Television, The Electronic Millstone (Jul 1992)

By Matt Dabbs

Christian Parenting in a Media Age

by Philip Patterson
July, 1992

In an article entitled “The End of Innocence,” Nina Darton tells the story of two boys, six and nine, watching an MTV video entitled “I Want Your Sex.”

Welcome to parenting the media age.

What’s a media age?

It’s tennis player Andre Agassi on television commercials telling our children “image is everything.” It’s one of the nation’s largest theater chains requesting that parents not bring children under three to R-rate features except at bargain matinees. It’s a tangled media web in which the owner of “The Simpsons” and the exclusive licensee of the New International Version of the Bible are the same person. It’s an age where television takes our children around the world before we allow them to cross the street.

And it’s quite possibly the most difficult age in history to protect children and rear them in a godly way.

Childhood was a special time to jesus. He elevated children to a place of honor by commanding all who would follow him to become as children – free from the shackles of sin and questioning in their faith. And in a stern warning recorded in the gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke, he cautioned his listeners that “If anyone causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a large millstone hung around his neck, and to be drowned in the depths of the sea” (Matthew 18:6).

In Jesus’ time, the millstone was a large rock, capable of crushing grain to make flour. Today’s “electronic millstone” is a rectangular tube, capable of crushing the innocence, or the creativity and individuality of those under its influence. However, like the early millstone, our electronic millstone has a tremendous utilitarian value as well.

The first century millstone helped to feed the body; the modern electronic millstone can feed the mind. Yet all too often, unfettered use of television has offset its potential for good. Statistics now show that in the average household, the television is on more than seven hours daily. An amazing 35% of all households are “constant TV” households, meaning that in one-third of the homes in the nation, the television set never goes off as long as anyone is awake.

School age children average watching three and one-half hours of television daily. One million children under the age of 18 are still watching television at midnight on any given school night. By the time they graduate from high school, most children will have watched 18,000 hours of television – 50% more hours than they spent in school. This means television takes up as much as 80% of all waking hours outside the classroom.

Ironically, the more families watch, the less they think they are affected. While virtually everytbody agrees that television has the potential to harm, few viewers think they are at risk. It’s as if many think that the millstone will actually float them while sinking everyone else.

Two university studies make this point. In one, 80% of the respondents agreed that television had the power to manipulate society, yet only 13% felt television could manipulate them. In the second, 65% of the respondents agreed that television addiction was a possibility, yet only two percent felt that they were personally addicted. The conclusion of the researchers: “To put it simply, if almost everyone believes that television has disastrous effects upon almost everyone but himself, then quite a few must be wrong.”

What if we are one of the minority who acknowledges the awesome power of the media and who are concerned about the power of television to affect our families? What can be done?

History tells us that Christian parents will be no more successful in turning back the communication revolution than the Luddites were in turning back the industrial revolution. The Luddites destroyed the stocking and lace frames that were mechanizing the textile industry and taking jobs from the workers, mistakenly thinking that they could turn back the path of progress.

While some call for the permanent elimination of television as a solution, most parents will find it easier to make peace with television, films, and videotapes than to eliminate them entirely. The Christian parent doesn’t have to give in entirely to the media culture in order to avoid the folly of the Luddites.

Artistotle argued that virtue is usually found between two extremes. Between total abolition and total acquiescence lies the right balance for the use of television in our homes. Our goal is to find that balance. What follows are several practical suggestions for learning to live with television.

1. Don’t watch television; watch programs.
All too often, too much of our parental concern is on the content of television, and not the fact of television. We should be concerned with not only what we watch, but also that we watch.

When one watches television, other possibilities are not chosen. Scores of potential activities vanish in the flickering light of the television set. Conversations go unspoken and books go unread. Why? Because we too often fall into the trap of watching television, rather than watching specific programs. Can you name the last five television shows you watched? For many, so little planning goes into watching television, we can’t remember what or how much we watched yesterday.

Try innovative methods to eliminate “random viewing” in your household. Some families have done it with contracts or coupons allowing a certain amount of viewing per week. Why not hold court and make the would-be viewers justify their decision to watch a show in front of a family “jury” who would consider such factors as homework/grades, quality and length of the show, and whether chores are done?

Children soon get the message from these efforts that television is a privilege and not a right. One parent told me that when they limited the quantity of television, the quality took care of itself. The children, faced with a budget of time, instinctively separated the trivial programs from the important ones, and chose the latter.

2. Interrupt and interpret.
Research has shown that an important variable in the potential effects of television or film on young children is present during the viewing. Researchers Shirley O’Bryant and Charles CorderBolz call this important activity “interrupt and interpret.”

One important reason for interactive viewing is to mitigate the fear that some viewing instills. Research has shown that heavy viewers of television are more likely to be afraid of their own environment than light viewers, a phenomenon researchers call the “mean and scary world” syndrome. Children look to adults to explain the world. And, in their absence, they make up their own explanations from the options they deem plausible, often leading to nightmares or irrational fears.

Another important reason for interactive viewing is to remind children of the real-world consequences of the actions they see on television. Without adult monitoring, children watch implausible stunts happen on cartoons or movies with no ill effects to the participants. While it may seem needless to tell children that the cartoon staple of a skillet in the face will break bones, the incidents of imitative behavior in the scientific literature are conclusive: children will try to imitate what they see on television.

3. Get media literate.
While we spend thousands of hours with the media, few of us have questioned how the media works. Parents should educate their children in some basic principles of “media literacy.” First, children should be taught that television is not real. Real doesn’t attract audiences. Television takes shortcuts to tell a story, and these easy answers may not be available to real life problems.

Second, television teaches that one’s importance is measured by wealth, and that happiness is obtainable through things. The real power of television is its power to define – what’s in, what’s out, what’s hot and what’s not. We should not allow the media to define our children’s sense of self-worth.

Finally, children should be taught that they are the true product of television, not the shows they are watching. As they watch, they are being packaged and sold to advertisers. The programming is just the “bait” to lure them in. Someone will always be trying to sell them something – a product, an ideology, a lifestyle either overtly or covertly – on television.

To finish the story begun at the top of this article, when the lyrics of “I Want Your Sex” mentioned “sex with you alone,” the younger boy asked the older, “What’s that thing when it isn’t alone, when lots of people do it? A borney?” “No,” came the reply from the older one. “You’re so dumb. It’s an orgy.”

Somewhere between “borney” and “orgy” lies the end of innocence, and simultaneously, the end of childhood. At what point that time comes is no longer in total control of the parent, but with proper media controls, that precious time can be lengthened.

This is an excerpt from from The Electronic Millstone: Christian Parenting in a Media Age, copyright 1992 by Philip Patterson. To be published this month by College Press, Joplin, Missouri.

Philip Patterson

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Profile photo of Matt DabbsThis author published 1584 posts in this site.
Matt is the preaching minister at the Auburn Church of Christ in Auburn, Alabama. He and Missy have been married 12 years and are raising two wonderful boys, Jonah and Elijah. Matt is passionate about reaching and discipling young adults, small groups, and teaching. Matt is currently the editor and co-owner of Wineskins.org.

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