Is there a difference between being a parent in 1950 and in 1994? Indeed there is, but the change has come about so gradually that most American parents have barely realized what has engulfed them. The year that this tide began to roll in is not certain, but to give it an arbitrary time, 1950 will suffice.
At the beginning of that year there were some 5 million television sets in the United States, a relatively insignificant number. Today there are approximately 220 million in 98 million homes, 85 percent of which had at least one videocassette recorder. The typical American child now watches television or videos for 25 hours each week, approximately equal to the time he spends in school.
In 1950 the principal influences in the shaping of children's character were still the traditional ones, parents, the school and the church. Each institution, rightly or wrongly, inspired or misguided, was motivated entirely by what it saw as the children's best interest. There was, of course, radio, and there were newspapers and magazines bidding for juvenile attention, but even collectively, they were not serious competition for the daily counsel from the home and traditional institutions.
Today, parents are wondering what has happened to their authority. Part of the answer is that with the television set the ubiquitous fixture of the American household, there has been a change in the nature of parenthood. The time-honored mentors and teachers of children have become voices in the wilderness, nearly inaudible in the roaring niagara of entertainment from the picture tube. The new teachers are NBC, CBS, ABC, MTV. Parents' counsel must compete with the pre-emption of their children's minds with fare that is often violent, degrading, tawdry or merely mundane and time-wasting.
Television, to be sure, also provides programs that are informative, enlightening or just immensely entertaining. The key issue, however, is intent. Parents, schools and churches, whatever the strengths and weaknesses of their educational, spiritual and moral teaching, have always been motivated by the best interests of the child. In contrast, the television in
dustry's motive has nothing to do with this. Its ultimate goal is to make money. This means that the child gazing at television is not a pupil, a novice or disciple -- he or she is a potential customer.
Commercial television occasionally ventures into intelligent and enlightening programming. But if these programs do not meet the essential standard -- a profit for the station or the network -- they are quickly off the air. If violence gets an audience, there will be violence. In a business sense, this is quite understandable, even inevitable, and the television mogul who doesn't get the numbers is out of a job.
The damage to young minds from television, however, is as much quantitative as qualitative. In this sense the industry can -- and its spokesmen often do -- shuck off the blame on the parents. Those 25 hours before the tube, even if every program is intrinsically harmless, are injurious simply because this is time not devoted to anything else -- like homework or outdoor activity or wholesome socializing. Those of us who grew up before the television era often find ourselves wondering: What in heaven's name were we doing with those 25 hours when we were children?
For one thing, getting educated. Ask any teacher who has taught English or history or geography for 25 years or more. The ones I have talked with unanimously report an alarming decline in literacy and in general scholastic achievement over a generation. You cannot subtract 25 hours from a child's week and expect anything else. The teachers were equally unanimous in agreeing that the academic achievers are most often those who watch minimal television.
Parents have to share the blame. Television is now almost two generations old, and the parents are as addicted as the children. A fourth-grade teacher in a small New York town wanted to try a brave experiment with her pupils. She persuaded them to pledge not to watch television for one month, to see what effect it would have on their lives. But the parents, instead of supporting the teacher, were furious. They could not conceive of keeping their sets off for a month. Perhaps they worried about the burden of responsibility for filling their children' time in a television-free day. The project was abandoned.
Just as much of society's concern about television has to do with content. The average child is said to see some 15,000 murders by the time he graduates from high school. These are mainly one- dimensional murders, with little dwelling on the catastrophic, long-term tragedy of violent death.
In her book, "Boys Will Be Boys," philosopher-social worker Myriam Miedzian points out that in 1950, in the entire United States only 170 children under the age of 15 were arrested for serious crimes -- murder, rape, robbery and aggravated assault. By 1979 this number had increased by 11,000 percent. No one would blame television alone for this staggering change, but it is notably parallel with the burgeoning increase in the number of sets.
Do we know that violent television programs teach violence? A fair number of anecdotal cases suggest a link. Industry spokesman for the most part claim that there is no cause-effect relationship between programming and violent behavior, yet they lure advertisers by promoting the powerful effect of commercials on viewers. A 1982 study of the National Institutes of Mental Health warns that "children who watch a lot of television may come to accept violence as normal behavior."
Thus, as we parents weren't noticing, the most pervasive mass influence in history was pre-empting our initiative. We cannot dispose of television or videos, nor should we, but the important thing is to know that most television producers see children mainly as a source of profit. Understanding the problem, perhaps we can minimize it.
Gwinn Owens, the retired editor of the Other Voices page of The Evening Sun, was for 20 years a television writer and producer.