Altered States: How Television Changes Childhood


This article originally appeared in Issue# 52-53

In your award-winning book No Sense of Place: The Impact of Electronic Media on Social Behavior, you deal with television's role in blurring traditional distinctions between public and private spheres. In particular, you say that TV and other electronic media have connected the home to the outside world. What impact has this had on the family?


The family sphere used to be defined by its isolation from the public realm. There was the public male realm of "rational accomplishment" and brutal competition, and the private female and child-rearing sphere of home, intuition and emotion. The private realm was supposed to be isolated from the nasty realities of adult life. For both better and worse, television and other electronic media tend to break down the difference between those two worlds. The membrane around the family sphere is much more permeable. Children are now exposed to many aspects of adult male life, and even homebound women are no longer fully isolated from the public realm. TV takes public events and transforms them into dramas that are played out in the privacy of our living rooms, kitchens and bedrooms.

Parents used to be the channel through which children learned about the outside world. They could decide what to tell their children and when to tell it to them. Since children learn to read in stages, books provide a kind of natural screening process, where adults can decide what to tell and not tell children of different reading abilities. Television destroyed the system that segregated adult from child knowledge and separated information into year-by-year slices for children of different ages. Instead, it presents the same information directly to children of all ages, without going through adult filters. TV takes our kids across the globe before parents give them permission to cross the street. Children don't necessarily understand everything that they see on television, but they are exposed to many aspects of the adult world that parents might not have decided to tell them about.

So television presents a real challenge to adults. While a parent can read a newspaper without sharing it with children in the same room, televison is accessible to everyone in that space. And unlike books, television doesn't allow us to flip through it and see what's coming up. We may think we're giving our children a lesson in science by having them watch the Challenger take off, and then suddenly they learn about death, disaster and adult mistakes. We have no way to protect them from that.

Books allow adults to discuss privately what to tell or not tell children. This also allows parents to keep adult material secret from children and keep their secret keeping secret. Take that same material and put it on The Today Show and you have 800,000 children hearing the very things the adults are trying to keep from them. More importantly, kids learn the "secret of secrecy," that adults conspire over what to tell or not tell children. They learn that adults are worried and anxious about being parents.


"Television takes our kids across the globe
before parents give them permission to cross the street."


How has this altered parental authority?

I think adults feel somewhat exposed now and no longer pretend to know everything in front of their children. This is not to say that adults have absolutely lost their authority. Kids look up to adults and want them to know a lot of answers. But through television, kids come to realize that adults do have many, many problems: adults fight, adults kill each other, adults cry, adults lose control, and so on. And adults now know that kids know these things about them.

Television supports the desire for adult authority but also makes children aware that it's not always there and that kids may even have to help parents gain authority over them. This paradoxical appoach to adult authority is seen most dramatically in the public service messages where kids are shown urging an alcoholic parent to become more responsible. TV empowers children to empower their parents.

This doesn't mean that adults should abdicate their authority over children. Adults are more experienced and knowledgeable. Adults should try to control and discuss what their kids watch. They should also try and maintain authority in their relationships with children in face-to-face interaction. But the old support system for unquestioned adult authority has been undermined significantly by television.

What's the psychic price of this blurring of adult and child spheres?

That's a complex question. I can give you a partial, historical answer. Up until the last 400 years in Western culture, there was no such thing as childhood as we have come to think of it. Even as late as the Middle Ages, children dressed like adults, drank in taverns, gambled, went to war, and those few who attended schools often went armed. The modern notions of childhood and adulthood only developed with the spread of literacy.

We must realize, however, that while TV encourages a kind of blurring of roles, it doesn't provide the social mechanisms for allowing change to happen. In fact, the initial short-term outcome isn't more harmony or equality; if anything, it's more tension and frustration. TV makes us aware of all the places we can't go, all the people we can't be, all the things we can't possess. TV makes us so aware of the larger world that many of us - especially women, children and minorities - begin to feel unfairly isolated in some corner of it.

By encouraging behaviors not yet supported by societal institutions, television places families under a lot of stress. Children now know more about the adult world, and most mothers have entered what was once the male workplace. Yet some schools continue to follow lesson plans that assume children's degree of awareness of the world still correlates only with age and reading ability. And many businesses continue to function as if each employee - whether male or female - has a wife at home cooking, cleaning and watching the kids. There have to be adjustments in the expectations of what goes on in schools, offices and at home. For example, there must be more flexible work schedules and more integration of family life and children in the business world.


Author Bio: 

Josh Meyrowitz is professor of communications at University of New Hampshire. Barbara Osborn, former media literacy teacher and freelance journalist in Los Angeles, was a contributing editor to Media&Values. She is currently pursuing doctoral studies in sociology. A longer version of this interview first appeared in the catalogue of the exhibition From Receiver to Remote Control: The TV Set, 1990, The New Museum of Contemporary Art, New York, NY. Jo