Television as an Anti-Experience

Having a 14-month old little bundle of “all-girl” joy named Ashley constantly following me around the house this summer, I am continually amazed at the wonder with which a child experiences the world around her. Now that we are in our new home and becoming better acquainted with the new terrain, we have been seeking schools for Ashley to begin in late August when my studies and regular teaching responsibilities resume. After visiting about 3 schools and 2 other homecare possibilities, we have finally settled on St. James, a Christian Montessori school in our area. As I write this, I want to emphasize that I am in no way suggesting that Montessori is the only way to go, as I firmly believe that there is a good deal of latitude in these kinds of decisions and each case has its own unique circumstances that must be considered and decided by the parents before the Lord. With that said, at St. James, I picked up a magazine and read a very interesting article by Dr. Silvana Quattrocchi Montanaro entitled, “Television and the Young Child.” I found myself very much in agreement with the article and wanted to share a few thoughts from it. The article discusses the negative effects of television on young children, which include: (1) reduction of real experience, (2) pathological effects on body and mind, (3) allowing the worldview of a few, viz., those who control TV content, to significantly influence your child. As the author notes, instead of an active learning experience, watching television is essentially a passive and indirect experience. Because TV reduces one’s direct relationship with reality, children are presented with “flattened” and distorted views that do not correspond with reality. “When we look at television we do not realize the absence of three sensory channels and the lack of concordance between what we see and what we listen to. This situation is called ‘sensory schizophrenia’ because the senses are divided between themselves, the mind, and the external world. Because television eliminates an enormous amount of sensation, it reduces our participation and response to the world” (p. 14).

The author also explains how children need direct experience that stimulate each of their senses and time to make those experiences part of themselves. The length of time that it will take for a child to “absorb” a sensory experience with a particular object will of course vary. However, the repeated attempts help to develop concentration skills. In contrast, television, “gives continuous, one-way information with no possibility of prolonged observation and personal action or interaction. Children are deprived of their natural ability to learn in an active interchange with the environment (people and objects) and are pushed to become passive watchers with no time for processing and storing information” (p. 15).

When children spend a number of hours every day in front of the television they are deprived of active “learning by doing.” Commenting again on the passivity that results from watching TV, Dr. Montanaro writes, “contrary to what they want us to believe, television is an anti-experience and an anti-knowledge machine because it separates individuals from themselves and from the environment and makes them believe they are living while they are only observing passively what other people decide to make them see” (p. 15).

Other negative effects of extensive TV watching include:

(1) Inability to concentrate due to lack of using the hands. (During the first years of life, the hand activity necessarily involved in direct experience stimulates the brain and helps to encourage and develop problem solving skills).
(2) Unreal and negative images become models of behavior and could be linked to some of the learning disabilities so common among children today. “Children with long daily exposure to television lose the capacity to listen; they cannot pay attention. What seems like attention to the screen is simply the effort required for following the change of fluorescent points in order to detect the image; it is a chase after the image” (p. 17). The right side of the brain is connected with images and centers on global thinking and synthesis of data. The left side is the analytic side and is directly connected with developing the skills necessary for reading and writing in various languages. Children, who from a young age have been constantly presented with television images do not develop the analytical skills needed for writing and reading and tend to become too quickly frustrated in school when confronted with reading and writing assignments. Moreover, the negative images (e.g., violent, sexually suggestive, etc.) that children take in from the TV are unreflectively internalized, are easily recalled, and become models of behavior that children imitate.
(3) *Desensitization and emotional illiteracy. “Television, because of the technical difficulties in reproducing images, must give importance especially to close-ups of faces in order to make them express something and the faces must be isolated as much as possible from the context because there is a short signal-context relationship in television. This difficulty necessarily limits the choice of programs to those who must have big and not detailed images. Thus, it is impossible to express the important but subtle gradations of feelings produced during positive human relationships. Because television can transmit only a limited range of the emotional spectrum, all delicate and tender feelings are excluded; yet, we need to show them in order to help the children’s positive emotional development—development required for a happy and rich social life” (p. 17).

6 thoughts on “Television as an Anti-Experience”

  1. Of course, TV is the ultimate evil :-) but let me offer a few positives (I don’t think it has many, but here goes):

    1. For that short amount of time a day when your child watches TV, it helps ensure the survival of the parent.

    2. Just like adult TV, of which there is good and bad, there can be good and bad children’s TV shows. My kids often jump around and interact with the TV shows they watch. They also see things and get ideas for activities they work on later.

    3. Like lots of other things in life, moderation seems to be an important factor. Lots of the critiques of TV seem to assume your child does little else.

    Anyway, TV aside, choosing a school for your child is a big challenge, something I’ve also been working through for our oldest starting in Feb 2007. All the best in your choice of school.

  2. Mark,

    I did not take the author to be suggesting that TV is the ultimate evil (I am not even sure whether the author is a believer or not), and I take it by your “smily face” that you are speaking in jest.

    The concerns and research with which the author is focused are early childhood, ages 0-5 years old–and in that group, those that are exposed to at least 4 hours of TV per day during those early childhood years and how they then react in school.

    For various reason my husband and I rarely watch TV in our home–perhaps a hour a day if that. We have been doing this for about seven years and have found it quite beneficial on a number of levels (emotionally, interpersonally, etc.). What I have found with Ashley (which accords with the article) is that she seems to have a pretty good attention span and is allowing us more and more to read books to her all the way through. Plus, I love the interaction with her that a book affords–picking out which animal is which–hearing her imitate the names of animals and the sounds that they make, and then going on walks and finding the animals–squirrels, cats, dogs etc., picking up leaves and carrying them home and then pointing them out in the books, and so on. For Ashley, actually touching the object is huge–she learns so much from touch. Again, I am not trying to legislate our particular choices for everyone, but simply wanted to share the findings of what I took to be an extremely interesting article.

    Kind regards,
    Cynthia

  3. Cynthia,
    I applaud your resolve to raise your little one in an environment that will nurture not only her mind but her entire and precious constitution. The TV affords little if any goodness for the small child (and in my opinion, for the adult as well- I do not own a TV and have suffered nothing for the lack). Some of my fondest memories are of my three girls (now grown!) cuddled around me as we read the works of A.A.Milne and others. They have grown up to be avid readers themselves, and my youngest who is expecting in December is committed to a “no-TV” environment for her child. If she and her husband need some time together just the two of them, there are other ways to achieve this without using the TV as a babysitter. The deleterious effects of using the device in this manner should motivate any good parent to find alternatives, the most obvious of which is to teach the child to respect boundaries and to be entertained with such things as reading and creative play.
    Mark, -A little more self-discipline and creativity on the part of parents may allow for survival of parent and child, and an overall improvement in the health of the next generation of adults!

  4. Cynthia,

    Good post. You might be interested in some threads over on Doug Groothuis’s blog, The Constructive Curmudgeon, particularly “Tots Totaled by TV,” which can be found in the archives here.

  5. Tim,

    Thanks for the link. I read the article that you mentioned, which seems to confirm what the author in my post stated.

    Kind regards,
    Cynthia

  6. I would like to say that I agree with what you have said here very much. I have found that there is a real relationship between television watching and lack of reading interest and/or ability. Growing up, I recall that my siblings and I all watched different amounts of TV. My father got rid of the cable when I was a kid and I did not have TV until after I was out on my own. My sister and brother each had a long period when they had no TV but they eventually did get it when in highschool. My youngest sister had TV pretty much her entire life and still watches a great deal of it. Now she only watches good programs (mainly old black and white movies) so it is not like she watches bad stuff.

    However, if we look at the reading level of all my siblings and myself, we find that the more TV watched is related to the less read. I read a grip of books. My brother and sister read a fair amount. My youngest sister barely reads at all unless she has to (although she can if she gets inspired). She is not dumb, but just does not seem to enjoy or have a pleasant time reading as other people might.

    I realize that my own family’s experience is hardly universal, but it does seem to be fairly typical. The point is that while it is good to limit a kid’s TV to moral coherent programs, the very act of watching TV, good or bad, seems to have a deleterious effect on certain valuable aspects of human rationality. If we do not want people to grow up into sheep who are easily swayed by cynical rhetoric, then we need to make sure that kids are not mentally debilitated by their upbringing.

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