At our house, where the children are concerned, no source of trouble seems more constant or predictable than the television.
So when the American Psychological Association declared recently that watching TV can lead to antisocial behavior, poor grades and a lack of self-esteem for families, not to mention obesity, I immediately sent for its 195-page study, titled "Big World, Small Screen."Here, surely, was a sermon for the converted.
The product of five years of work by the APA's Task Force on Television and Society, "Big World, Small Screen" arrived full of disquieting facts.
Children watching television are subjected to distortions of the reality outside and within many of their homes. Poverty, disease, the deadly loneliness of old people - such themes are largely absent from the tube; yet they are part of the everyday life experienced by or visible to millions of children.
And yet how easy it is to blame television for the loss of civility within the household or inattention to schooling or unhealthy eating habits or the development of skewed perceptions of the world and its people. The proper management of these matters has always been among the defining responsibilities - the job description, if you will - of parenthood. Television is a peerless scapegoat.
Violence, unreal families, a flood of toy and cereal commercials, these fall under the category of television content and can be analyzed as such. But what does television actually do to people? Yes, television can lead to poor grades, but is that the inevitable or even likely outcome of TV watching?
"Big World, Small Screen" tells us that "television as a medium does not have any clear effect on children's school achievements or on academic skill. Children who spend a great deal of time viewing television do poorly in school, but the reasons seem to lie in individual differences in intelligence, motivation or family environments."
So far there is no evidence that television turns kids into zombies. Cognitive processing goes on continuously, even during the non-stop viewing of what parents might consider the most inane of programs.
Television can lead to a lack of esteem for families, but is it the cause of the breakdown or merely one of many contributory elements, beginning with the example set by parents who do not respect each other or themselves? A child who sits all day in front of the television, munching on sugared snacks, may well grow fat, but is the tube to blame for that or are the culprits parents who buy junk food, tolerate inactivity and will not bestir themselves to see that their children eat properly and exercise?
Mothers and fathers often are at the edge of control, and the television can appear to push things over the brink. But it seems to me - and "Big World, Small Screen" is reinforcing - that the decision to live away from the precipice, away from the abyss of dysfunction, is really ours alone to make and carry out.