Television and the Family
COSY, COMFORTABLE, SAFE?
hat do most of us in Britain do for most of our leisure hours? We watch
television! The hours we spend in front of 'The Box' far outnumber the hours we
spend doing anything else except sleeping. Sports, gardening, cookery,
involvement in clubs or associations ... all of these take up far less of our
Does this matter? We tend to assume that the pre-television age was drab and dull, and that the picture we have of it - the family gathered together in the lamplight, around the table, engaged in creative hobbies or reading and sewing - are fantasies of a golden age which never really existed.
TV watching today is seen as cosy, comfortable and safe, particularly where the children are concerned. "If they are at home in front of the TV, at least I know where they are" is the parental comment that probably best sums up a common attitude. We need to take a closer look at this. It's true that watching TV can be a family activity, uniting the group together in one room, with a feeling of safety and security. But that image is increasingly out of date. For a start, in many families, there is more than one television.
When colour TV arrived in the 1970s, many families acquired one, and moved the old black-and-white set upstairs to a child's bedroom. With the advent of videos and computers - and the cheapness of modern TVs in real terms - the scene was set for the home of the 1990s, with no longer just the one TV in the living-room: instead, the family divides itself among several rooms to watch. The argument that "TV draws us together" simply doesn't go for a growing number of households with older children.
WHAT ARE THE CHILDREN WATCHING?
any parents are concerned that their children watch too much television,
but don't know what to do about it. They dislike sounding narrow-minded or odd,
and are uncertain as to how to restrict TV viewing. It may also appear to be a
There are so many more pressing things to worry about! Trying to cope with teenage problems, or a small child's illness, or the latest problem at school, or simply the pressures of work and travel and meals and shopping and money, all make life quite complicated enough already. Why fuss about TV?
Yet this is a subject we must address. TV is a dominating influence in a child's life. It conveys messages, promotes values, encourages attitudes, in a way that marginalises other influences. It is recognised to be powerful by Britain's businesses too. Advertisers would not spend millions of pounds every year marketing their goods and services on TV if it did not produce results.
Broadly speaking, parents' concern about children's TV viewing falls into two categories:
- concern that a child is simply watching too much; staying indoors, not finding interesting hobbies or enjoying any sports, not getting on with homework or doing anything else worthwhile.
- concern about the nature and content of programmes, exposure to violence, sexually explicit material and bad language.
The question "What are our children watching?" is one that parents have not just a right, but a duty to ask. Many television programmes include much that is highly unsuitable for children.
WHAT CAN WE DO?
hildren need to he taught to be discerning about what they watch: an
evening spent "TV cruising" is time wasting and leaves a feeling of
disappointment. If watching TV is associated with being at home, then home
itself can be seen as somewhere boring, dull and lacking in any stimulus or
sense of achievement.
A TV set should be at the service of its owners, and not the other way around! If the TV is automatically switched on when some one enters a room, or left chattering away in the background, children quickly learn that TV is, and should be, all-pervasive and essential. TV discernment starts with the adults in the household. Children should be taught that the on/off switch or the remote control is "not a toy" - like other household items, it is set by Mum and Dad.
Family conversations, school homework, an overdue discussion about some important decision, a good meal, all deserve priority. Video recorders mean we don't need to stop everything because a favourite soap has started. Any programme can be recorded for watching later.
Television assumes an undue importance in the home if it is used with children as part of a system of rewards and punishments. In any case, this sort of approach is very hard to enforce, and the children quickly realise it. "No TV for you tonight" announced in a firm voice in the morning can become "Oh, all right then" by teatime. The twin messages that are learned are that rules don't matter and that TV runs the household. As guides for life these are, to say the least, unhelpful! There are plenty of time-honoured methods of family discipline - using TV as a bribe or punishment isn't necessary.
It is worth also exploring more radical ideas. A power cut provides, with all its inconveniences, huge delights for children. Adults may dislike snack meals by candlelight or scanty washing in water heated by a kettle, but children relish the sense of adventure. Is this telling us something? Is TV as essential as we sometimes think? Do we have to have it, for instance, on holiday? Must it dominate when visitors come? Do we have to wait for a power-cut to enjoy an evening together round the table?
We also need to examine the programmes themselves. Sometimes saying "No" to a particular programme may be necessary and worth the ensuing row. But we have to be credible. No parent denying a child's viewing can expect to be taken seriously if it is known that he or she watches indiscriminately. There has to be common sense and integrity. A parent known to revel in pornographic movies cannot be taken seriously when seeking to impose sudden restraints on what teenage members of the family can watch.
WHAT ABOUT THE TV COMPANIES?
s consumers, TV viewers have rights. We should - we must - make our
views and opinions known. (Click here
for mediawatch-uk DIRECTORY). This is particularly important for parents and
all those who have charge of children and young people. Any programme broadcast
at an hour when children might be reasonably assumed to be watching needs to
take them into account.
Television is a medium specifically designed for home viewing. It is not offered in a cinema or in a private club - it is beamed directly into people's living-rooms. Prime time TV viewing should not contain anything that is pornographic or erotic. Explicit sexual material, and language, should be excluded. Care should he taken with subject matter.
Films intended for adult audiences belong to a later hour, even if they have become extremely well known and feature famous people, and should always comply with statutory obligations on taste and decency as well as the Programme Code and Producers' Guidelines.
Programmes which children are known to watch, broadcast early in the evening, should be free of sexual innuendo, violence, blasphemy or crudity. Parents can ask, too, that there be positive attempts to widen children's horizons beyond the latest craze.
What sort of people do the programmes promote as heroes and heroines? What responsibility will the programmers take if children follow their heroes' lifestyle? TV has enormous potential to help children explore the world of history, science, literature, nature ... and Britain can take pride in having over five decades produced some of the best children's programmes in the world.
When we see something we recognise as harmful, crude or damaging to children, we should write to, or telephone, the broadcasters. Note the programme's title, the time and the date and the TV channel. (Click here for mediawatch-uk DIRECTORY). Keep a printout handy near the TV set or your telephone.
Keep a copy of any letter you write - a typed letter is best but a hand-written one is just as important. If the matter is a serious one, it may be worth contacting the Broadcasting Standards Commission and/or involving your local Member of Parliament.
Parents should not feel isolated. Teachers, youth leaders and clergy should all accept their responsibilities for training children to be discerning TV-watchers and for helping to protect them from damaging material. Parents should also network with one another, providing information, support and solidarity.
Where one parent has found a programme objectionable, others may well agree. Half a dozen letters are more effective than a solitary one (although one is better than no letter at all!).
WHAT ABOUT THE "V-CHIP"?
round the world there has been considerable debate about the
"V-Chip", a blocking device which can be fitted to TVs which
recognises an electronic signal transmitted with programmes with high levels of
violence or explicit sex or bad language and if parents wish they can then
scramble all such programmes.
Will this solve all our problems with TV? Not really. For a start, even if all new TV sets are fitted with such devices, there will for the next twenty years or so still be plenty of older sets around which are free of the "V-Chip".
It is also worth remembering that most children today are more knowledgeable about such technology than their parents - any "V-Chip" their parents can programme, they can probably learn to unscramble! And what about children visiting friend's houses, where the "V-Chip" has not been installed, and simply viewing there the material that might be scrambled at home?
But there are bigger issues here, too. We should not expect technology to remove serious obligations from broadcasters and broadcasting authorities to produce material of an acceptable standard. There are community issues here. All good parents will already make use of a certain type of "V-Chip" that has long been installed on every television set - the on/off switch!
What is needed is not a further device to help people to avoid viewing violence and sexually explicit material, but a common commitment between broadcasters, the authorities, and the public to set and adhere to sensible and proper limits on what the broadcasters decide is suitable for showing.
The "V-Chip" could give false legitimacy to objectionable material. It would be a "green light" for those who have long felt that there should be no commonly agreed effective guidelines but merely the personal preferences of each TV viewer. The whole concept of objective standards of taste and decency, and a responsibility of Parliament for upholding the common good in this area would he undermined.
ARE THERE ANY GROUPS WE CAN JOIN?
ediawatch-uk publishes a regular 'newsbrief' carrying news of
debates and campaigns on the whole question of TV standards. (Click here
for menu page) It presents an annual award for good TV programmes. It runs
regular conferences with well-known speakers looking at different aspects of
TV. It makes representation to the appropriate government departments, lobbies
the UK Parliament and the European Parliament. It is linked to similar groups
in other countries, from the USA to the Netherlands, from Scandinavia to
Australia, and publishes the results of research. It has local branches in some
areas - could you help to start one in your area? - and works closely with
various like-minded groups, community organisations, churches and others. Over
the years, ours has been a voice for the growing number of concerned parents
who want better TV programmes for their children - and for themselves!
WHAT ELSE CAN WE DO?
here is no perfect formula for family life - even if we try to set clear
ground-rules and establish a semblance of organisation, a cheerful normal home
will sometimes overturn the lot. There will be times when we all watch too much
TV because we are tired, there's been a lot of flu going round, life has been
difficult, and all those creative alternative ideas just somehow got mislaid.
There will be times when children break an agreement over something that shouldn't be watched, or when parents will look silly for making a fuss over something that didn't really matter. But none of this means we should simply give up and say "Let them watch what they like it's none of my business".
The TV set didn't give birth to the children, feed them or care for them. It shouldn't dictate their moral values and attitudes either. Parents who love their children and want them to face the world as secure and capable adults know that they must offer them the best preparation possible. That means giving them values and ideals, teaching them discernment, helping them to apply common sense to problems and challenges, and to make good use of their time and energies.
Family life has its own precious value. Memories and a shared sense of culture, special jokes and games, a sense of identity, are all among the important things that should be carried forward from childhood. These things need the right environment in which to flourish.
We need to establish family meal times, opportunities to talk, patterns of living that make space for hobbies and interests. This needn't exclude TV, but will almost certainly have to involve restraining its use.
This need not make parents feel that all TV evenings are unimportant. For many of us happy childhood memories include cosy evenings spent watching TV - perhaps with a mug of cocoa and a toasted sandwich, snuggled up on a sofa with parents, and the cat curled up nearby. Our children are entitled to the same enjoyment in their turn.
The small screen has given all of us a huge amount of entertainment and pleasure. No social historian of the 20th century would dare deny its value. But as with that other great family machine of this century - the car - we all need to he aware that there are problems as well as immense benefits from its use.
Families should accept their right and duty to participate in broadcasting: Complain by letter or telephone when programmes fall short of expectations, praise when programmes are good and set high standards. Everyone should know that they are meant to have the backing and protection of broadcasting authorities in their stance for good material.
Click here for 'Television and Violence'
Click here for 'Television and Sex'
Click here for 'Making Our Voices Heard'
Click here for 'Beware TV's Red Light Districts'
Click here for Joining Form