New Internationalist

Tuned In And Switched Off

Issue 180

new internationalist
issue 180 - February 1988


Tuned in and switched off
It's not so much what they watch but that they watch - for hours and
hours and hours. Many children spend more time in front of the television
screen than they do in the classroom. Joyce Nelson assesses the performance
of the teacher in the living-room and looks at the lessons being taught.

For years US statistics have been telling us that people watch, on average, more than seven hours of television a day. In fact, by the time they reach the age of 18, most children have spent more time in front of the TV set than at school. As adults, the only activity which rivals TV-viewing (in terms of time devoted to it) is sleeping.

As this profile of human life in the late twentieth century becomes a planet-wide characteristic, it raises grave doubts about the future of human intellect and the goal of educating children to become balanced and rounded human beings. Television erects major obstacles to that goal both by imposing its own definition of what a whole person is and by teaching us a way of living that accords with its own curriculum.

The overt part of television's curriculum is its programming content and its advertising. Television is a mass classroom - for adults and children alike - in which we are educated in a quite narrow range of behaviors and values. Recently people have begun to criticize the violence, sexism and racism in many programs, the exploitation of children's needs by commercials aimed at them, the biased politics of 'objective' news reporting. Also TV programs made for US audiences are widely exported to developing countries. They impose a commercial culture worldwide threatening to extinguish others.

But there is another aspect of television's curriculum that is more hidden - and perhaps even more powerful - than that contained in specific programs. Just consider, for a moment, all the things a person is not doing during those seven hours they spend in front of the set each day. A whole range of leisure pursuits, hobbies, social encounters, information sources, are automatically excluded. The most powerful impact of TV's hidden curriculum is simply that of keeping people switched off from life outside the living-room.

And as more and more people tune in and switch off, so everything else has to become more like TV in order to appeal to people who have become unable to tune into anything else. In this way television sets standards for writing textbooks, editing newspapers - even for the most 'effective' ways to teach in the school classroom.

Needless to say, there have been certain noticeable effects on people raised on TV over the past 40 years. Psychologists Dorothy and Jerome Singer, co-directors of the Yale University Family Television Research and Consultation Center, found that addicted TV viewers have a shortened attention span and a lack of reflectiveness' - the ability to think, in other words. Another study, in Harvard in 1981, revealed that children learning from television showed poorer logical thinking than those who obtained their information from books. Other research, by child psychologist Dorothy Cohen, found that extensive TV viewing led to atrophy of children's imaginations.

Given this type of evidence, it is hardly surprising that TV addiction is associated with low achievement in school. A major survey of the relevant literature, carried out by the National Institute of Mental Health in the US, found that all the research (bar just one study) agreed that television was a significant factor in failure at school.

In an attempt to counter this, many North American teachers have begun making a conscious effort to help their young students 'develop' a child's 'natural' curiosity about the world - not the TV world, but the actual world around them. Other teachers report that children don't know how to play. They know how to imitate scenes they see on TV, but not how to generate their own imaginative games. When teachers give them a few simple objects (cardboard boxes, old clothes, bits of material, and the like) which could be the basis for playful construction, the children don't know what to do. They are so used to watching TV images that they have no capacity for formulating their own images at all.

Some people defend television by pointing out that, though children read less as they grow older, the actual number of books they read is on the increase. But when we examine exactly which books are being read, we find that it is usually books first encountered as TV programs or movies. This means there is no need (or chance) to imagine one's own version of the characters or their environment - it's already been done. Today many people find it virtually impossible to conjure any face other than Clark Gable's as Rhett Butler in Gone With The Wind. So reading becomes little more than a way of replaying Hollywood's movies in our minds.

It is the erosion - or elimination - of the imagination that is perhaps the most worrying aspect of TV's hidden curriculum. The imagination is one of the most important and potentially political - characteristics of the human species. Through it we can challenge the status quo, raise the possibility of social change, imagine things that have never existed before, social arrangements that have never been tried.

But television tends to block this ability by filling our minds with its own images and reiterating them over and over again. Our own capacities diminish as they become dominated by TV images. And it becomes more and more difficult to imagine any world other than the one portrayed on TV. There is also evidence that TV, as a technology which works by electronic scanning, effectively shuts down the functioning of those parts of the brain that reason and think actively and logically - the skills that have been associated with the left hemisphere of the brain. Switching off this mode of processing allows the complimentary mode to predominate. This mode has been associated with the right hemisphere and tends more towards passive, visual processing, during which the overall emotional tone of a situation becomes paramount.

One consequence of this 'switching-off' (and how many of us describe flopping in front of the television with exactly these words?) could be as follows: you are watching a party-political broadcast in which a candidate is giving a speech. One part of your brain is able to identify the flaws in her arguments; but the other is only aware of the emotion in her voice. Normally the brain continually pools these complementary sources of information to provide you with a relatively complete experience. But if you are watching television you are likely to be much more affected by the knee-jerk emotion of the speech than by its political content.

Much of this research has been done by TV advertising agencies and TV organizations themselves - so we can only assume that they have used it to shape their programs to appeal to that level of consciousness.

Obviously this is dangerous. We need to be alert to all aspects of our environment if we are to live sanely in the world. And it is essential that we should be the ones who control just which parts of our brains we use so that we can achieve what we have decided are our goals.

The person who graduates from television's school, then, is someone who has little imagination and few skills in logical analysis and critical discussion, they have a marked preference for images rather than reality; and a deep and increasing commitment to just one activity: watching television. Educators, and others, who abhor the idea of a world filled with TV's graduates are clearly out of step with the times. But that, in itself, may provide reason for hope.

Joyce Nelson is the author of The Perfect Machine: TV in the Nuclear Age, recently published by Between the Lines Press, Toronto, Canada.

Brazil's electronic childminder
The Xuxa show fills the gap left by Brazil's scanty education
system. Moira Ashford writes from São Paulo.

Brazil may be the only country in the world where the top TV presenter for children's programmes Is a pouting, pulsating, scantily dressed blonde.

Maria das Gracas Meneguel, better known as Xuxa, started her career as a fashion model. Managed by former boyfriend and mentor, the football star Pele, she hit TV a couple of years ago. Today the three-hour daily Xou de Xuxa (Xuxa's show) on TV Globe, tops the audience ratings and spawns Xuxa toys, Xuxa clothes and Xuxa records.

Xuxa's success has resulted In an unprecedented homogenization of children's viewing. Three rival TV stations have launched their Xuxa shows, compered by Xuxa rivals. One is a man, Serglo Malandro, physically across between a lorry driver and an Italian gigolo, who dresses up as a five year-old in short trousers.

In between cartoons, Xuxa dances, mimes to her own records, introduces guest artists, and exudes the Xuxa ethos of alegria - joy. Happiness is to be had by dancing like Xuxa, jumping up and down like Xuxa waving coloured tassels, and of course, buying the advertised products. 'If you haven't bought it yet, you've missed out,' she croons.

The life-is-a-party world of Xuxa has come to portray the official version of Brazilian reality, with its glossy blondes and creamy morenas - and very few blacks. It's a far cry from the ragged, skinny reality of city streets and the rural hinterland. One only has to look at the statistics to see how unrepresentative Xuxa's world Is.

The majority of Brazilian children are black, undernourished and poorly dressed. UNICEF estimates that some seven million Brazilian children are abandoned and another 36 million are deprived. 'It I. common for parents with jobs to leave their children locked up at home with TV Globo as their only companion.' says one primary school teacher.

Yet Brazil is fully capable of producing imaginative children: programmes when it wants to. There is an honourable tradition amongst musicians, composers and poets of producing work especially for children - the late poet Vinicius de Moraes, singer/composers Chico Buarque, Gilberto Gil and Toquinho, have all produced memorable TV specials for children. Before Xuxa's glitzy reign, TV Globo had a variety show, Balao Magico (the Magic Balloon), compered by four lively children (one of whom was Mike Biggs, son of Great Train Robber, Ronald Biggs.) In São Paulo, the city offering the widest selection of TV channels, only the one owned by the State Government makes any attempt to produce serious programmes. It has quizzes, a children's newsreel and variety programmes that, though gay and colourful, Include dramatic sketches with some imaginative and moral content. But reception Is poor and not many people watch it.

In a country where public education is sketchy, It is a double tragedy that TV air time Is not used both to teach the three 'R's and supplement the four hours per day schooling. Although education is compulsory from age 7 to 14 in theory, almost half the children In public schools never get beyond the first year and only one per cent continue to higher education. The average Brazilian adult has only three years' schooling and 26 per cent are Illiterate (literacy being defined by the ability to sign one's name). The drop-out and Illiteracy rates for blacks Is double that for whites. Although absenteeism is higher In rural areas, it is in the cities that the television has become the 'electronic nursemaid'.

A recent survey by educationalist Zalda Cavalcanti in the north-eastern city of Recife showed that middle-class children spend two-thirds of their spare time in front of the television. Maria José Beraldi Andersen from São Paulo University estimates that the average child spends three to four hours in front of the TV daily. But in cities this can be as high as six or eight hours - well above the time they spend in school.

One hundred per cent of the cartoons shown on Brazilian television are imported from the United States, and more recently from Japan. Andersen comments 'Analyzing these cartoons, I found that 50 per cent contained physical aggression or persecution. It is hard to define the influence this has, but most children do not have the means to develop a critical faculty. What I find totally condemnable is the consumerism in programmes like Xuxa's - creating wants which most parents have no means of satisfying.'

Moira Ashford is a freelance journalist based in São Paulo.

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