You Can't Get Away from TV


TV Or Not TV

98% of American homes have tv sets, which means the people in the other 2% have to generate their own sex and violence.

- Franklin P Jones

Could you live without tv?  We took the Parsons family's set away for a week and gave it to the Spraggs — who have never owned a tv.  Sue Williams finds out what happened next.

Television - could you do without it?  And for those families who don't have a tv (estimated at less than 1% of the population), what difference would one make to their lives?  SundayLife! put two families to the test: taking the tv away from one and giving a set to another (who did not own one).  Bravely volunteering to live without their tv for a week are Julie and Steven Parsons, with their sons Mathew, 12, and Andrew, 10.  Steve, 38, a butcher, listens to the radio all day at his shop, but enjoys seeing the pictures to go with the news in the evening.  Julie, 36, an office manager, loves shows like ER.  The children enjoy The Simpsons.

Our second family, who have never had a tv, are former primary schoolteacher and now full-time mum Anita Spragg, 40, her chartered accountant husband Adrian, 42, and their 4 children, Stephanie, 7, Christopher, 6, Kimberly, 4, and 21-month-old Julia.  They've made the decision not to have a tv because they feel it's not healthy for children.  Their children attend a Rudolf Steiner school, which discourages tv-watching.

Day One

NO TV - The Parsons

The night before, the Parsons crammed in as much tv as they could, to prepare for the seven days ahead.  “We just thought we'd get our last fix,” says Steven.  Adds Julie, “The children are very active, and they’d always choose to go outside and have a game of cricket over sitting watching tv.  I suppose we'll miss the news, and the boys will miss watching it over breakfast and The Simpsons and Australia's Funniest Home Videos.  And I’m very glad that ER isn’t on at the moment.  I’d hate to miss that.”

The first evening proved relatively painless.  Julie and Steve would have loved to have seen the news stories on the outcome of a murder trial after a shooting that happened in their area, but were resigned to listening to it on radio.  The boys did their homework and read books.  Mathew and Andrew, both competitive swimmers, are training in the pool by 5.30am three to four mornings a week, so don't stay up late.  “We seem to be getting an awful lot of reading done,” says Julie.

TV - The Spraggs

Already Anita is feeling the impact.  She and the children cut short their regular playtime after school to rush home and watch Playschool, a pretty poor substitute for the real thing, she felt.  "There was lots of movement on tv — but my children didn’t move," she says.  "They were mesmerised."  Christopher was unable to eat his usual afternoon snack of two apples and a banana, because he was so glued to the tv.  Determined to monitor what the kids were watching, Anita sat with them instead of preparing the dinner, became stressed about how to fit both in, and soon realised how much the tv was going to cut into her time, too.  When the news came on, she tried to switch the tv off.  But it took her a while to work out the controls and by then Christopher had become enthralled in an item featuring the army and guns.  "I've got a battle on my hands," she says.  "I want to turn it off and the children want to switch it on."

Day Two

NO TV - The Parsons

Steven spends around 14 hours a day on his feet so loves going home and putting them up in front of the tv.  "It's my way of relaxing," he says.  Instead, he comes home and finds he ends up reading the newspaper from cover to cover instead of switching on his favourite shows: the news, A Current Affair, The Footy Show, ER, The Simpsons, Seinfeld and NYPD Blue. Andrew seems to be doing more maths.  "They're missing The Simpsons," says Julie.  Mathew has watched that since pre-school.  They like it so much because Steven sits down and watches it with them.  But I don’t miss it.  It’s one of my pet hates."  The boys are pretty busy after school with swimming and soccer training.  When they come in they do their homework.  Later, they do some more reading.

TV - The Spraggs

Watching Playschool, Anita feels that the sequence of events is too fast for small children to understand what’s going on, but her kids seem to be getting used to that on just the second viewing.  Kimberly’s age group likes to see things repeated and it’s hard to have that on tv, so she got a little bored.  Julia's also a little young to be able to focus on the tv for more than a few minutes at a time, but is sorely noticing the loss of her siblings’ attention.  All the children were grumpy when it was time to switch off and come to the table for dinner.  Indeed, Stephanie hadn’t wanted to go to school that day.  At the same time, however, Anita is realising how seductive tv can be.  With 4 boisterous kids shouting and fighting for her attention, trying to make dinner was often a torturous process.  Having them sitting quietly in front of the tv instead, she understands, for the first time, how parents can be tempted into using it as a babysitter.

Day Three

NO TV - The Parsons

The family enjoys watching videos together and is starting to miss that.  They're still all reading avidly.  "On a Friday night, I usually come home and sit and watch the football," says Steven, sadly.  "I'm having to listen to the results on the radio instead.  And then I've only got 10 pages of my book about Warren Fellows, The Damage Done: 12 Years in Hell in a Bangkok Prison, to read..."  Julie’s started wondering about the time tv usually takes up each day.  She can also see how programs are sometimes unsuitable for kids.  She's taking the two boys to Canberra overnight on Saturday as Mathew is taking part in a swim meet.  Already, they've made a plea to be able to watch tv in the motel.  She turned them down.  "I think we're communicating a bit more as a result," she says.  "We're thinking about doing things we wouldn't normally do.”

TV - The Spraggs

Usually, when their father arrives home from work, the children all race to the front door and clamour to hug him first.  Tonight Adrian came home and no one even noticed him.  Even when he went over to them, sitting around the tv, and kissed each one, they barely acknowledged him.  When the tv was turned off for the evening, Kimberly had a tantrum, crying and trying to hit her mum.  Later, though, Anita was interested to see the children incorporating what they'd seen into their play.  Christopher talked about how he’d like to be the Bushtucker Man, whom he'd seen crossing a river in his 4WD, and was working out how he’d manage to avoid getting water in his exhaust.  "He has started to use the information he has seen creatively, not just accept it,” says Anita.

Day Four

NO TV - The Parsons

Steven is missing being able to watch the tv news, after hearing so much on the radio about the storms lashing NSW.  It’s all very well hearing about complete towns under water, cars crashing on roads and areas becoming waterlogged, but it would be another thing entirely to see the pictures ...  "I am missing the telly now," he says.  "I hear things on the radio all day and think, 'Geez, I wouldn’t mind seeing that'.  Then I remember, I can’t.  I wouldn’t have minded seeing pictures of that elephant who escaped from the circus."

When Julie's mother, Doreen, popped round to visit, she was horrified to hear about the experiment.  She could never do without The Bold and The Beautiful, she said.  She decided to go home before she missed any of her favourite programs.

Steven gets a lot of pleasure from the tv and feels it’s now a necessity.  "How are the other family getting on?  I honestly can’t understand not having a tv.  It’s part of your daily life.  It’s good for information and relaxing."

TV - The Spraggs

"I feel so uneasy about this tv," says Anita.  "Christopher says he wants to atch it and I say 'no'.  They all watched the video for 2½ hours and didn’t move.  They lay around like dead flies.  They argue over the different things they want to watch.  I’m getting the feeling that I want to kick this box out because it's so dominant.  I know it's only for a week, but it's proving more difficult than I thought."  Anita is particularly worried about Julia.  She's at the age where she's exploring all her senses and goes to touch the tv, and doesn't seem to understand why there's nothing there.  Then the others get annoyed with her walking in front of the tv.  "There's a stark contrast between the way they just sit passively in front of the box, and the incredible interaction they had when they were doing things," says Anita.  "How does all that energy get so subdued?"

The tv is also affecting her relationship with Adrian.  Usually they sit together in the evenings.  This evening, Anita was disturbed by the noise of Adrian watching tv and went to bed early.  "I felt irritated and there was a bit of a separation there," she says.

All through the day the children were asking "When can we watch tv?  When can we watch tv?"  "It's very hard to manage their viewing," says Anita.  "And I get a bad feeling in my stomach when I see them watching tv.  A teacher was telling me about a study of children and tv that found their breathing becomes shallower, so their organs don't get the oxygen they need, and their growth is affected after a long period."

Day Five

NO TV - The Parsons

"I think you end up organising yourself more," says Steven.  "You think about what you're going to do without having the telly there.  Life is different, I must say.  A lot of the time, I think switching it on is just force of habit.  I'll eat a sandwich and put it on just to have something to watch while I'm sitting there.  It's more for the background."  Instead, the family has started to listen to music together or play Monopoly.  Mathew has got through a couple of books very quickly and he's now halfway through the Fellows book.  The boys have also been playing on the computer and with their Gameboy.  Julie's enjoying the quiet in which to read.

TV - The Spraggs

The evening before, the children had watched a program with Ernie Dingo that featured all the different kinds of snakes in the wild.  As a result, Christopher had had a very disturbed night's sleep.  Today, however, each child wanted to watch a different thing.  Kimberly wanted Bananas in Pyjamas, Christopher wanted The Bushtucker Man and Stephanie wanted to watch a video of Mary Poppins.  In the end, the egg timer was set, and each had their choice for 10 minutes.

"I find I switch it on and just watch," says Adrian.  "I enjoy films but with the children, you just don't get much time.  You're pretty much exhausted by the end of the day."  Kimberly's adored aunt and godmother popped over but, instead of the usual cuddles and kisses and delight, Kimberly didn't even say hello to her.

Day Six

NO TV - The Parsons

Mathew and Andrew are looking forward keenly to being able to watch tv again.  "I've missed it, but I've been doing a lot of things to occupy my time," says Mathew.  "I've been reading lots of books."  Andrew, too, feels he's suffering a little.  Next week, if they're on, he'll make sure to watch Water Rats (which Steve tapes because it's on too late), The Simpsons, and Seinfeld.  "It would be bad living without a tv all the time," says Andrew.  "I like reading and playing with my Playstation, but I'll be glad when this is over."

TV - The Spraggs

The children each have a different temperament, and Anita's noticing how they watch tv quite differently.  Christopher, who can be melancholic, seems to open his whole heart to it and argues when he's not allowed to watch.  Stephanie is far more accepting.  "A child is a sensory organ, not a little adult," says Anita.  So I deny the so-called educational value of the tv.  Playschool might show someone baking a cake.  But if they do it in real life, they can mix and taste and smell.  It might not turn out properly either, so it's a real learning process."  When a walk was suggested this evening, Christopher didn't want to come; he wanted to stay and watch tv.  When he was made to come, however, he enjoyed it.

Day Seven

NO TV - The Parsons

The family’s now become used to not having the tv, but most still miss it.  Julie is the exception.  "To tell the truth, you think, 'How do you get the time to do everything with the tv there as well?'" she says.  You end up doing a lot of things you don't ever usually have time to do.  We've all read so many books."  Steven is sad he's missed the pictures of England beating South Africa, their first cricket Test victory in 12 years.  "I'm looking forward to the Footy Show on Thursday," he says.  "Then there's RPA, the new Seinfeld... But I haven't missed it as much as I thought I would.  Julie said we should now have some set nights where we don't watch tv at all.  But I said, 'Hang on!  Which nights?'"

TV - The Spraggs

Adrian had some phone calls to make, so he switched on the tv for Kimberly.  They also watched the video of Free Willy.  The boy in it, at one stage, is angry and kicks fallen tree branches and rubbish bags.  Later that afternoon, Christopher became angry when he wasn't allowed to bring a friend home and kicked some big palm branches lying in the street exactly how the boy did it in the film.  "He'd never done anything like that before," says Anita.  I'm sure he would never have done that of his own accord."

The children, not surprisingly, will miss their tv.  Stephanie says she would like one at home.  "It's not fair that everyone has a tv and we don't," she says.  Christopher agrees.  "It's good," he says.  "I don't like it without a tv.  It has lots of funny things."

Adrian sums up his and Anita's feelings when he says, "We would look at the program guide but couldn't find anything worthwhile, or the programs were on when we were busy with the kids.  I did take the opportunity to see a couple of videos, on bush regeneration and biodiversity, and I watched a few American detective series.  I didn't even bother to watch the news because it's sensationalist and I prefer to limit myself to the newspapers or Radio National.  We won't miss it."

Source: The Age Online 2 September 1998

I have a lot of opinions about tv, but they're mostly negative, so I won't bore anyone here.  All I can say is, what did the Spraggs expect if they let a tv into their home?  I hope their children understand emotionally why they don't have a tv like all the other kids.  I thought the article should have reported how many families at the Rudolph Steiner school (which discouraged tv watching) didn’t own a tv.  How do these students compare academically?  How do the schools compare academically?  Do students usually stay in the school until graduation?

It seems to me that there are those who want to be protected from life, those who want to be entertained by life, those who want to get by in life, those who want to take charge in life, and those who want to experience life.  I think the groups are ordered according to the amounts of anti-depressants taken and tv watched in decreasing sequence.  But that's just my speculation.

See also:

bulletControl Your Television (if you didn't arrive here from that page) - for articles about a silly show, silly viewers, silly attitudes and a homeschooler who became the "best student" at the "best university" with the help of tv - it distracted everyone else while he avoided it...
bulletTelevision Addiction - The amount of time people spend watching television is astonishing.  On average, individuals in the industrialised world devote 3 hours a day to the pursuit - fully half of their leisure time, and more than on any single activity save work and sleep.  At this rate, someone who lives to 75 would spend 9 years in front of the tube...

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