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ebabysit tv what is too important to entrust to technology? how about child rearing?

we argue about sex and violence on television because we are anxious that kids watch too much tv.

we have electronic babysitters!

"Parents often report putting their babies in front of a television set to quiet them."

- Aletha C. Huston, et al., Big world, small screen, page 11

personal history

i use myself as the starting case study: born in 1974 and now a hyperactive child-product of the late-television age.

my steadily working parents hired nannies to address my immediate physical needs - nannies served me food, shopped with me for clothes, woke me up and occasionally put me to bed. besides those paid caretakers, my most constant conversational companion when i was growing up was a television or a computer.

"Excessive or harmful television viewing is sometimes attributed to parental neglect or absence. Magazine articles regularly bemoan 'latch-key' children parked in front of the television set because they are unsupervised. That belief is a myth. School-aged children whose parents are employed do not watch any more television than those whose parents (usually mothers) are at home after school..."
- Huston, et al., Big world, small screen, page 99

the television offered me non-stop vivid access to broad worlds - tarzan, cartoons, charlie chan, usta tennis; unfortunately so much of pre-cable television was like the latter, boring. but having a remote control and some optimism yielded something to stimulate me for a least a quarter of my free time on weekends when i was in grade school.

i do not recall watching television much with my parents, or my brother. television was an activity that i performed alone, and an activity that i had control over; i decided what to watch, as i sat sprawled out in front of the tube eating box after box of sunkist fruit roll-ups.

my mother or father, or other folks who might have directed my activities at that age, were busy or absent, leaving me to my television watching. occasionally they would suggest another activity, bike riding together or playing cards, and we would do this, and some times i would play or read on my own, but i spent a fair amount of time out of people's hair watching the tv.

the a-team! my mother didn't watch tv herself, there was only one in the house. she provided an example of television avoidance, but she seldom restricted my viewing. there were a few shows my mother wouldn't let me watch - the a-team, for its violence (even though those guys never killed anybody), and a show i was once trying to watch - some tv movie of the week on the life of a prostitute. it was not long before i was watching programs such as these, and even worse fare on the house television.

sex and violence

the debate about media and childrearing seems intently focused on the content of the media - too much sex or too much violence. the focus is brought to bear by cultural critics like William Bennett, and responded to by media critics like Jon Katz - they argue over citizen control of the medium and the fears of some that television is training a nation of future listless unproductive pornographers, wife beaters and serial killers.

gun screen

the television industry has agreed to institute a series of ratings to warn if a program contains sex, violence, drugs, bad language, adult situations, etc. when i was a child, ratings were for me a sign of the must see - the more letters after a movie, the more i wanted to watch it, surreptitiously if i had to. the idea behind these systems is that parents might use that information to more judiciously exercise control over their children's television viewing:

"Other researchers, ... have found that, even when supplied with an external source of information about the negative impact of television on children, the majority of parents may be unlikely to participate in their children's television viewing behaviour to any significant degree."
- Gunter and McAleer, Children & Television, page 193

still there are those parents who wish to invest time arbitrating their child's use of technology. those ratings and additional informations might be for them, but one imagines that if a parent was prepared to spend more time dealing with their child's television viewing, they might spend more time dealing with their child directly which would render questions about television content less relevant.

comparing books illuminates attitudes:
from Britain in the 50s, the Television and the Child folks seem to confirm the social structures and messages of television as a mediated bluebrint for socially appropriate living. the children themselves, especially the "quick?smart?" ones, manipulate television in ways beyond the intentions of folks who develop televisual programming.

from the late seventies, the author of The Plug-In Drug, Marie Winn, sees television watchers as weaklings, parents who push their kids to watch tv as barbarians, and television as responsible for a number of developmental retardations.

Big World, Small Screen, as a 90s era report from the American Psychological Association, presents itself as a rational survey; "Opinions about the importance of television in modern society cover almost the entire range that one can imagine." (page 1). they go on from there to list a range of attitudes, from television as villain to television as unimportant; their imagination somehow seems to miss any overtly positive view of television, such as what we find in the case of Mr. Rogers below.

expanding televisual technology

that television is so widely used in homes and is rarely considered favourably is surprising. other new televisual technologies, often employed in similar babysitting fashion receive similar treatment.

while videotapes have given parents more control over material in some respects ("can i watch thomas the tank engine again?") and cable offers children's specific channels (not terribly highbrow, but then neither are kids), those media bear porn industry stigma:

"...because there are few if any restraints on the content of most cable channels or videotapes, they contain much more graphic violence and explicit sex than broadcast television. Children are watching such programs in larger amounts than they did before these technologies were available."
- Huston, et al., Big world, small screen, page 112

so what's the solution to new technology problems? more technology!

v-chipsitter

so the v-chip is proposed: a piece of computer technology that the government would mandate be manufactured into all new televisions. this chip would screen for violence or sexual programming, and would screen it from viewing according to specifications set by the parents, and only overridable with a password the parent would have, a password restricting access to raunchy programming and the programming of the set itself.

the v-chip is touted as a simple solution to enable parents to control the viewing of children. this is a technology fix to a technology problem. and, judging from the comparative technology competencies of children and parents, it will be the parents struggling to apply and later undo whatever restrictions have been placed or altered by their curious children.

those parents that would take the time to master the v-chip interface likely care enough about the issue to find other means of limiting television viewing. this would perhaps be a labour saving device for them, especially if they granted their children their own televisions in their bedrooms.

either that or collectively we'll become accustomed to seeing violence portrayed in more vivid televisual media, violence to rival that described only in words by the likes of Thucydides. today violence is practically disposable in movies, the high pace chaos paced as quickly as comedy (Hong Kong cinema by the likes of Jackie Chan and John Woo exemplifies the illuminating convergence of comedy and killing).

but there are things perhaps more insidious than cartoon violence; some messages are less easily disregarded, and more difficult to v-chip:

"Television has also provided young viewers with a visual education on social-class differences, on which they draw when judging a person's importance by his dress or describing how people in other social classes live."
- Television and the Child, page 258

so television is filled with nasty, classist, base images inappropriate for children. the people responsible are not responsible, and so we need more protection like vchips!

medium implications

this extended argument over program content stems largely from the numbers of children watching - parents using the television as a babysitter want to be able to trust the tv to take care of their kids. the argument seldom dwells on the implications of parents using televisions to raise children, or the effects thereof.

"Heavy-television viewers (four hours a day or more) expend less effort on school work, have poorer reading skills, play less well with friends, and have fewer hobbies and activities than light viewers. Although it is not clear whether television viewing causes these outcomes or is partly a result of them, parental intervention may encourage children to spend more of their time more profitably."
- Huston, et al., Big world, small screen, page 100

rugrat those findings of a 1986 panel appointed by the american psychological association have an acknowledged prosethlytizing theme, and this ultimate message: "[tv] is not inherently evil or destructive to children - the effects of television depend on how it is used." (Huston, et al., Big world, small screen, page 103). this appears in the midst of "suggestions for parents" about coviewing to increase media literacy by deconstructing television production techniques, making connections between products pictured ("some assembly required") on screen and their real life counterparts, and generally making television viewing a more conscious activity, with designated times and discussion of televised materials.

these recommendations serve to join the parent to the child during tv time, so that the activity of televiding doesn't take place in a vacuum where the pernicious television content makers have time alone with children. they sound like fine suggestions, but the issue remains - parents use television as a babysitter so they don't have to be there.

there is some social stigma attached to admitting to this:

"...mothers generally believed that television is used quite widely as a babysitter, but they saw it as something which goes on in other families rather than their own."
"...mothers are less inclined to admit to using television as a babysitter than they are to estimate its use among other mothers."

- Gunter & McAleer, Children & Television, page 22

this is not the typical reaction to "labour-saving" technologies - most people tend to speak excitedly about their new dishwasher or garbage disposal unit. somehow the labour of caring for children carries an emotional charge, not to be dispensed lightly.

are those mothers mentioned above reluctant to cite their own use of television because of television? whose expectations are they failing? their own, or the perceived surveyors, or their childrens?

some significant part of their hesitation seems to be due to their poor opinion of television (sending the kids to play with family members or other familiar humans is generally not regarded poorly). does their prejudice stem from their perception of television programming?

that what is made on the cheap to entertain and sell ads is not appropriate for most kids.
or a deeper seeded regret for entrusting the primary child attention maintenance to a machine, and a machine occasionally known as "the boob tube."

television as caretaker

what does it mean to provide care? besides food and shelter needs, to care for someone is to answer their questions and spend time with them and share of yourself. we want a caretaker that never gets tired of us, never calls us stupid (at least to our face), never leaves us. if we consider the television as a caretaker, we find the television may not perform so well answering particular questions or giving us individual attention all the time, but the television is a conversationalist that is never quiet. it may not listen to us, but it is always there.

(note when i speak of television i speak of the realm of broadcast fare available over a television, not of any person's desired programming. more often than not, the television is turned on without regard for a particular program, or at least after a particular program is over, the surfing begins and a range of offerings satisfy for a short time until the user is finished for that session)

so parents have decided that some activities are worth entrusting to secondary technology nannies. the children choose, based on their environment, that they find enough stimulation from channel surfing to keep them engaged (or, if they can, they might get a nintendo).

there is an overarching mistrust of kids who avidly consume television, a sense that they develop improperly as citizens:

"What are the effects of all of this time spent with an electronic playmate and teacher? Researchers have found differences between children who are light viewers (I hour or less per day) and heavy viewers (4 or more hours per day) of TV Heavy viewers put in less effort on school work, have poorer reading skills, play less well with friends, have fewer hobbies and activities, and are more likely to be overweight."
- John P. Murray and Barbara Lonnborg, Children and Television, Kansas State University, March 1995
perhaps television is breeding its own children, with different skill sets and different priorities. that would be the deterministic argument.

some parents manage work controlled television viewing into their specific program of child development. i remember by the time i was a teenager, my mom had loosened up on tv a little, with her husband george, we all sat around and watched the david brinkley news hour together on sunday mornings and talked about the issues of the day.

mister rogers' television neighbors

mister fred rogers and there are programs that are seen as genuinely beneficial for children. Mr Rogers' Neighborhood is an example of such a program, fondly considered by an astonishingly large and diverse group of people. something about Mr. Rogers; his kind demeanor, his honest bearing, he appears a genuine and gentle person in a realm often populated by disturbing charlatans and fly by night human tragedies.

Mr. Rodgers enjoys the appreciation of so many millions precisely because he has created a successful suspension of calamities of the real world in a television setting. programs like Mr. Rogers make it okay for four year olds to watch television. they assure our faith in the medium.

he makes television a viable electronic babysitter, leading by example.

(i prepared an interview, unfortunately he will be unable to answer my questions until june 1998.)

ebabysitted: signifyer

the arguments we have over violence on television and the pheonomenon of electronic babysitting is an argument over modern childrearing. technology subdivides the issue and makes it tangible. do we need more time to raise our children? we don't even touch that - we argue about violence on tv, while the more nuanced american psychological assocation "...adopted the position that television violence has a causal effect on aggressive behaviour..."(Big World, Small Screen, page 2).

meanwhile the children are quietly inevitably coded with our social reflection, and televised-machine consciousness, a combination of goods and bads. their occasional ingenuity with machines is simply their open mind and their insatiable appetite for stimulae. the technology of their parents and grandparents would be far too boring if used only as them old folks intended it.

meanwhile, segmenting television audiences into age appropriate ghettos is unlikely. we use the medium to communicate the range of our experiences, and with the proliferation of broadcasting powers across increasing numbers of mediums and channels, we had best be sober about the hot media injection these kids are readily receiving, and clear about where we locate responsibility for using television as a babysitter.

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technology affects food relationships and death determining potential directions for our society.
definition
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olestra
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electronic babysitting fluoridation
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computopia
technological determinism
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