Chapter Four: TV We Choose and Other After-School Programs
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T: TV We Choose and Other After-School Programs
Every Tuesday night at 8 P.M. Ellen’s entire family gathers around the television in their living room to watch the Gilmore Girls. It starts with one person figuring out that it is almost 8 P.M. and Tuesday. Then the rest of the family members are found in their various locations around the house and urged into the living room. Their dog, Riley, also joins the group and lies by the stairs—as long he’s with his “pack,” he’s happy.
Ellen and her two children, Melissa, eleven years old, and Nate, fifteen years old, fit snugly onto one green over-stuffed couch that was once Ellen’s grandmother’s, while Denis, the dad, stretches out on a cozy floral patterned love seat—his feet resting on one arm of the love seat and head on the other.
With ever-increasing television and electronic entertainment options, many parents feel they can’t fully escape the media onslaught. Some parents focus on teaching their children media literacy so kids learn how to determine what is appropriate on their own. Ellen and her family enjoy hanging out, having fun, and bantering back and forth when they watch television together.
This weekly gathering not only brings the family closely together, literally by sharing the same physical space, but also gives them a common story to discuss and an opportunity to exchange ideas about values. It also gives the family time to share some laughs, and, to sing—Ellen and Melissa regularly belt out the lyrics to the opening song and sometimes they even dance to the tunes of the more “happening” commercials during breaks in the show.
A few recent episodes had a storyline where the very close mother and daughter became estranged because of a major disagreement about the direction of the daughter’s life. The two characters don’t talk for several episodes, causing Ellen and her family to talk about relationships and what they would do in this case. Ellen comments, “The interesting thing is my daughter makes resolutions to not do this or not do that when she’s older while she’s watching the show. There’s a real value to watching this type of show and thinking about the ramifications of different actions, particularly because most things in life aren’t black and white. Watching this show together is an opportunity to get a little distance from daily human experiences, see both sides of issues, and then discuss how we would deal with the situation.”
Most of these conversations occur after the show is over, or are quick comments during commercials, and every now and then it brings a moment where the family can talk together about deeper values. These discussions are part of the way they watch television, it’s a natural and ongoing dialogue that uses a television program as a jumping off point for thinking about real-life choices.
One such jumping off point for Ellen came in the car on the way to the dentist. As Ellen and her son Nate, then thirteen, were winding down the residential roads of their neighborhood to a regular dental appointment, the topic of sex and romance came up. They had just watched a Gilmore Girls show where an intimate romance developed quite quickly, as they do in most shows, in order to keep the plot moving forward. Ellen used the topic of the show to talk about our culture’s tendency to use sex for marketing purposes, to imply that everyone “cool” is doing it, and to emphasize that the standard whirlwind television romances are a fantasy norm far from reality. “Of course, he knew all this already because he’s a teenager, but it still needs to be said by me, his mother,” she recalls. “This was essentially the ‘sex talk,’ but not the talk about the mechanics; rather it was about the deeper emotional aspects of what sex is about. I wanted to be very clear about my core beliefs.”
Television can be used to teach children critical thinking, discuss taboo subjects, as well as share and debate core values when parents and their children watch together. A key problem is that keeping the television on past the time of productive learning is so seductive. It can be downright addictive. Carl Bromley, the editor of Cinema Nation, puts it this way, “Like drinking good wine, if you drink too much of it then it doesn’t matter how splendid the grape or aroma. It’s bad for you psychologically.” Too much of anything isn’t good, and over indulging in television can suck valuable time away from other important activities. Yet it’s so easy to do.
Ellen deals with this problem in her household, “Once you’re watching television there’s a strong momentum to watch the next show. So it takes discipline on my part to say, ‘No.’ Television is very much an impulse entertainment. It’s very tempting, and is designed to be very tempting, and sometimes it’s the right thing and sometimes it’s not.”
The other seductive aspect of television, in addition to the actual programming, is the commercials. The American Academy of Pediatrics reports that children see an average of 40,000 commercials per year. Food and beverage advertisers alone spend between $10 billion and $12 billion per year advertising to kids through television commercials, special promotions, as well as targeted packaging and public relations. Children are often easily taken in by these commercials: One study on the impact of media advertising to children found that when a toy advertisement was shown at the beginning and end of a preschool program, the majority of kids (70 percent) said they’d rather play with that toy than a friend. Another study found that the more television children watched, the more they tried to get their parents to buy products while shopping. Advertising is clearly influential.
Just as there are negative repercussions from spending too much time zoning out in front of the television, there are positive impacts from good educational programming. In fact, studies show that good educational programming, like Sesame Street, Blue’s Clues, Dora the Explorer, Arthur, Clifford, and Dragontales, can help kids learn and can even show positive academic effects later in high school. The key to successfully navigating television, many experts say, is to stay engaged with children and teach them critical thinking skills.
One of the biggest problems with television is that due to the nature of contemporary society, with many kids home alone after school because both parents are working, television has become a de facto parent. Liz Perle, Editor-in-Chief of Common Sense Media, comments on the present state of media in America, “The number one thing about media is, ‘Who’s raising your kid?’ What you need to teach your kids now is not just what you believe and how that stacks up to stereotypes present in all media, but also how to be savvy media consumers. Every family has a choice about media and can be active or passive about how they engage in it.” Taking time to watch television with children, and then discussing what is good and bad about the content, can be a learning experience children carry with them into the future.