Monday, July 11, 2011

I Don't Know What It Means, But It's True (More About Watching TV)

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:

Bookmark and Share


cyberksmith said...

No TV here for over 23 years. My explanation all along has been that there is simply not enough time with all the other things there are to do. That became a self-fulfilling prophesy. My older children don't watch...too busy. My preschooler, when observing tv watching in action, sees little attraction in sitting still for so little reward. She wants to do and be.
IMHO, the problem with TV is three-fold:
robs us time spent in more meaningful, uniquely human endeavors, it fosters a lack of involvement in life itself and the content often reinforces someone else's (corporate, faith-based...) values. So "just no time for it" seems the simplest and most truthful explanation I've come up with.

Jennifer said...

I think that you are completely right about tv, Tom, and I have often thought the same thing as you mention - which is that parents are in denial about the effects of it. (Including me sometimes!)

Unfortunately, I think that the internet and computers are probably just as bad, and those would be an even harder habit to break.

In fact, when I compare computers to television, I tend to think that computers are probably even worse, since tv is at least something that families can gather round and watch together, and discuss afterwards. Computers on the other hand, tend to be a solitary pursuit.

Been enjoying your blog - thanks!

kirstie said...

In the UK I think its not so much fear of abduction that keeps children inside, but fear of cars. Where we used to live, in London, it was quite alarming to walk along narrow pavements with young children, with 4 wheel drives parked half on the pavement, and cars pulling out of driveways every couple of metres. Maybe it is different in the US where I imagine most streets were designed for car owners?

In the 70's it wasn't really a problem because most people didn't have a car. I think we are in a cycle where because we have access to computers and constant television we don't care so much that children can't play outside, and because they can't play outside they watch more tv, and because there are so many cars on the road children are ferried to formal organised events (adding to traffic) rather than just being allowed to play.

Also, there is no money to be made when children just knock around together in their gardens and on the street.

CathPrisk said...

Great article, great comments. We got rid if the TV 3 years ago in my house & haven't missed it at all.

And got to say, very proud you. Are quoting PlayEngland research!

I understand that both US & Australian institutes of paediatrics have set out guidance saying children under 2 should have no TV, and over that parents should recognise it's a babysitter, except for the odd shared programme. Our UK Gov finally just released official guidance recommending 3 hrs physically active play for under 5s, and that parents turn off TVs and Computers & minimise time in buggys/ car seats.

Cheers, Cath, Joint Director, Play England

Unknown said...

Such fantastic truths. Our society is afraid of so much which is perpetrated by the TV and its accompanying sensationalism. Families are separated lacking support, people don't seek out neighbors and community is hard to find. We have become so used to being isolated. I tell any new parent to seek out community, take your children to be around others, let them play and get the heck outside! YUCK on TV and being inside all day! Not for me and my children.

tirzahdawn said...

I have two kiddos. I send them outside. But, they get into trouble. Lots and lots of trouble. I can't imagine sending them down the back pasture like i did as a kid. I had 20 acres to explore. My two are explorers as well. When they were at their grandparents (a wheat and cattle farm) they managed to get into the pond (I was thanking God for the drought on this day). My 5 year old said, "We took off our shoes and stayed out of the water." My 2 year old was up to his waist in mud. It took them 5 minutes from the time they went out front door till I checked on them to do this. That is my fear. What in the world are they going to get into? We go outside but I have a hard time letting them "go" the way I was able to "go."

momto5 said...

i found your blog thru a friend who posted about this post on FB. i read your post from saturday as well. i am a homeschooling mom with 6 kids. they play outside, read, hang out with friends, do art, etc most days, but the biggest draw for a couple of them is the TV. it is truly addictive. i think it is hard for a parent to admit that the TV is a problem because there are some pretty good "educational" shows on TV. but you are correct, it cause them to be in a stupor, and i have noticed when they come off a TV bender they are all sort of out of sorts. we lived without a TV for years and then stupidly got a HUGE flat screen and cable. i have no idea what we were thinking. before the TV there was loads of reading, and out door play going on. and yes although reading is usually done sitting, it engages the brain in a way that TV doesn't. i have to say i hate that being throw around, that reading is a sedentary activity like TV watching, it isn't. i was convinced of that after reading "the plug in drug" years ago, that was why we got rid of the TV in the first place. i am feeling like we need to ditch the thing again. it is a money suck, a time suck and a life suck. i just think that we have been programmed by the TV to see only the value and fight against letting it no longer rule our lives.

kristin@sense of wonder said...

When my daughter and I lived alone we didn't own a TV and it was great. She played and entertained herself and really I didn't need to spend a ton of energy to try and keep her busy. She just kept her self busy. When I married my husband he flatly refused to go with out a TV, and so I married a TV. My win was that we would not have cable. I have 2 more children now and TV is a constant battle. I feel like I have to constantly provide an alternative or they will just flock to the screen. We also live in a place where the heat in the summer is over 100 degrees almost every day. No one is real anxious to get out in that heat. I look back with longing at the days with no TV. It just wasn't an issue. I'm proud to say we have been good this summer. Water parks and splash parks and swimming pools and lakes and any thing else to beat the heat. But again its me having to come up with it. When left to their own devices, its trouble. Thanks for the post, I feel thoroughly miserable.

Unknown said...

I'm reposting this from the other aticle:
I have 5 children who are unschooled. They can watch as much TV, play as many video games or computer games, unlimited outside play or crafting or reading or talking or whatever they want. I don't put restrictions on my children's TV time or gaming time. Amazingly enough they choose to go outside and play or craft or read or create imangative games or any of a million other things that they choose to do. Yes, sometimes they sit and watch TV or play the computer for long stretches of time but they also do the other things for long stretches of time. When you restrict things they become treats and desires so by restricting these things we make them more enticing. I see my children use the things they have seen on TV or in their games and in other ways. They are learning all sorts of things. TV and computers are just another avenue for learning. They will come to me and talk with me about the actions or behavior or characters or moral issues and amazing conversations ensue.

My point was maybe it's not so much the TV as what we are doing with the rest of our day. Most of us spend our days sitting - in a classroom or at work. When we get home we can choose whether to turn on the TV or read a book or do the dishes or play a game. Many of these thing require energy - watching TV doesn't. Don't blame the device. A gun isn't violent, the person holding it is the problem.

At this point in our society it is hard to get an accurate portrayal of the effects of TV because you can't isolate the rest of the subject's lives in order to truely see what TV does. A subject comes in for a study from work or school or whatever their daily regime is and then is asked to sit and watch TV. What a stress relief not to have to do anything!

I LOVE reading and that is probably an understatement. When I was growing up my mother always told me I read too much - yes, she really told me that. Reading is an extremely isolating activity. It's very antisocial! TV on the other hand (at least in our house) is a very social event. People watch TV together all the time - watching a movie, or a series together or a sporting event. It creates a conection for people. It enables creativity not hinders it. I watch my children all the time using things they have seen on TV in their day to day play or they use a word that I don't think I've used and they tell me they heard in on some TV show. Recently we've watch Xena Warrior Princess (great show - I love Netflix!) toghether as a family and we talked about Roman and Greek Gods, the monothestic Christian God and other religions because of this show. Not to mention numerous other topics that have come up from this show.

Reading gets all those same endorphins flowing as TV. I can stay up all night (and have on many occasions) reading or I can read and fall asleep in 10 minutes. No matter what you are using to avoid doing the dishes or your homework or raising your children, you're still not doing whatever the activity is.

For all of those intersested in having some quiet time without TV here are some suggestions - blocks, playdough, sensory bins, stickers, open crafting, puzzles, painting, figures of all types - war, pets, wild animals, dolls, action figures. The trick to these is to let - let them have their time with these things don't worry about the clean up. Right now we have a large box in our kitchen with rice and dried beans in it along with sorting utensils, pots, cars, yogurt containers, funnels. My kids will sit in that box for hours doing all sorts of things. For that matter just have empty boxes around for them to play in. There's nothing better to entertain a child than an empty box!

Unknown said...

Tom - I believe you are right about our self contained environments. I was able to ride my bike all aroung the neighborhood, trek through the woods, and be outside without my parents over my shoulder at every moment. I just had to listen around dinner time for the call. We do live in a society where we are afraid to let our children be children. We "protect" them from everything. When my brother and his wife had their little boy and he started exploring he couldn't go so much as a foot away from them or turn a corner without them looking for him. He wasn't allowed to play by himself, he wasn't allowed to do anything without his parents right over his shoulder. When you grow up like that you don't know what to do when you are finally left to your own devices. You have no internal checks because you have always had someone there to tell you whether that was safe or not or appropriate. You loose your inner guidance.

We live on a lake. I have 5 children - 10, 9, 7, 5, and 2. We've lived here for 6 years now. People often tell me they could never live on the lake because they would be terrified of their children and the water. My kids go outside ALL the time without me. They've never gone in the lake without me - even the younger ones. Theres alot of trust and respect that goes on here. We have a trampoline, a very large playset, woods and dirt roads. The children go off for walks or bike rides without me. They build forts in the woods without me. All I ask is that they check in. My 2 year old uses knives - real knives to cut up vegetables or what not. The 3 oldest have their own pocket knife that they can use when ever they need. The hot glue gun in a staple in our world. The children light candles by themselves or go fishing by themselves. In fact my 9 year old built her own rod and reel and caugh a fish within minutes of throwing it in the lake. We build fires and burn things. Unfortunately, we now live in a fear based society. The news has us afraid of everything and it is hampering our ability to let our children be children. We put "childproof/safely" devices on everything. We do live in a society where we are afraid to let our children be children. We "protect" them from everything.

By the way have I mentioned I love your blog and can't wait to do some of the activities you do. I've created a list of to dos.

Unknown said...


Anonymous said...

Wait, let me see if I got this right: A release of endorphins is bad???

Unknown said...

@Anonymous - only if it comes from watching TV - ha, ha, ha!

Teacher Tom said...

@Anonymous . . . No, you got it wrong. Endorphins are naturally released, for instance, to help us naturally overcome pain. Endorphins are also sometimes released when we are engaging the higher order parts of our brains, like when we create social bonds or make music. That's what they are for.

With television, as with opiates like heroine, endorphins are released, and our reward receptors are activated, at the reptilian brain level. It takes no effort at all. We then become compelled to repeat the experience over an over. That's called addiction and leads ultimately to the atrophy of the higher order parts of our brains (among other negative impacts, which I've listed in this and my previous post) making us stupider. The same could be said for endorphin releases like those associated with a "runner's high," which also take place at the reptilian level. Those who become addicted to this tend to run their bodies into the ground, often causing permanent physical damage. I've known some of these people and it isn't pretty.

Listen, you can scoff about the science. People often scoff at science that doesn't sound like something they already think they know, but the addictive properties of television are well-established. Keep in mind that not everyone who watches TV becomes an addict. Even nicotine, the most addictive substance known to man only has about a 30% addiction rate. So it's true that everyone who smokes doesn't become an addict, but for those for those who do become addicted, it usually ends badly unless they can break the addiction. When people are writing here about their addictions, or their children's addictions, they are talking about a real thing.

Celia Marie (W.) B. said...

I'm one of those parents who feels boxed in at the moment. I believe in limiting screen time. I believe in the need for kids to play. I have a 4 year old, a 2 year old, and I'm pregnant. In Texas. In record breaking (going on 35 days over 100* plus humidity) hot summer. I live in a little house. I have a larger yard, but it's way, way, way too hot to go out to play. I'm tired all the time. My kids fight constantly when I enforce my screen limits. It's exhausting. It's too hot to go to the pool or the lake. I'm too tired to come up with creative projects that will last all day. We live 14 hours from our closest relative. I feel major amounts of guilt about it, but the TV and computer have been my fall backs recently because all of these factors have created the "perfect storm" for exhaustion and contention in my home. I'm hoping one of these days I'll get more energy back, the weather will break, the boys will stop destroying or defacing my house if I give them markers, etc. But for now, it's just plain hard.

Unknown said...

Hi Tom, excellent post!

Another source for the effects of TV on the brain is the Scientific American Article “Television Addiction Is No Mere Metaphor”

Full Text:

Here is a quote from the article:

“To study people's reactions to TV, researchers have undertaken laboratory experiments in which they have monitored the brain waves (using an electroencephalograph, or EEG), skin resistance or heart rate of people watching television. To track behavior and emotion in the normal course of life, as opposed to the artificial conditions of the lab, we have used the Experience Sampling Method (ESM). Participants carried a beeper, and we signaled them six to eight times a day, at random, over the period of a week; whenever they heard the beep, they wrote down what they were doing and how they were feeling using a standardized scorecard.

“As one might expect, people who were watching TV when we beeped them reported feeling relaxed and passive. The EEG studies similarly show less mental stimulation, as measured by alpha brain-wave production, during viewing than during reading.

“What is more surprising is that the sense of relaxation ends when the set is turned off, but the feelings of passivity and lowered alertness continue. Survey participants commonly reflect that television has somehow absorbed or sucked out
their energy, leaving them depleted. They say they have more difficulty concentrating after viewing than before. In contrast, they rarely indicate such difficulty after reading. After playing sports or engaging in hobbies, people
report improvements in mood. After watching TV, people's moods are about the same or worse than before.


Anonymous said...

This is an interesting topic, but most (not all, but most) of the research sited for this post is anecdotal (derived from news stories or internet sites owned by an individual rather than actual empirically validated published research studies).
For anyone interested in an accessible but informed review of the most current research available on children and television, I highly recommend the book,
"Into the Minds of Babes: How Screen Time Affects Children from Birth to Age Five" by Lisa Guernsey.
This book is very thorough in exploring the validated research that exists and helping parents to make sense of it. This book even investigates the recommendations of the AAP regarding children and screen time, with very interesting first-person accounts from the doctors that helped to design that recommendation.
This comment is not to invalidate anything that has been suggested in this post, but rather to introduce actual research into the conversation. Everyone is entitled to their own opinion about what is best for their own child.

Lulastic said...

Hi Teacher Tom :D
I've read your blog for years and always love to hear your thoughts and the way you so respectfully learn from and interact with children.
I can't help but feel a little let down by this post though! I feel as if you have just taken some of the "technology is evil" research and gone for it, without adding the nuance that actually a lot of research seems to be appearing that suggests it can be really good for kids.
I too am an unschooling mum and we have recently gone from being very afraid of screens and limiting them almost completely to letting go of the limits. Our children love to watch, but more than anything now they love life more! Because I am connected with them, valuing the things they love. In the big scheme of things i believe our relationship with our children is far more important then the micro-effects of the wrong trigger for endorphin release!

Pitting technology and nature against each other in this digital age is such a tragic thing to do.

I have put my thoughts down for another website here, if you are curious to read another side of the debate.

Many thanks :D