Television and temperance in modern times

As a parent, I worry about how much television my kids watch, but the judgment calls are getting more difficult because the old rules don’t work anymore. New developments challenge everything I learned when I was younger.

First, let’s review the old rules. No. 1: Television is a bad influence; this must’ve been a rule because we were told to limit exposure. No. 2: Movies are slightly better than TV. No. 3: Books are much better than TV and movies. Good parents tell their kids to switch off the idiot box and pick up a good book.

New development: selection. Back then there were three channels, not including UHF television, which was oddly off the beaten path, like Canada or Wellington. You mostly saw movies by going to the theater or watching an ancient rerun on Channel 56. By the 1980s, thanks to cable, three stations became 300. Today, with the Internet, one mouse click gets you thousands of entertainment options. With YouTube, make that millions of options.

New development: gadgets. Not so different from the old days, our family has two TVs, but because of the ability to stream entertainment on the Internet to any of the PCs (a near-mandatory tool for any serious high school student in this town), we probably have a half dozen “TVs.” They don’t turn off, they hibernate.

New development: programming. Back then, there was daytime TV, prime time and late night, and that was it. When you switched it off, you knew what you were giving up. Parents could say, with some credibility, “Why would you want to watch that garbage?”

Back then, there was one episode of a show per week, and when it ended, you waited a week for the next episode, sometimes with hungry anticipation. Today, you can gorge yourself on five seasons of a TV series in one marathon session – the between-show cliffhangers as infectious as ever – pausing the stream only long enough for bio breaks.

New development: crossover entertainment. The movies are more like computer games, and the computer games more like movies. If you don’t believe it, check out Transformers: Dark of the Moon, a computer-generated movie, and Batman: Arkham City, a game starring Mark Hamill and containing more plot and characters than any movie at the Cineplex.

Is anything still the same? Old rule No. 1 must be because I still encounter people who sniff, “We just don’t watch much TV,” as if they were turning up their noses at pork rinds or supermarket checkout tabloids. These sophisticates prefer “literature” (probably Twilight) and “cinema” (probably Twilight… or something with Vin Diesel).

So here we are, in a world where you can watch a movie on your PC, surf the web on your TV and watch an educational documentary on your phone, and do any of these things at 3 p.m. or 3 a.m., at home or at a bus stop. In that world, how do you manage your kids’ viewing habits?

My dad used to say, “Turn off the boob tube and go outside and play.” Today, I find myself shouting, “Stop looking at, er, lighted screens and, like, go outside and play.” Same point, updated language.

OK, I guess I answered my own question. Pardon the interruption. Go back to your reading… and good for you.

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