TV Sorcery

SUPPOSE from the time your children are old enough to sit up, they are snatched away from you for three or four hours a day by a powerful sorcerer. This sorcerer is a story-teller and spinner of dreams. He plays enchanting music. He is an unfailingly entertaining companion. He makes the children laugh. He teaches them jingles to sing. He is constantly suggesting good things to eat and wonderful toys for their parents to buy them. . .

SUPPOSE from the time your children are old enough to sit up, they are snatched away from you for three or four hours a day by a powerful sorcerer. This sorcerer is a story-teller and spinner of dreams. He plays enchanting music. He is an unfailingly entertaining companion. He makes the children laugh. He teaches them jingles to sing. He is constantly suggesting good things to eat and wonderful toys for their parents to buy them.

Day after day, month after month, year after year, children for a few hours a day live in the wonderful world created by the sorcerer—a world of laughter and music and adventures and in credible goings-on, sometimes frightening, often fun, and always captivating.

The children grow older, still under the daily spell of the sorcerer. Parents and relatives and teachers may talk to them, but the children find them some times censorious, often dull. But the sorcerer is always fascinating. So the children sit be fore him as if drugged, absorbing messages that parents did not originate and often do not even know about.

For as much as one-third or more of their waking hours, children live in a semantic environment their parents did not create and make no attempt to control. A study by the United States Office of Education found in 1967 that preschool youngsters spend 54.1 hours a week watching television.

The present generation of young people is the first in history to have grown up in the television age. A child born in 1940 missed the experience of having a television set for a baby-sitter. But many children born after 1945, brought up in their parents' homes, to be sure, had their imaginative lives, their daydreams, their expectations of the world created by television. Is it any wonder that these children, as they grew to adolescence, often turned out to be complete strangers to their dismayed parents?

The impact of television is due in part to the nature of the medium, in part to the fact that American television is commercially sponsored. This last fact is of tremendous importance, despite Prof. Marshall McLuhan's famous dictum, "The medium is the message." I hasten to ac knowledge the important point that McLuhan makes about television's influence in shaping our sense of the world through shaping our perceptual habits and our time-sense.

But to accept his pronouncement literally is to say in effect, "Programming doesn't matter. Bad programs have the same effect as good." I do not believe McLuhan's view can be accepted. If the messages of American television were over whelmingly sponsored, say, by churches and school systems instead of by advertisers, would the effects be no different from what they are now?

An important fact about television—regardless of its sponsorship—is that you can have no interaction with it. A child sitting in front of a television set gets no experience in influencing behavior and being influenced in return. Having a puppy is, in this respect, more important to a child than having a television set. . . .

The child who watches television four hours a day between the ages of 3 and 18 spends something like 22,000 hours in passive contemplation of the screen—hours stolen from the time needed to learn to relate to brothers and sisters, parents, grandparents, neighbors and strangers. Is there any connection between this fact and the sudden appearance in the past few years of an enormous number of young people from educated and middle-class families who find it difficult or impossible to relate to anybody— and therefore drop out?

I am sure the reader has met these young people, as I have— boys and girls who are frightened by the ordeal of having to make conversation with their friends' parents or anyone else not of their immediate clique. Many of them communicate, if at all, in monosyllables. . . .

The messages of television, with words reinforced by music and pictures and action, received in a darkened room and reiterated over and over, are the most effective communications ever let loose on the world. Television is also the world's best and most convenient baby-sitter. It must therefore be used thought fully, selectively—and in moderation.

Dr. S. I. Hayakawa's syndicated column reprinted courtesy of the Register and Tribune Syndicate.

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April 1974

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