Visual Media: Yes, Yes, But is it Living?

By Alison Hendricks

My children are addicts.

All right, so they’re not really addicts, but they certainly act like addicts where television and video are concerned. I constantly feel like the bad guy because evidently they are too young to have developed the self-control necessary for turning the TV off. Maybe some habit formation is in order! However, I often wonder if I am not responsible for their behavior because I so severely limit their screen time…sort of a forbidden fruit effect. At our home, movie night comes on Friday night and they are allowed to watch a bit of television with their dad on the weekends, an hour or two total for the week.
According to kidshealth.org:
*two-thirds of infants and toddlers watch a screen an average of 2 hours a day
*kids under age 6 watch an average of about 2 hours of screen media a day, primarily TV and videos or DVDs
*kids and teens 8 to 18 years spend nearly 4 hours a day in front of a TV screen and almost 2 additional hours on the computer (outside of schoolwork) and playing video games

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends that kids under 2 years old not watch any TV and that those older than 2 watch no more than 1 to 2 hours a day of quality programming.
The first 2 years of life are considered a critical time for brain development. TV and other electronic media can get in the way of exploring, playing, and interacting with parents and others, which encourages learning and healthy physical and social development.
As kids get older, too much screen time can interfere with activities such as being physically active, reading, doing homework, playing with friends, and spending time with family.

While these are valid reasons for limiting screen time, my children’s physical and social health are not the real reasons why we limit the boob tube. Their spiritual and intellectual health are, in my thinking, the more important developmental aspects and are worthy of protection. There is so little of value in the way of children’s programming and movies, yet there is so much in this genre! How do we wade through it all and find truly living media?

Obviously Charlotte Mason couldn’t have said much on the subject of children’s television, but she had plenty to say about literature.

The subject of ‘Children’s Literature’ has been well threshed out, and only one thing remains to be said,––children have no natural appetite for twaddle, and a special literature for children is probably far less necessary than the book sellers would have us suppose. Out of any list of ‘the hundred best books,’ I believe that seventy-five would be well within the range of children of eight or nine. They would delight in Rasselas, Eöthen would fascinate them as much as Robinson Crusoe, the Faëry Queen, with its allegory and knightly adventures and sense of free moving in woodland scenery, would exactly fall in with their humour. What they want is to be brought into touch with living thought of the best, and their intellectual life feeds upon it with little meddling on our part. Book III, School Education, pg. 122.

So, here is a thought…what if we approached television with the same attitude? What if we examined what our children watch with the thought in mind that twaddle television just might be junk food for the brain? Sure it’s fun and they like it because it doesn’t require much of them, but even the stuff that is labelled “children’s educational television” is probably dumbed down and unnecessary. If we approached our TV with this attitude, our remote control would rarely pause on Nickelodeon, Cartoon Network or Disney Channel. Instead, we might set our DVR for programs on the History Channel, Discovery Channel, PBS, Food Network or the Documentary Channel (not the kid versions of these same channels!). My kids have no idea what other kids mean when they talk about Kick Buttowski, but they go out in the woods pretending to be Bear Grylls (Man Vs. Wild). ABC’s Wipeout is a no-go with me, but Chasing Mummies with Dr. Zahi Hawass is full of current events that relate to ancient history…fascinating! Alton Brown, of Good Eats fame, is a household name, but my young daughter thinks that girl with the two personalities is named “Hantana” and she doesn’t even know the theme song. This is not a bad thing and I can feel better about shows that equip my children with actual skills or at the least the desire to gain those great life skills.

Now, on to movies…

As l have tried to think of what movies I would consider “living”, I realized that nearly all the films I would place in this category are movies made from quality literature. Unfortunately, the movie is almost never as good as the book and I would be hard pressed to think of a movie that was better than it’s book. So, the guideline that we usually keep in our home is that you should read the book before you see the movie. Even after reading the book, however, parents should preview most movies before showing them to very young children. A battle scene in a book looks very different in a six year old’s imagination than what has come from the imagination of an adult director and is forced upon the child by way of a screen.

Again, let us deal with movies made from books in a particularly Mason way. Essentially, a book is just too long to be played out to it’s entirety on a screen, which is why so much of what we love ends up on the cutting room floor. We walk out of a theatre saying, “Oh, they didn’t show this character. The movie completely missed that part,” and we are usually disappointed. Instead, let us look at movies as what they are: a narration. An incomplete, summarized retelling of a great book: a narration is what we have seen played out before us. Let us teach our children to approach the movie in this way and prepare them to watch for what the director left out in the screen play. Just as children in a PUS school were allowed to listen to a narration and fill in the missing pieces, we can do the same with a movie. Even better if there have been two movies made of the same book, for it shows that the second film maker was not satisfied with the first film maker’s narration. A useful activity could involve making your own film before seeing the Hollywood version and comparing the two as a family.

One final note, there are two wonderful websites that are most helpful in movie and television selection. The first is pluggedin.com which is run by Focus on the Family and gives reviews from a decidedly Christian standpoint. The second is commonsensemedia.org which is a non-profit national organization run by parents and other individuals. Both sites expose the good and the bad elements of movies and TV programs. Both are very specific about issues with language, violence, drugs, alcohol, and sex. Common Sense Media also gives information regarding consumerism and role models. Other pluses for Common Sense: parents and children can write reviews and I like the way they give age appropriateness.

I have been challenged during the writing of this blog series to make use of the mixed blessing of technology in our home classroom. This appears to be a battle, but I am hopeful that we can lay a feast for our children and watch them grow into fully educated adults. Remember when Charlotte said, “the mathematician who knows little of the history of his own country or that of any other, is sparsely educated at the best.” Vol. 6, Towards a Philosophy of Education, pg.232? I would contend that the same holds true for any subject. To rephrase dear Charlotte, I say, “Technology is a necessary part of every man’s education; it must be taught by those who know, but shouldn’t engross the time and attention of the scholar in such a way as to shut out any of the other essential subjects to which he has a natural right.”

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