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To my amazement the Australian Government has come out against television. Admittedly its report is confined to the effect on small children, and takes the form of undemanding guidelines: the report says that no child under the age of 2 should be allowed to watch telly.
But no section of the population is more addicted to the telly than politicians, who vie with each other for a place on the screen, and I have despaired of hearing the truth about this ubiquitous poison from someone with the power to control it. Governments that take a stand against television are as unlikely as distillers who oppose the use of alcohol or dairy farmers who campaign against milk.
It has been known for 20 or more years that television induces mental disorders, such as enhanced aggression, shortened attention span and reduced ability to communicate, and that these disorders involve an even greater social cost than the obesity and lethargy that are TV’s normal physical side-effects. Research by the psychologists Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and Robert Kubey has shown that television is also addictive, setting up pathways to pleasure that demand constant reinforcement. As a threat to the nation’s health, it stands far higher than alcohol, drugs or tobacco, and the worry is that it may be too late to do anything about it, since the addiction is all but universal.
Yet worse than the effect of television on adults is its effect on small children. The human brain is not fully developed at birth and goes on growing through the early years, in ways that depend on a constant exploration of the environment. This feature of our development is unique to our species and lies at the heart of what it is to be human. Many of the connections vital for a fulfilled life–notably those involved in social understanding–do not exist at birth, and come into being as the brain develops in the first five years.
Brains subject to the wrong input in early years will be wrongly wired; vital capacities, both intellectual and emotional, will fail to be acquired, and the result will be a stunted human being. If you don’t believe this, just ask how you might explain the sudden emergence in the age of television of so many young people who are inarticulate, short-fused and unable to form lasting or genial social relationships.
This syndrome–which we witness everywhere, in the classroom and in our streets–is exactly what neurologists predict. When children are distracted by a flickering screen from the earliest age and never encouraged to explore the real world, they will not develop the capacity to communicate with other humans, or to cope with the stresses of real encounters. They will take the short way out, which is not the way of communication but of aggression.
Like every medium of communication, television has its uses. There are important educational programmes, in which visual images communicate what can be conveyed in no other way. There are TV classics, and forms of innocent entertainment ideally suited to the screen. A serious TV programme should be treated like a book, or a visit to the theatre–to be absorbed in a critical frame of mind.
But that is not how television is used. It is a constant flickering presence that competes for attention with all the necessary goings-on of everyday life. Over the years, as its impact has stalled, it has had recourse to ever more vulgar colours, ever grosser language and ever more mesmerising facial close-ups. When the telly is on, and in a third of Australian households, apparently, it is never off, conversation is impossible, and conversational skills cannot develop. Moreover, even the wisest and most affectionate remark will lose its flavour when heard against the clamorous vulgarities that issue from the screen.
All that was obvious long before psychological research confirmed it. I have to say that this research came as no surprise to me. In my childhood television was a rare luxury; broadcasts would begin at 6pm and were constantly interrupted by technical faults. My father took a principled attitude to this intruder, which his mother-in-law had smuggled into the household, and would turn it off whenever he walked through the sitting room. In the few years before he finally dispatched it with a hammer, the telly never gained a foothold that would enable it to compete with books and music. So I grew up outside the culture that television has spawned.
And it is why there is no television in Scrutopia today. Of course, our children catch sight of the thing from time to time, when they visit friends and neighbours. And they have gained a sufficient competence in the most talked-about rubbish to be able to follow the somewhat limited conversations of those who watch it. When with us, however, they pursue old-fashioned habits, such as talking, reading, riding and playing the piano. It does not surprise me that they have lost all desire for a television of their own and are quite content, when it comes to the screen, to look at DVDs on the computer, selected and censored by their parents.
It could be that they are missing out. But the good things they have, it seems to me, far outweigh the good things they lack. The sad thing is that so few parents seem to agree with me.
Roger Scruton is a resident scholar at AEI.
As a threat to the nation’s health, television stands far higher than alcohol, drugs, or tobacco, and the worry is that it may be too late to do anything about it, since the addiction is all but universal.
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