Yeesh. The dubious wing of the social research industry is at it again trying to make their studies newsworthy (and grant worthy) by pointing to TV as the root of all evil.
The April issue of the American journal Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine has attracted lots of ink and air because it is devoted to how TV is bad for children's health. There's a nod to the box's evil cousins - video games and the Internet - but television, as the oldest and most worldly family member, is the uber-villain.
Now, far be it from me to defend television. I have my own grievances, starting with the writers of 24 who appear to have lost all concept of plot.
But the pseudo-science delivered by this kind of research is downright dangerous. The articles imply that TV-watching leads to such ills as adolescent promiscuity, junk-food consumption and obesity.
Have you noticed how TV seems to fill the same role for some academics as The Devil does for fundamentalists - a handy excuse for a host of social and personal failings. Now, of course, the studies merely "link" these findings - which is the responsible, academic thing to say. But the fact that they were looking to "link" bad behaviour with entertainment media in the first place tells us all we need to know about what they're really saying: the TV made 'em do it.
Among the findings:
- Overweight three-year-olds were more likely to be awake in rooms with a TV on for two or more hours daily.
Did the tots buy that TV and hook it up? Were they actually watching it? So, what the study really means is that people with sedentary lifestyles (as indicated by a lot of TV watching) raise children with sedentary lifestyles, and this leads to weight problems? How is the TV to blame, again?
- Black children - excuse me, African-American children - are exposed to more commercials for junk food via Black Entertainment Television than are children watching the WB or the Disney Channel.
So, is this some great conspiracy to undermine a minority group by forcing an inferior diet on them? Or did marketing research show that the audience viewing one station was more inclined to buy junk food than the audience viewing other stations, making ads here the best bang-for-the-buck?
Cuz, if ads can actually make people do things they are opposed to doing, why aren't they putting more sugary-cereal ads on stations with a fruits-and-vegetables audience? Maybe have Count Chocula sponsor Masterpiece Theatre? Could it be because that's not how advertising works and advertisers are sensitive to only one colour: green. That said, never let logic get in the way of a good conspiracy theory.
- Male college students who played violent video games such as Grand Theft Auto III had more negative emotions and higher blood pressure than those assigned to watch The Simpsons video game.
Dare I say that would probably be true of audiences for Macbeth versus audiences for A Midsummer Night's Dream - if anyone bothered to study this. But then, there's no incentive to prove Shakespeare is evil. Well, except among high school students condemned to read Julius Caesar. Alas, they lack the cash to fund such a study.
Ad it up
- The more TV third and fourth graders watch, the more they asked their parents for the products advertised.
Well, no shit, Sherlock. Do the people doing this research actually understand the goals of advertising? I'm guessing the parents of these children are more inclined to want the things targeted to their tastes, too - once they've seen them. How can you want something unless you know it exists?
Say, maybe there's a PhD dissertation in this: Metaphysics and Advertising, or how many iPods have to dance on the head of a pin before we all want one?
But getting back to logic, how is having the kiddie greed gene activated a health hazard? Do the little darlings faint from shock when they hear the word no?
Snake-oil sellers have always been with us -- isn't it the job of parents to teach their kids to be skeptical of society's sales force? This may come as a shock to some, but the world is not a warm Sesame-Street-kind-of-a-place and advertisers do not have the best interests of their vic…er, customers in mind. The earlier kids learn this, the better.
Of course, it turns out even Sesame Street isn't Sesame Street. The production house that means caring and quality to parents just announced it's releasing dvds for the six-month-old audience. Sesame Beginnings is stirring controversy, courtesy of the American Academy of Pediatrics' statement advising against TV viewing for children under two. The people who brought us shows sponsored by the letter Y protest that their offerings are better than average in that they encourage "parent interaction" with the ankle-biters. Which suggests the folks living on Sesame Street aren't clear on the reason people plop the precious ones in front of the box in the first place.
Sex and the parents
But back to the studies, which delivered one of my all-time favourite findings:
- Teens under 16 who watched at least two hours TV a day, and had parents who strongly disapproved of sex, were more likely to initiate sexual intercourse.
To hell with the TV connection, I'm curious about why teens with disapproving parents were more likely to have sex. Unfortunately, there were no opinions about the parents, just the TV.
But I have a few theories. People with rigid, censorious attitudes tend to be a fry short of a Happy Meal and therefore make lousy parents, which in turn leads to defiant children. That could be the social explanation. Then there's the genetic one: stupid people have stupid children. I've long been fascinated by parents who seem mystified by the obnoxious things their offspring do when the rest of us can see that the kids behave just like the parental units.
Of course, there's also a theory gleaned from evolutionary biology: teens just want to have sex. For the species, getting on with the business of contributing to the gene pool promptly, makes a lot of sense. In response to those inevitable periods when life expectancy is only 40ish (the iron age, the industrial revolution,) or eras when half of women die in childbirth and half of children die in infancy, Nature was smart to encode the instinct to rut early, rut often. It's good for survival.
So how can TV be held responsible for the adolescent urge-to-merge? It's more likely their relentless sex drive is what makes shows about naked-and-beautiful people doing the wild thing so damned attractive. (To people of all ages, I might add, but I understand why parents would rather blame mass media for this and so much else - like their own taste for porn.)
It's unfashionable to say, but I have a sneaking suspicion that the fat, stupid, hostile, lazy and promiscuous didn't get that way because of TV. My bet is that they're addicted to TV and its relatives because they offer so darn much that appeals to the fat, stupid, lazy, hostile and promiscuous.
I'd mount a study to this effect if I could find someone to fund it. But it seems no one wants to pony up the cash for research that may conclude that we have only ourselves to blame.
© Shannon Rupp. For permission to reprint this article please contact the author: shannon(at)shannonrupp.com.