My parents didn’t put much thought into my television-watching habits when I was young,. They figured it was imminent that I would watch television on my own eventually, and since it is a social norm, why not start when I was young?
I remember watching TV when I was young as a sort of family bonding activity. We rarely watched television alone, and it was never substituted for personal relationships. Often, we discussed what we had seen during commercial breaks, or on the rare occasion that we did watch a show or two by ourselves, it was always reported back to the rest of the family later that day.
Although I did certainly watch shows meant for small children, my viewing was not limited to “Sesame Street” and “Mr. Rodgers”. I grew up watching “The Simpsons” and “Dharma and Greg” with similar frequency. I remember being shocked to find out that my fellow classmates at preschool were not allowed to watch “The Simpsons”, which made me feel grown up and trusted by my parents.
My parents knew that television wasn’t great for anybody, much less children to watch, but they knew that if I were to watch, censoring my watching would only worsen televisions effects on me. In watching shows meant for a wide variety of age groups, I was able to gain more mature views of the world at a young age; sex, violence, swear words, etc. were not put up on an exalted pedestal far from my reach, they were simply things that existed. By understanding that such things were parts of the world, I was able to think of them in a more objective manner in a way that while I saw them on the television screen, I never felt the need to bring them into my life.
On a Friday morning I was able to observe both commercial and non-commercial children’s television shows. The commercial show, entitled “Dragon Toons”, was the most unrealistic thing I had ever seen. It involved four or five human children who spent all their time with two adult dragons, a young child dragon, and an infant dragon in a magical world. Every time the group faced a setback, a magical natural feature, such as an animate tree or friendly lily pads, solved the problem with no hesitation. In reality, children will face their own problems, and having seen shows with this message, will expect somebody to simply interfere and fix things for them. This teaches children to look to other people to resolve their dilemmas and shows them that problems never arise that are unable to be fixed instantaneously. The show was also surrounded by commercials that were aimed at children; candy, toys, amusement parks, cereal, and every other product that a young child could want were advertised to be norms, rather than luxuries. Children see these commercials and are unable to distinguish between what they are entitled to have and what they want.
The programming on PBS was slightly better. The first difference that I noticed was the variation on who the characters were addressing. In the dragon show, the story was entirely contained on the screen making the children watching mere spectators. The characters on PBS spoke not only to the other characters on the screen, but also to the children watching. They often paused after asking a question, and then made a neutral response that could encompass most anything a child would say. Although it certainly isn’t as good for a child to have a conversation with an animal on television as it is for them to have an interactive conversation with their parents, siblings, friends, grandparents, etc., I would assume that it is probably better for the child to have some interaction with the television than to inactively watch other people live their lives. It also seemed as though the show itself was more stimulating than the commercial show. The characters often sang to get their points across, which is probably more stimulating than simple speech. Also, while the first show seemed to have no moral teachings, the show on PBS seemed to be most interested in teaching the watchers basic values, in this case diversity. The commercials on PBS were also quite different. The commercials aimed at children were mostly little interludes that included facts that followed the day’s theme, dinosaurs. Occasionally there would be a commercial for a show that was coming up next, but those were few and far between. The only commercials that advertised products were aimed at the parents. There was one for a PBS Parents website, and another for a Sony Camcorder for parents to capture important moments in their children’s lives.
It seems that although the act of watching television doesn’t seem to be very, if at all, beneficial to children, as per Marie Winn’s argument, it does definitely seem that if young children are watching TV, it should be on PBS or similar channels.
I interviewed Jack, the youngest child of a family in my neighborhood. I started with simply asking what he liked to watch on television, and was surprised at how long it took for him to completely list his favorite shows. It turns out that he watches everything from Power Rangers, Nickelodeon programming, and Avatar to Reba, Two and a Half Men, and CSI. He told me that he usually watches TV alone, as his family is often busy with his two older sisters, so he often watches for hours at a time. When I asked him if he learns anything from watching television, he blatantly and honestly told me that he doesn’t watch TV to learn and that there really isn’t too much to learn from the programming, anyways. When I questioned his views on commercials, he told me that he hated commercials, that they weren’t as good as any shows on TV, and that he thought they were the most boring thing on TV. This made me question how much commercials affect children; if they can bore them to the point of loosing their attention, do they actually have any affect on their viewers? Jack then took me to his room to show me all the toys he had from television shows. He had puppets of characters, weapons that had been featured on Power Rangers, action figures from Avatar, and countless toys modeled after characters in movies. I did ask him whether he used the toys to mimic the stories on television, or whether he made up his own adventures; he replied by telling me that he always made up his own stories, that it was more fun that way. At least, I thought, that while he watched hours of TV each week, he did still seem to be imaginative and creative. Once we had finished the interview and stopped talking about TV, I was surprised to find that he had a whole slew of other things to talk about besides television; it didn’t seem that TV defined this kindergartener, it was only a part of his life, rather than a controlling factor.
The Toy Store
Walking around the toy section at Target, I was surprised at what variety of toys there were for children; there were toys for every age level, both genders, different intelligences, children who spoke different languages, children with various interests, and so on. The toy section was huge, which in and of itself was surprising considering I was at Target, rather than an exclusive toy store. It first surprised me at how I could walk down any one aisle and immediately pick out the type of child those toys were meant for. Aisles meant for girls were overwhelmingly pink and purple, and aisles meant for boys were saturated with blue and gray. The aisles meant for older kids had a lot of smaller toys, while the rows of toys for younger children had fewer, but much larger, items. When I began to look closely at some of the toys, I noticed that at least half of all the items were taken directly from television shows and movies. In one particular row that I walked down, every single toy was modeled after a television character. There were entire sections devoted to “Power Rangers”, “Bob the Builder”, etc.
There were also dozens of various toys advertising that they were imperative to a child’s complete education. Many of these toys, such as a toy drum that helps toddlers learn the alphabet and how to count, probably did encourage learning and stimulate the minds of small children. Others, such as a few different educational video game systems, as Marie Winn suggested, most likely impeded the child’s creativity and had the power to stunt their intellectual development. Regardless of their effectiveness, though, all of them advertised how much a child would grow and learn after being given this toy. In my experience, most parents adamantly want their children to be the best that they can be and have the best life that they can, and a great deal of this begins in education. Since parents want their children to receive the best education that they can, advertising miracle toys that will produce genius kindergarteners would most likely result in parents spending hundreds of dollars on these toys that may or may not be at all effective.
None of the toys, I noticed, were particularly unique. For example, there were at least a hundred different dolls, yet though they each claimed to be special, every one was essentially the same toy. It seems that a market like this would encourage children to think that they need each of these dolls, rather than one or two dolls that are practically identical to all the others they could have purchased. This would, obviously, create a monetary vacuum for parents who, as many do, give in to their children’s demands, but would also create in the child’s mind a sense that whatever they have isn’t enough and more is always necessary. An ideology such as this would carry on past childhood, creating generations of people who feel the need to purchase and consume as much as they possibly can, regardless of what they actually need or want, and regardless of what they already have.