We all know that too much TV is bad for children, but today’s UK Telegraph has published an article that sheds potentially new light on the subject. I’ve written a lot about childhood indoctrination recently, so in that same line of thought, I’d like to point out that indoctrination is not limited to religion. As this article illustrates, television is most definitely a tool capable of indoctrinating children, and we must not forget this fact.
I don’t necessarily endorse some of the conclusions of the article, but the overarching message is very important. Despite disagreement among mental health authorities as to the precise definition and scope of mental illness, we can paint with broad strokes and come to some very reasonable conclusions about the real impact of television on children.
In order to understand the effect TV has on children, we must understand that children, like adults, are not genuinely free willed individuals. They are wholly and completely products of their environment and their genes. The core beliefs they form when they are young will generally be the core beliefs they maintain when they are old.
Let’s look at this from the point of view of an evolutionary biologist. For 99% of our history, human children have been surrounded exclusively by their relatives. Their peers were their only friends and competitors. More importantly, their peers were the only frame of reference against which they could judge themselves. Furthermore, for most of our history, there was no such thing as accumulated wealth, so children were never exposed to child stars or money sinks for disposable income.
With this in mind, we need to give careful consideration to the long term effects of the contents of children’s television. I have just gone to the official Hannah Montana website, (primarily because it was the first children’s show I could think of) and upon entering the site, I was informed through a catchy tune that I can have “the best of both worlds.” Apparently there are two versions of Hannah, and I am led to believe that one is a famous pop star and the other is a regular teenager, and that she magically is able to be both at once. The next thing I saw was a “speed poll” that wanted me to give my opinion on which part of Hannah’s wardrobe is the coolest — her hats, her skirts, or her shoes. Everywhere I have clicked on this site, I’ve been pummeled on all sides by children wearing only the latest and greatest in fashion:
I don’t want to seem like I’m picking on Hannah. I really did just pick out the first children’s show name that popped into my head. However, my little excursion through her website has borne out my initial fears. Children who idolize her are being taught in no uncertain terms that fashion, fame, and good looks are really, really important.
Let’s not play dumb, though. Fashion and good looks are definitely important. We are, after all, sexual creatures who judge each other largely on appearance. Better looking people do tend to attract better looking people. We can’t very well teach children that it’s in their best interests to look as frumpy as possible and to try at all costs to avoid being popular. No, I’m not suggesting anything so drastic. However, I am suggesting that we need to be aware of the impact of a global society, particularly when it comes to consumerism and self esteem.
Most people in the world are average looking. As adults, we typically are ok with this realization, but try to remember for a minute what it was like to be a child. You had very little frame of reference. Your entire life was dominated by a handful of people — your family, your friends from school, and maybe a few other random people. As an adult, you’ve had the life experience to realize that the world is filled with a huge variety of people, and more importantly, a huge number of value systems. Sure, there are high maintainance people who have to have the best of everything and are always competing with the Joneses, but there are also people who choose to live austere lives of conservation and self discipline. There are all ranges in between, and for everyone who has a particular worldview, there are friends to be made.
Unfortunately, children have neither the mental faculties nor the life experience to fully realize the scope of human potential. They judge themselves by what they see the most, and they judge themselves severely. Let’s be sure we understand what TV is about. Advertisers are the reason you have television. Period. Television is a tool for consumerism. While it’s true that we all need clothes and food, and we all want to look attractive to our peers, we must realize that the advertisers who fund television shows do not care about our future. They care about their profit. Period. Advertisers who market to children are specialists in creating feelings of inadequacy in children. Sure, ads directed at adults are designed to do the same thing, but we must remember that children are not prepared to deal with feelings of inadequacy in the same way that adults can.
The article I linked at the beginning mentions that one in ten children has mental health problems. I don’t want to guess at what specifically they mean by that, but here in America, childhood depression and obesity run rampant. Attention Deficit Disorder has seemingly become the norm. We must remember that our brains were conditioned on the African plains, not in front of televisions. Young brains are not prepared for the kind of intense imagery we see on TV. What we experience in childhood is the primary determining factor in who we will become as adults.
Please read (or re-read) my article on conspicuous consumption. Think very carefully about the full impact of putting children in front of a blatant marketing tool for four to eight hours per day. Think about what percentage of their formative years will be spent comparing themselves to Hannah Montana. Consider how many ads they will see for unhealthy food and expensive toys. Consider how many kids’ shows and movies portray adults as clueless simpletons. These images, sounds, and ideas will be incorporated into childrens’ brains in a direct proportion to the amount of time they spend exposed to them. They will be weighed against alternatives as they are presented. We must not make the mistake of believing that we can tell children one thing and then expose them to something completely different, and expect our words to win the day.
I’ll not decry the evils of advertising or children’s TV. Both are products of our society, which is a product of our genes. They are natural and their value is dependent on their effects, just like everything else in the world. However, as concerned skeptics and scientifically minded individuals, we must remember that all things are subject to our own value judgements. We know that our environments shape us, so as far as it is possible, we must choose and mold our environments such that they will be conducive to our own desires and goals. This is especially true when it involves children. We must not make the mistake of believing that anything on television is as good a teacher as we can be.