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Television Versus Reading


Television fails most of the time as a positive educator because of the following:

1. Television is the direct opposite of reading. In breaking its programs into eight-minute segments (shorter for shows like Sesame Street), it requires and fosters a short attention span. Reading, on the other hand, requires and encourages longer attention spans. Good children's books are written to hold children's attention, not interrupt it. Because of the need to hold viewers until the next commercial message, the content of television shows is almost constant action. Reading also offers action but not nearly as much, and books fill the spaces between action scenes with subtle character development. Television is relentless; no time is allowed to ponder characters' thoughts or to recall their words because the dialogue and images move too quickly. The need to scrutinize is a critical need among young children, and it is constantly ignored by television. Books, however, encourage the reader to move at his own pace as opposed to that of the director or sponsor. The reader can stop to ponder the character's next move, the feathers in his hat, or the meaning of a sentence. Having done so, he can resume where he left off without having missed any part of the story.

The arrival of remote control is only exacerbating the attention-span problem: the average family "zaps" once every three minutes, twenty-six seconds, versus those who have no remote (once every five minutes, fifteen seconds); and higher-income families zap three times more often than poorer families.

2. For young children television is an antisocial experience, while reading is a social experience. The three-year-old sits passively in front of the screen, oblivious to what is going on around him. Conversation during the program is seldom if ever encouraged by the child or by the parents. On the other hand, the three-year-old with a book must be read to by another person - parent, sibling, or grandparent. The child is a participant as well as a receiver when he engages in discussion during and after the story.

3. Television deprives the child of his most important learning tool: questions. Children learn the most by questioning. For the thirty hours a week that the average five-year-old spends in front of the set, he can neither ask a question nor receive an answer.

4. Television interrupts the child's most important language lesson: family conversation. Studies show the average kindergarten graduate has already seen nearly 6,000 hours of television and videos before entering first grade, hours in which he engaged in little or no conversation. And with 30 percent of all adults watching TV during dinner and 50 percent of preteens and teenages owning their own sets (and presumably watching alone in their rooms), the description of TV as "the great conversation stopper" has never been more appropriate.

5. Much of young children's television viewing is mindless watching, requiring little or no thinking. When two dozen three-to five-year-olds were shown a Scooby Doo cartoon, the sound track of which had been replaced by the sound track from a Fangface cartoon, only three of the twenty-four children realized the sound track did not match the pictures.

Nor does the mindless viewing stop at kindergarten. With upwards of 100 cable channels to chose from, including all-news stations broadcasting round the clock, one would expect today's young adults to be among the most informed citizens in our history. They are not. A major 1990 survey of 4,890 adults concluded that "young Americans, aged 18 to 30, know less and care less about news and public affairs than any other generation of Americans in the past 50 years." What the X generation absorbs is seldom remembered unless it is titillating. For example, during the Panama invasion, 60 percent said they followed the war closely but only 12 percent were able to identify General Colin Powell. Conversely, 37 percent could identify Donald Trump's alleged mistress, Marla Maples.

6. Television encourages deceptive thinking. In Teaching as a Conserving Activity, Professor Neil Postman pointed out that implicit in every one of television's commercials is the notion that there is no problem that cannot be solved by simple artificial means. Whether the problem is anxiety of common diarrhea, nervous tension or the common cold, a simple tablet or spray solves the problem. Seldom is mention made of headaches being a sign of more serious illness, nor is the suggestion offered that elbow grease and hard work are viable alternatives to stains and boredom. Instead of making us think through our problems, television is enormous when you consider that between ages one and seventeen the average child is exposed to 350,000 commercials (four hundred a week), promoting the idea that solutions to life's problems can be purchased.

7. Television has a negative effect on children's vital knowledge after age ten, according to the Schramm study of 6,000 schoolchildren. It does help, the report goes on to say, in building vocabulary for younger children, but this stops by age ten. This finding is supported by the fact that today's kindergartners have the highest reading-readiness scores ever achieved at that level and yet these same students tail off dismally by fourth and fifth grades. Since television scripts consist largely of conversations that contain the same vocabulary words these students already know, few gains are made.

As I mentioned earlier, shows like Cosby are written on a fourth-grade reading level, hardly an enriching vocabulary for anyone older than eight. Moreover, a study of the scripts from eight programs favored by teenagers showed sentences averaging only seven words (versus eighteen words in my local newspaper). Thus we have the following contrast:

* 72 percent of the scripts consisted of simple sentences or fragments.

* In Make Way for Ducklings, by Robert McCloskey, only 33 percent of the text is simple sentences.

* In The Tale of Peter Rabbit, by Beatrix Potter, only 21 percent of the text is simple sentences.

Thus one can safely say that even good children's picture books contain language that is twice as complex as television's. Imagine how much more complex and enriching the novels are.

8. Television stifles the imagination. A study of 192 children from Los Angeles County showed children hearing a story produced more imaginative responses than did those seeing the same story on film.

9. Television's conception of childhood, rather than being progressive, is regressive - a throwback, in fact, to the Middle Ages. Postman points to Philippe Aries's research, which shows that until the 1600s children over the age of five were treated and governed as though they were adults. After the seventeenth century, society developed a concept of childhood which insulated children from the shock of instant adulthood until they were mature enough to meet it. "Television," Postman declares, "all by itself, may bring an end to childhood". I offer these prime examples of that thesis:

In 1991, when children in the Hartford, Connecticut, area saw a network rerun of Peter Pan, they also saw a commercial for an upcoming Hard Copy show about a serial rapist-killer. Repeated incidents like that prompt critics like the Hartford Courant's Jim Endrest to say, "Leaving a child in front of the TV without a parent present is like leaving your kid in the middle of the mall, walking away and hoping he'll find a safe ride home."

The last five years have seen daytime and prime-time television become video encyclopedias for deviant behavior. USA Today columnist Joe Urschel kept notes on one week's representative viewing on such shows. Keep in mind, what you are about to read is only one week's shows, and it was a presidential election week (November 1993). The shows featured: "Aphrodisiacs; Women Who Love Unconditionally; Women Who Killed Their Abusive Husbands; Runaways in Hollywood Who Turn to Prostitution; Possessive Former Lovers; Older Women Who Love Younger Men; Thin Wives, Obese Husbands; Divorcees and Dating; Oft-Married People in Their 20s; Wives and Girlfriends of Mama's Boys; Egotistical Men; Men's Reproductive Rights; The Woman Who Cut Off Her Husband's Penis; Compulsive Gamblers; pre-Menstrual Syndrome; Haunted Houses; Encounters with the Dead; People Who Have Had Encounters with Aliens; Teens Who Kill; Girls in Gangs; Battered Women; Women Who Hate Their Daughters; Murdering Newlyweds; Former Lovers Who Reunite; People Who Stole Their Best Friend's Lover; and Mothers Who Stole Their Daughter's Man." Need I remind you that these shows often were being watched by both parent and child or by a latchkey child alone?

10. Television overpowers and desensitizes a child's sense of sympathy for suffering. Extensive research in the past twenty years clearly shows that television bombardment of the child with continual acts of violence makes the child insensitive to violence and its victims. Any classroom teacher or pediatrician will tell you of the connection between children's viewing of violent films and classroom behavior. From the American Medical Association, June 1994: "Over the past two decades a growing body of scientific research has documented the relationship between the mass media and violent behavior ... namely, that programming shown by the mass media contributes significantly to the aggressive behavior and, in particular, to aggression-related attitudes by many children, adolescents, and adults."

~ From THE READ-ALOUD HANDBOOK, by Jim Trelease, Penguin Books, 1995.

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