equally scary picture for the stories presented are often harmful. Regardless, TV has become a new place of belonging, a center where meaning is found for many in North America and this brings along with it a host of other consequences including obesity, violence and social problems to name only a few. To let this medium influence our families unchecked has more consequences than perhaps most people realize. For it is our Christian values, norms and customs that we want our children to grow up with and our marriages to be ruled by, not the dysfunction found coming from the box that at times dominates our lives. The overthrow of TV and a new emphasis on freedom, individuality, culture and morality will have a hugely positive impact upon the family.
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