A Bright New Year ... Without Television!

by Christie Clarke

January. We began one particular New Year in a way that had all the ear markings of a disaster—at least that’s how it appeared to our children.

Facing down the evils of television in a household of four pre– and teenagers began as a move of desperation and consequence. Rather than being a move of calculated timing, this evening had the appearance of many other similar ones: parents returning home from a school meeting to find the verboten electronic enticement (read:television) warm to the touch. This was a dead giveaway that the rules forbidding its weekday use (read; homework diversion), had been breeched. We’d tried everything: sign-up sheets to monitor viewing patterns; rewards for good grades (less often than we’d hoped); no weekend use; only-when-parents-are-home use; even turning the giant behemoth TV around to face the wall of the family room (read: hernia potential)...all to no avail.

But this evening was different. A casual parental lean on the offending appliance while inquiring about the evening’s accomplishments, revealed the tell-tale truth. A warm palm sealed its doom. Without a word, Dad turned quietly, walked back through the kitchen to the garage and reappeared with a wire snip held dramatically overhead. Still silent, but with a definite flourish (or was it relish?), he unplugged the television from the wall in the den and, to the horror of his children, ceremoniously cut the cord. Gasps of disbelief rose from each gaping mouth. The guillotine could not have been more effective or decisive. With the plug still held in one hand and daughters at his heels begging and pleading, he marched on through the house dismembering each and every set. The smaller ones—as if we needed to make more of a statement—were carried to the basement and draped with an old sheet. He did everything but play Taps!

After the initial period of mourning (or was that moaning) we noticed that something interesting was happening. There was considerably less bickering—and this was even before we had studies telling us of the marked increase in hostility that takes place as children attempt to reenter reality after the drug-like trance induced by television. Grades improved dramatically. I even overheard a conversation between the two youngest children in the back seat as the discussed the merits of Huckleberry Finn since they’d unearthed our collection of children’s classics and actually READ them. After we’d been told that they’d be outcasts from 4th through 8th grade society because no one would ever come spend the night again, more and more of their friends started showing up. They found doing huge puzzles or playing board games with nothing more than a bowl of popcorn and a radio was a huge draw. Comments like, “this seems more like a family than at our house,” and “I wish my dad would cut up our TV.” filtered to our delighted ears.

I’d like to say that this lasted forever and all our girls went on to win merit scholarships to prestigious universities back East. Sadly, after about six months, we gave in to the pleas to “re-splice” old Big Bertha for a hugely important 16th birthday celebration and the consequent viewing of a wildly popular video. Without our realizing it was happening, television oozed or leaked its way back into our house—though never with the position of dominance it once had. Somehow the novelty had worn off; or the addiction broken. Eventually the girls all got great educations and today are avid readers...making similarly difficult decisions about their own children’s viewing habits.

As David Anderegg, Ph.D., says in his recent book Worried All the Time,: “...with any addictive substance, “First you take the drug, then the drug takes the drug…’ If the model of addiction propounded by Kubey and Csikszentmihalyi is true, one turns on the television because of the powerful learned but unconscious associations between TV and relaxation. Then, after it is on, the learned association between the restlessness and depression when it goes off tends to keep it on. One could certainly argue that, in a family context, family co-addition adds a powerful multiplier effect to this formula..” (p. 166)

“The most contented children I know are children who do not have television in the house at all or, if they do, have it only for use as a screen on which to watch an occasional rented movie. At a recent dinner party, a psychologist of my acquaintance was laughing about his campaign to reintroduce television into his home, in order to watch televised soccer games. His teenaged sons said, ‘Nope. Sorry, Dad. If we had it we’d want to watch it all the time—we’re much better off without it.’ These kids know themselves, and the product, well enough to know that they would be tempted if it were around, so it’s just better not to have it around at all. And for parents who worry about how to say no, how to say, ‘Turn it off,’ how to say, ‘Not tonight,’ and then hate themselves when they give in, it is by far the best solution [not to have it at all]. (ibid. 170)

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