Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Telemanifesto I

I work at an adoption agency, and thus have a tendency to read online forums dedicated to adoptive parenting. My job is all paperwork-oriented, so my emphasis is on the detailed structure of the actual adoption process rather than the social work aspects of the parenting itself, but still, I have a tendency to skip around the forums a little and to see what parents think about, well, parenting. While there are a variety of different topics to be found, and I’d like to think I’ve picked up a few pointers that I’ll get to use eventually, I’m always most fascinated by the discussions about television.

Lately, I’ve been following a discussion about whether or not a television should be allowed in a child’s room. The overwhelming consensus is “no,” citing control over what they watch as a major issue.

The idea that falling asleep to the television influences sleeping patterns and can have long-term effects on your ability to rest is mentioned, by strangely, only in the sense that the parents are “nighttime television watchers” and that their sleep is affected by their admittedly “bad habits” they picked up years ago. It’s not used as a rationalization for keeping the television out of the child’s room and affecting their sleep patterns for life, but simply as a side story about why the parent is allowed to have a television in their room while the child isn’t. But no matter.

I was about eleven when I got a television in my room. My father was never particularly strict with what I watched—he would steer me away from violence, but never thought too much about nudity or language, which struck him as more cultural taboos than morality issues. (I’m in full agreement with this and hope to raise my children the same way.) I had a television in my room from then on, and often fell asleep watching it. There were periods that the television was moved out of a punishment for whatever reason, but from eleven until about two years ago, I was always able to lie in bed and watch the warming glow of something to entertain me.

Yet, strangely, I agree with the parents that don’t want a television in their child’s room—at least until they are mature enough to take their television watching into their own hands. But it’s not due to the control issue. I’d like to believe that, after a certain point, I could rely on my children to judge their own sense of control.

No, I believe in a household where the television is in a common space because once a television is in a bedroom where other tasks are performed automatically, the television viewing ceases to be special.

I took the television out of my room a few years ago because I’d noticed that I had a hard time falling asleep without it. It became habitual for me to put on a movie, crawl into bed, pay attention to the first ten minutes and then curl up to sleep as the comforting glow and dialogue served as a lullaby to usher me into my dreams. I had a number of movies that I did this with regularly—I still have not seen the second half of Edge of Sanity even though I’ve put it in the VCR over a dozen times. When I realized that falling asleep without the television was beginning to become a problem, I weaned myself from having the television on when I went to bed.

I am glad I did so, but not only because my sleep started returning to normal. I’m glad I did so because, when I was using the television to sleep, I was disrespecting the television.

That probably sounds quite strange. “The television is an inanimate object,” you exclaim, “It can’t possibly be disrespected. Besides, who the hell cares? It’s your television.”

It is your television. And the television is an inanimate object. And it cannot be disrespected. But the creators of the programming you’re falling asleep to can be. And so can the viewers of the programming. By falling asleep to the television, I was not only disrespecting the makers of the films I was watching, but by not giving the programs I’d elected to put in my full attention, I was disrespecting myself. I was not getting everything out of my television viewing that I could. I was not being entertained, I was not being informed, and I was not being challenged. I was simply falling asleep.

When the television is on, it is constantly in a state of giving. New information is being conveyed at 30 frames per second, and when we choose to ignore these gifts by using the television as background noise while we sleep, do homework, cook a meal or just about anything else that distracts our senses of hearing and sight, the television becomes useless. When the television is on but existing in a useless state, we view it as just another appliance that’s always there. The watching itself ceases to be special, because taking a momentary glance at the screen is effortless. There is no reason to watch—the television is just in a state of “on,” so when there is something of value being conveyed in the information the television gives, it is regarded with little more attention than something that doesn’t distract you from your other task at all. When I was falling asleep to the television, the television being on became a psychological sign to me to fall asleep, rather than to watch it in order to absorb the information it was trying to give me.

In short, a young child’s room should not contain a television because television viewing should be treated as a gift, not as simply something that’s there, and until a child can be aware that television viewing should be an active, not a passive, activity, their viewing should be restricted by the parents. In turn, the parents must set an example of their own, and not have any “family room” televisions on when not in use. “Appointment television” is a term used by networks in order to show that their programs are good enough to put time aside in order to watch, but in truth, all television should be “appointment television.” If you are not going to be engaged by what comes across on screen, then there is no reason to have it on.

Television can entertain us. It can inform us. It can challenge us with new ideas and make us question our own lives. It can change us as people. But it can not do any of these things if we do not treat it with a degree of respect that, due to its’ status as a popular culture figurehead and omnipresence in our homes, it has not fully received.