Family life stagnates while we watch the tube, vicariously living the vexations and glamour of others.
We need to do some hard thinking about television’s impact on the home.
Of course, we have given a great deal of attention to certain aspects of television—violence, for example. Many Christians have taken up the cry against televised gore. But this is a narrow criticism. It is swatting at camel flies while stabling the camel. Having granted television a dominating position in our homes, we protest one of its unpleasant habits.
The implication is that if we could reduce television’s body count to an acceptable level, we could settle back and safely allow the medium to pervade our lives. Do we really believe that?
Television has truly become a member of our household. But when Christians think comprehensively about family life and child rearing, they usually have little to say about the place of television. Here and there may be an oblique reference. For example, many authors of Christian (and secular) books on these subjects give the impression that television plays no greater role in family life than a subscription to National Geographic magazine or the children’s membership in scouts.
We should, however, step back and get a broad perspective on television’s impact. Violence in programming is a relatively minor problem. Much more important is the way television reshapes family life and child raising, and its influence on attitudes and world view.
The Act of Watching
Most of us, when we think about the effect of television, consider the content of the programs it presents. We feel some programs are beneficial because they successfully entertain, inform, or provoke us to think. We see others as harmful because they entertain us with sex and mayhem, inform us of only half the truth, or numb our thinking with banal game show/soap opera/situation comedy blather.
The content of programming is, of course, an important consideration. But we ought to ask ourselves a prior question: What are the effects of simply watching television? What should first concern us is not what we watch but that we watch.
Whether we are viewing a public affairs documentary or a rerun of the “Flintstones,” we are sitting with our attention on the sights and sounds emanating from an electronic box. Whatever may be going on in our heads, we are engaged in the same kind of behavior. What are the consequences of this act of watching television? What are people not doing for three or four hours a day while they watch television? What is being replaced—and what are the effects of the substitution?
The most important kind of activity that television tends to replace is interaction among family and friends:
• Parents find it easier to let television tranquilize the children than to deal with squabbles between them or devote time to directing them. Television thus makes caring for children easier by allowing adults and children to be less involved with each other.
• Spouses can let television substitute for communication. While the evening’s programs are on, the pressure to talk is off.
• Friends and relatives visit each other less. And if the television is on when they visit, they converse less.
These consequences have been documented as television has been introduced in the United States and other countries. They exacerbate two other trends that are destructive of Christian family life and child rearing.
First, family life has been weakened by the shrinkage of extended family structures and the decline of natural community in small towns, city neighborhoods, and churches. Modern society increasingly leaves the nuclear family to deal with the stresses of family life on its own.
Second, at the same time, the home has been divested of many of its older functions. Connections with farm, craft, and commerce have been cut; the family’s role in education, treatment of the sick, and care for the elderly has been reduced. Home is less a center of activity than formerly. In many ways, it is a less interesting place to be.
To these trends, television contributes its part. It helps erode traditional extended family and community ties, and it tends to displace domestic activities further. The great amount of time most people spend with television suggests that its effect of displacement in the home is considerable.
Turning Off Growing Up
The results are especially harmful to children. Children develop through their interaction with adults, children, and the world around them. Anything that interferes as extensively as television does with these interactions is an obstacle to their maturing into the men and women God wants.
One research psychologist, Urie Bronfenbrenner, has expressed this rather poetically: “Like the sorcerer of old, the television set casts its magic spell, freezing speech and action, turning the living into silent statues so long as the enchantment lasts. The primary danger of the television screen lies not so much in the behavior it produces—although there is danger there—as in the behavior it prevents: the talks, the games, the family festivities and arguments through which much of the child’s learning takes place and through which his character is formed. Turning on the television set can turn off the process that transforms children into people.”
Christians should be particularly concerned about television’s interposition between parents and children. We have the responsibility to train our children in knowledge of God, in his character, in obedience to his laws. We carry out that duty most effectively in the natural course of things—eating together, running errands, working around the house, traveling, playing, visiting with friends. Television competes with this process of natural instruction. While children are watching television they are not receiving training from us. They are not gaining experience in obeying their parents, relating to their peers, serving people, or anything else.
Parents who, consciously or unconsciously, use television to withdraw from active child rearing will likely suffer the consequences. Children who are not disciplined properly grow more willful and harder to handle with every passing year. Parents who substitute television for training can expect that their children will grow more rebellious and less disciplined. Television may be an effective narcotic for undisciplined children; but the temporary peace bought by television may have long-range side effects as children grow less compliant and parents less confident to deal with them. (One observer has noted that, used as a narcotic, television is peculiarly insidious, because its users, parents, must administer it to someone else, their children, to experience its effects.)
What Are We Imitating?
When we turn to consider the effects of the content of television programs, we encounter an enormous mass of research on the impact of violence on television. This is by no means the most important issue regarding programming, but simply the most discussed. The research has led, however, to significant findings.
The accumulated evidence shows that an increase in violent behavior is the short- and long-term effect of seeing a lot of violence on television. This finding confirms a common sense supposition: what we see a lot of, we tend to imitate. A further confirmation of this comes from research into the consequences of viewing what psychologists call prosocial behavior—generosity, for example: television watchers tend to imitate this kind of behavior too.
If watching violence leads to violence and watching kindness leads to kindness, then what are the results of watching the numerous non-Christian ways of thinking and acting television represents? What, for example, are the effects of constant exposure to the pattern of rebellion and individualism that television draws on for much of its material? One reviewer, Michael Arlen, describes it this way:
“Consider … how many of the more successful network entertainment programs play or replay a continuous drama whose primary virtues appear to be those that are associated with the sensibilities of the modern adolescent: a certain surface coolness that conceals a passionate and usually misunderstood nature, and an alienation from the modern world (“the system”), which often takes the form of outright rebellion. Adolescent rebellion actually seems to be the most common single virtue currently possessed by heroes in commercial TV series, although, unlike the rebelliousness of real adolescence, which rises and wanes throughout the day—often with no great conviction—it has been elevated on television to something of an art form.”
Among the adult characters who exemplify this adolescent pattern to varying degrees are Chico (“Chico and the Man”), Sanford (“Sanford and Son”), Fonzie (“Happy Days”), Kotter (“Welcome Back, Kotter”), Baretta (“Baretta”), Kazinski (“Kaz”), Starsky and Hutch (“Starsky and Hutch”), and Kojak (“Kojak”).
It seems likely that the way television programs often portray respect, family life, and youth has contributed to such noticeable changes in our society as repudiation of expressions of honor and respect, disparagement of family ties, and glorification of youth.
Cultivation of Perspectives
Beneath television characters’ actions and attitudes are underlying assumptions about life. In its varied forms—comedy, adventure, news, games, and the rest—television communicates a loosely coherent world view. Certain ways of thinking, certain aspects of reality, are made prominent, absolute; others are ignored or relativized. Between this secular televised consciousness and what we might call the Christian mind there is a great gap.
Television, like the other mass media, views the world without Christian coordinates. That media world of fact and fiction considers right and wrong in humanistic terms, never in terms of God’s authority to set standards and to reward and punish. It defines freedom in material and political terms, rather than as liberty from the dominion of sin and evil. It insists on knowing only the natural world, and on ignoring the supernatural.
In the television world, divine providence and faith in God are simply aspects of some people’s religion, rather than fundamental dynamics of human life. On television, truth is absolute only for those who think it so; but belief in human progress, individualism, and democratic political methods are hidden absolutes.
Many Christians spend many hours every week looking at such views of the world. This heavy television viewing dulls their ability to see the world from the Christian perspective.
Television’s effectiveness in cultivating perspectives on the world may be more important than the medium’s immediate impact on viewers’ behavior and attitudes. Our basic perspectives on life may not cause us to do anything, but they determine what kinds of things we will do, and what kinds of things we won’t.
The conflict between world views becomes clearest when television looks directly at Christianity (I am referring to secular programs, not “religious” ones). News programs view Christianity through the lens of secular presuppositions; for example, reporters see the church in terms of traditional versus progressive—hardly a scriptural perspective.
But if television journalism’s approach to religious news is misguided, television entertainment’s portrayal of Christians and Christianity is downright libelous. Most Christians portrayed on television fall into one of three types:
• The gentle, slightly muddled, and highly ineffectual preacher (Fr. Mulcahey, the Catholic chaplain in “M*A*S*H,” was once stunned when one of his prayers actually “worked” and a sick patient recovered).
• The fast-talking, Bible-thumping, and probably money-grubbing, Elmer Gantry—type of evangelist.
• The spaced-out cult member (an episode of “The Rockford Files” portrayed a young woman’s rather ridiculous journey through the world of Rolfing, Primal Scream, est, and the local ashram, until she reached what the producers evidently thought was her logical destination: passing out tracts on a street corner). One shudders to think how common this motif may become in the wake of Jonestown.
The first model is nice, perhaps, but scarcely challenging; the second, ridiculous; the third, vicious.
The world of television is a world in which Christians are either dim-witted, dishonest, or dangerous. If one is taking his cues from television, a Christian is not something he is likely to want to be.
In point of fact, television rarely portrays genuine Christianity at all, merely its own smug, snickering, and wildly erroneous stereotypes. Seeing is believing (alas).
Is the clash between television’s world view and the Christian mind important? Are Christians affected by the medium’s perspective, or do they recognize and discount it? It is reasonable to believe that television powerfully influences Christians’ thinking, because it has been shown that heavy television viewing does shape aspects of people’s ideas about reality.
George Gerbner and Larry Gross of the University of Pennsylvania have analyzed characteristics of the world of television. For instance, they have observed that compared to the real world, a disproportionate percentage of characters are professionals, athletes, entertainers, and law enforcement people, and that television characters have a greater chance of encountering personal violence than do people in real life.
Gerbner and Gross have discovered that heavy television viewers have distorted perceptions of the world—in the direction of the television distortions. Even taking account of differences in sex, age, newspaper reading, and college education, the differences between light and heavy television viewers remain. Heavy viewers, for instance, see the world as populated by more professional people than it is. In consequence, they probably think society is more affluent than it is. They also see the world as more dangerous than it is, and so are more fearful than are light viewers.
If heavy television watching gives viewers a skewed perspective on such aspects of the world as the composition and violence of society, it will have similar effects on their thinking about how powerful God’s providence is, how wrong sin is, how important a personal relationship with Christ is, and so on.
The Issue: Control
It is difficult to write about the dangers of television without sounding old-fashioned. The issue is not, however, whether television can be used well. The issue is one of control. Controlled, the medium can serve us. Uncontrolled, it certainly harms us.
Too many Christians exercise only the vaguest control over television. And they are unprepared to handle wisely recent and coming advances in television technology. If Christians don’t handle television wisely now, what will they do with six-foot-square screens that, with the help of player-recorders, dominate their hours even more than they do today with limitless replays of programs they might otherwise have missed?
In America, the most popular avenue of attempted control is political action against advertisers, networks, and government to see that what everyone is watching is freed from the grossest corruptions of violence and sex. While there is something to be said for such a goal, what if it were achieved? Christians would still be spending three to four hours a day watching television instead of doing other things, and they would still be seeing mostly non-Christian views of reality.
Christian leaders ought to help Christians control television at the home end: Christians need help in choosing the programs they watch, and in investing their time. They need to cultivate judgment on what to make of the view of reality presented. And they need a sense for the biblical family that puts television back in its cage and develops other aspects of family life.
Carl F. H. Henry, first editor of Christianity Today, is lecturer at large for World Vision International. An author of many books, he lives in Arlington, Virginia.
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