I remember when my family didn't own a TV, vaguely. I was still too young to be excited by that first black and white set. However, by the time we acquired the 19" Zenith that brought us our favorite shows in "living color," I understood what it all meant. I assume this means that I'm in the vanguard of the first generation to have grown up its entire life with television. If anyone knows about TV, it would be me.
By the time we hit our preschool years (although no one I knew went to "play school") we all knew by some sort of internal mechanism when it was time for Batman and we'd abandon our outdoor games to race inside for that half hour of Bam! Pow! and Kerpow! We'd then button one of our fathers' old dress shirts around our necks as a cape and reconvene in our front yards to try out the new things we'd learned from TV. The odd thing is, it never occurred to any of us to gather around the same TV to watch together. Maybe our moms had something to do with that, although I don't recall ever being told I couldn't bring my friends inside. I tend to think we just did it automatically, retiring to our own dens or living rooms to sit alone in the blueish flicker of the screens. Television was just something you did alone or, occasionally, with your family.
I don't want to turn this post into a nostalgia fest in which I bore you by fondly naming all those old shows, but it doesn't seem right to not at least give a shout out to The Lone Ranger, The Three Stooges, The Little Rascals, The Brady Bunch, and The Partridge Family. You see, those were the "good shows," the ones that first released my endorphins to activate my opiate receptors without the presence of pain, nausea, vomiting, or the requirements of respiration or hormone regulation, some of the primary reason humans produce those chemicals in the first place. No, these were the shows that activated the opiate receptors within the "reward system" of my brain -- the part linked to addiction.
But I don't recall being addicted to television as a child. We came inside, turned on TV, watched our show, turned it off, then went back outside. I really don't remember television marathons or even the desire for one. Mom didn't "limit" our TV time. It was always one of the options in those days, one we chose when there was something special on, like Batman, but just about everything else -- playing outside, board games, building with blocks -- was better than the rest of the programs we found there. It was only as we got older that we began to sit there in a stupor until mom made us turn it off, years later.
In the comments to Saturday's post Watching Television Is Relaxing, dmdr, the mother of 5 unschooled children wrote that she doesn't limit screen time for her children and hasn't noticed the narcotizing effects I was writing about. She writes:
Our family isn't an anomaly, there are many unschoolers out there who report the same behaviors . . . Is it really TV and computers or is it because children don't have any time to be children to learn the value of different things in life and because TV and computer are such a taboo we drive them to want them more?
She may have a point about the taboo stuff, although I tend to think it's more likely that her children are given far more opportunity to "be children" than the typical modern American child.
We've all heard about the "runner's high," the phenomenon that occurs when a person exercises strenuously enough that it activates the release of endorphins, so we know there are ways other than TV and pain to achieve those feel good wonders. We know, for instance, that deep relaxation can cause a similar release. In fact, we've come to understand that endorphins can be released when we do almost anything pleasurable: dancing, sex, playing music, even the simple acts of reading or smiling. When children freely play, when they deeply engage in pursuing those things that interest and excite them, they are releasing endorphins, activating the opiate receptors within the reward system of their brains, the caveat being that it seems that there is the requirement, however meager, of using the higher order part of your brain to get there. This is how humans have evolved, endorphins are the "reward" for actually using our brains: when we play, we are rewarded for our efforts by feeling good. It's one of our bodies' ways to encourage us to do the things we need to do to survive.
And that's one of the great dangers of television or any other narcotic for that matter: endorphins are released without the requirement of any effort whatsoever beyond pushing a button and sinking into the sofa. Like injecting heroin, it gives you the reward without the need to engage our brains beyond the reptilian level.
Brain researchers tell us that another way endorphins are naturally released, bringing with it sensations of well-being and pleasure, is through the process of forming social attachments. When we not only play, but play with others, we are getting a double dose of endorphins, but this also explains why my friends and I, as children, went indoors to watch Batman, it never occurred to us to do it together. With TV, we had discovered that we didn't need people in order to keep the good feelings flowing the way we did when we played. Drug addicts, notorious for withdrawing from their friends and families, make the same discovery, retreating into the same kind of isolation habitual TV viewers fall into, often losing interest in other important aspects of survival as well, like food, cleanliness, and fitness.
I suspect that children, like dmdr's, who have the opportunity to "be children" (i.e., play freely) and play with others (i.e., a family with 5 children, plus a network of other unschoolers) are, in a way, inoculated against the sedentary and isolating opiate of television. I reckon that's the antidote: not letting TV become the only or primary place endorphins get released. I think that's were the real danger of addiction lies.
But I wonder if the insidious effects of television aren't more pervasive than it's impact on individual habitual users. I wonder if it hasn't taught all of us, whether we're addicted or not, the habit of isolation, of looking inward, of shutting out the rest of the world. Maybe that's why we fear so much to send our children out there with all it's pedophiles and kidnappers and crazy drivers. TV has taught us that we don't need those other people to get that endorphin reward, that it's safer to just keep the kids home in front of the set where they get their opiate receptors satisfied without actually having to go out there and engage with the other people.
A number of people wrote me after my last TV post, agreeing, but also asking what else is there to do when a "parent needs a break." Has TV trapped us? When I was young, before television had fully taken over, the answer was easy: send the kids outside to play with other kids. Our mom's didn't know the science of it then, but that's where they sent us for our endorphin fix instead of the family room. Researchers tell us that the risk from pedophiles and kidnappers is likely no greater than it was back in the 50's and early 60's, that in fact the rate of sexual crimes against children has been dropping steadily since the early 80's. At the same time they tell us that the more TV a person watches, the more dangerous he perceives the world to be, the less likely he is to trust his fellow man, the more fearful he is. I suspect that this phenomenon more than any other is the real danger of television: it not only addicts us, but it also terrorizes us into believing that it, and it alone, is way to safely satisfy our opiate receptors. So we keep our kids inside where they drive us crazy with their innate and ongoing quest for endorphins, reaching out to connect with us again and again and again, preventing us from getting our chores done, and wearing us out.
But I don't know. This is just speculation. Although is seems like the trend toward smaller families, and the fact that it's becoming increasingly rare to be friends with our neighbors or to have a grandparent at hand, joined with the anti-social fears instilled in us by our society's drug of choice, leaves us with little else. Unless it's TV, where else do our kids turn besides us and the pitifully few family members close at hand?
I'm encouraged by the number of people who wrote to say that they have unplugged their televisions. Overall, I think that's a good thing, but that still leaves a lot of us out there on a parenting island. Our own parents are too far away. Our best friends live across town. Even if we trust the world enough to let our kids play outside on their own, we risk more fearful neighbors reporting us and the authorities showing up on our doorstep accusing us of neglect or worse. These are all phenomenon that have emerged during the last 60 years, alongside, if not as a result of, the infiltration of television into every corner of our lives. I have no evidence other than the speculation you read here, but I'm starting to believe that TV is a leading cause of this. It's TV, not religion, that is the opiate of the masses.
Several people wrote to ask some version of the question, "If not TV, then what?" Is it a cop out to answer, Send them outside? Is it a dodge to suggest finding them more people with whom to play? Or have those options become nearly impossible in our televised world?
Many of you wondered in your notes and comments if the internet was a better solution or if the specific programming -- more engaging programs like sports -- made a difference. I suppose it does. I also think that watching television with other people and actually talking about what's going on is better than viewing in a stuporous silence. Heck, even listening to the radio requires your brain to make pictures from the words. Anything to get those beta waves pulsating.
But I'm still left with the bigger question of what television has wrought. Of course, I'm wrong. Certainly there are other more important drivers behind our divisions, fearfulness and isolation. It can't all be laid at the feet of The Lone Ranger and Batman, can it? It's not like our entire nation is slouching on a dirty mattress in some flop house shooting up our preferred variation on heroin. I can just assume that there is something more to it than a massive, cultural addiction to a colorful, chuckling, no-sweat endorphin producer . . . right?
That said, I'm glad I turned mine off. I'm reading more, riding my bike more, having more conversations. The last few times I turned on the tube in a hotel room or via something like Hulu, I was asleep within 10 minutes. I don't know what that means, but it's true.
In the meantime only one in 3 children have ever climbed a tree and half have never made a daisy chain. Okay, it's not a cop out: Go outside! Meet some people! And play with them! The internet is only slightly better! And turn off the damn TV!
(Note: the way I wrote this piece and the one from Saturday, was to just search for articles, reading away, following link after link, for a couple hours until I have an idea for a post. A couple people have asked me to post my sources. I'll need to recreate my searches to do that. I expect to post a list of sources as an update here in the next day or so. Either check back here or keep any eye on the FB page for an "update" announcement.)
UPDATE: As promised, here's a list of the articles I found most helpful in preparing this and Saturday's posts on TV addiction: