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Blessings/Curses of Television, Video Games, and the Internet
Death of a Television
It finally happened. Our television, a relic from a time known as the 1990’s, finally died. My initial reaction was more joy than sadness. Now that the 27 inch, heavy, non-flat screen had died, I finally had an excuse to get a bigger, state-of-the-art television and join the twenty-first century. My kids, however, have not been too happy over these past couple of weeks. The Wii is currently non-functional, and the only way for them to watch their favorite Disney Channel shows is from a limited selection on the internet. The DVR was filled with far more of the kids’ shows than the parents, and the latest episodes of “Good Luck Charlie” and “Wizards of Waverly Place” are sitting on that hard drive unwatched. Thank God that my poor, deprived children still have their Nintendo DSIs and some online video games to fall back on. But in the end, I have a feeling that this tragic episode will prove to be a blessing in disguise.
Concerns about TV and Video Games
Like many parents, I don’t want my kids to overdose on video games and television. Some of this concern has to do with content. Disney channel teenage characters, after all, are not the greatest role models in the world. (Of course, they always learn a lesson by the end of the show that they forget in time for the next episode.) As my kids get older and move on from The Disney Channel, I will be forced to worry about TV shows with sex, violence, bad language, and even worse role models. Video game content may also be worrying someday. At the moment, they play games that involve cooking, music, cartoon characters, and small animals. If they were boys, however, they would have probably moved on to jacking cars or killing things by now.
In my view, however, the content of TV shows and video games is not the biggest problem. Instead, the activities themselves, and the particular qualities of these mediums for entertainment, are the biggest concern. Watching television by nature is a passive activity. You sit there in a semi-vegetative state allowing the visual imagery to flow into your mind. This is why advertisers have been in love with television for so long. They have you just where they want you: not thinking. Commercials can then successfully perform the task of planting into your subconscious the need for a product. The term couch potato does more than describe the physical impact of sitting on one’s increasingly large ass watching TV all day. It also describes the impact on the mind as one’s brain gets “out of shape.” Reading promotes literacy, imagination, and critical thinking skills. Excessive television watching promotes a short attention span, commercialism, bad grammar, and the inability to entertain oneself.
Video games, however, are a different story. Unlike TV, video games require active engagement by the participant. Through your actions, you are manipulating what is happening on the screen, not just passively staring at it. You could make an argument, therefore, that video games have the capacity to develop thinking skills and to enhance a person’s hand-eye coordination. It is this active engagement, however, that can make video game playing so dangerous. These games, which suck you into an alternative reality, can be as addictive as any drug. Before the kids were born, I went through phases where I was spending countless hours playing either “Age of Empires” or “Civilization.” As I built my empires and fought off computer-generated competitors, five hours could pass by in what felt like 15 minutes. Then, if I managed to tear myself away from the computer, my brain would just keep on playing. Due to sleep deprivation and an inability to function fully in other aspects of life, I decided to quit playing.
Today, even before our recent episode, I hardly watch TV or play any kind of video games, and I feel that I am better off. No longer wasting time on those unproductive activities leaves me more time to exercise, read, write, play board games, hang out with family, and experience reality rather than fantasy. Still, I am often tempted to let the TV and Nintendo take care of the kids so that I can have more time for hobbies and day-to-day responsibilities. Electronic devices, after all, can be great baby-sitters. Now I recognize that a little TV and video game time is not going to turn them into lazy, game-addicted morons, but we try to make sure that it does not cut significantly into time where they could be reading, drawing, writing, or, perhaps most importantly, engaging in creative, imaginative play time. One of the biggest things that kids (and adults) are lacking in society is time spent without external distractions. When nothing is there to entertain us, we are then able to be active, reflective, and creative.
The Future of the Internet
But I still have a problem. My kids have already realized that I am a bit of a hypocrite when I insist that they turn off the devices. They often ask, “Dad, why are you on the computer all of the time.” Computers, particularly in our age of limitless, easy to access information, can be as addictive as any TV show or video game. Have I just exchanged one electronic addiction for another? So far, the internet has shown the potential to either counteract the effects of television and video games or to make matters even worse. For many people, television is more important than reading as a means of accessing entertainment and information. The internet, however, started off as primarily a text medium. Blogs, social networks, and other sites have created tremendous opportunities for people to start reading and writing again. The problem, however, is that continuous advances in technology have made it increasingly easy to use the internet for audio and video information. So as the internet becomes more visual and auditory, will increasing numbers of people give up on the reading and writing because they prefer the easier tasks of playing games, talking, watching and listening?
It is too early to know how things will turn out. For now, however, I can justify my hours of internet time by telling my kids that I am using the computer to read and write. I am not sitting on my butt tending virtual farms, killing mythical creatures, watching Youtube videos, or downloading music. (OK, I’m doing a little of the music thing.) I can also argue that I am trying to build a little side career here in the hopes of getting some extra income. That way, I will have more money to get a nicer TV, video game system, or computer.
A Modern TV Family
So in the end, we will be getting that new television soon. It has been nice knowing that the DirecTV bill will not arrive this month, and there have been some signs indicating that my kids are increasingly able to entertain themselves without a screen in front of them. Still, it will be nice get our money’s worth for the Wii, watch some movies, and catch some sports action from time to time. My plan, however, is to fully join the twenty-first century in our future TV use. This is a golden opportunity to ditch the traditional cable/satellite model and turn fully to streaming video from the web in order to satisfy our television fix. I may write about this technological experiment at a later date. But in the mean time, I need to do some shopping.