Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Don't Blame the Technology

Note: I'm home now, so this blog is changing. I'm going to use this as a place to post some things some of the time, including this post, a response to a former fellow journalism student, Alicia's blog where I had too much opinion to contain to the comment box (it told me my comment was way too long to post).

Here is the original post that this is in response to: The invention of laziness: Please read it first to understand the points I'm making, relative to her arguments.

I agree with a few of your points, Alicia, though I also strongly disagree with a few.

I think you're totally right that TV in general can lead to a lazy population. However, like the internet and nearly any technology, that's really all about how we use it. What about the news (surely, a topic we've talked about too many times in the course of getting our j-degrees)? Isn't there value in that for children? Growing up in my house, we always had plenty of channels, and part of that was watching the evening news with my parents, during and after which, my parents would talk about news items and include me in the conversation. I like to think it made me a more informed person than my peers, especially when I was younger.

I also really take issue with your statement that the quality of tv has necessarily sharply declined over the years. For starters, sexism (including unflattering portrayals of masculinity) has always been prevalent on tv. There was a time when it was funny (at least to many people) when Ralph threatened Alice “Pow, right in the kisser” and to send her “straight to the moon.” This was a show that families could watch together. I think the things that teaches kids are pretty apparent, but I’ll gloss them anyway: violence is okay, threats are okay, husbands rule the household and should discipline their adult wives when they do something “wrong,” etc. I totally agree that there are serious problems with the common sitcom portrayal of a bitchy nag wife and a husband too stupid to boil water who still life the “blissful,” traditional life of career-oriented man and child-oriented woman. However, if I’m deciding which is the lesser of two evils between that and threats of domestic violence as comedy...well, I know which one bothers me more.

You’re right that there is more sex and violence and “strong language” used during primetime slots than there used to be (and more aired on Canadian tv than American), but I don’t think this is always a problem. Some of the violence I take issue with because it’s often in the context of sexy, powerful mobsters and glamourized killing, and the real consequences can be glossed over. I think it’s a very puritanical North American view that sex and swearing are always bad for children to hear about. In many European markets, they are actually much more liberal with what they show on television. For starters, in North America, female bodies on tv are almost always sexualized. In other areas, this isn’t always true. Have you ever seen the original British “How to Look Good Naked” series? It has a few problems (which I won’t get into right now), but it shows women’s real bodies, sometimes in their stark entirety, cellulite and all, and celebrates them as sexy because they are real and comfortable. I think that this is exactly the sort of message we actually need to be teaching children when they’re young: bodies don’t need to be size zero, plucked, tanned, polished and fat-free to be sexy, nor do they need to be sexual at all times. Hiding the sexualized form from curious children at all times doesn’t actually do this; however, it does add a taboo factor that is damn near irresistible for kids. As for the language argument, I know this is a matter of taste, but I tend to believe that words are just words and they only have power when we give them power over us. There are certainly words I don’t think are appropriate, but for me, it’s things like racial slurs that are problematic, not the “f-word,” as we euphemistically call it. I know that’s entirely about upbringing and value, and my mother actually is quite bothered by “vulgarities” like that one, but I think that in shows that are meant to reflect a reality, words like that are part of that reflection because they exist in the real world we live in, and that to censor them all as problematic is a huge overstep.

All that being said, tv can be a problem. Studies have shown that small children who watch even educational shows are worse off than those who interact with parents, and other children and adults instead. TV has always been linked to increased violence and sexual violence (as have video games and unrestricted internet access), but to me, that suggests that a more middling view of tv (and other technology) is best. It’s not the evil destroying our kids, but a technology and medium that is message dependant.


  1. I agree, Angi, you do have some good points. I think that television has become a little more tolerant than it used to be, though. (Primarily prime-time spots indeed).

    I read a very interesting article pointing out how "strong, sexy" women in action movies (etc) was just as bad, if not worse, sexism than saying they should be at home cooking all the time. Not only are they there in skimpy outfits, they're in there only for the entertainment of men who like to see guns along the half naked legs of women for their pure entertainment.

    Enlightening kids to the happenings in the world is excellent, but there's something to be said for keeping innocence, too. (To a point, anyway... though refusing to answer questions that present themselves would just make it worse)

    As for parenting, I would hope the people with kids at least know what their kids are watching so they can talk about it afterward (as yours did).

  2. I definitely agree that "strong, sexy" heroines in action movies are a problem for many reasons.

    As for "innocence," I'm not sure. I think I go back to my belief that there isn't much that's necessarily "wrong" for children to see, but that there are plenty of wrong responses for parents to have to those things (the most common of those responses being none at all). There's a fine line between what is "maintaining innocence" and what is sheltering from reality, and that comes entirely down to individual parenting choices and opinion. I know I'm probably more liberal than most in that regard.

  3. I followed Alicia's blog to yours, and you raise some very thought provoking points; thank you! In some cases, however, I wonder if the conversation is "flip flopping" between topics ("flip flopping" is horrid grammar, but it's just a comment; I can make up words, right? :). Take for instance, the topic of viewing as opposed to discussing mature topics. I get the impression that you heard Alicia to say, " and swearing are always bad for children to hear about". Knowing Alicia like I do, I know that talking about it is wide open. Exposing a child to porn (or even soft sex scenes) would likely be seen as unnecessary and even detrimental.
    On another point, you refer to the "real world". That "real world" is constantly morphing, so is a rather elusive target if we hope to define it and therefore discuss it meaningfully. With that in mind, I raise the question, "Can a society's use of technology prove effective in helping to shape the values of that same society?" (recognizing, of course, that there are millions of other influences). If not, what major influences are brought to bear on a society (and ours specifically) that bring about change in its values? If, on the other hand, our technological involvement can influence our values, it begs the question, "Is that good, bad or amoral?" I personally find it difficult to imagine any affect on values as being amoral. That scenario would imply no absolutes; a topic could be discussed here, but is far too extensive to tackle right now. Anyway, back to the topic at hand; when it comes to technology, it is up to the parents, of course, to work through the maze of decisions about what the child should or shouldn't absorb, but are there underlying guidelines for childhood entertainment that would be helpful to follow? Hollywood seems to think so. I would be interested in your comments/thoughts on that, encompassing both "extremes"; everything from squeaky voiced animated toddlers (ew) to blood and guts splattered across the screen.
    Finally, I think the fact that your parents discussed the news with you solidified one of the points Alicia was attempting to make (of course, Alicia can correct me if I'm wrong); the goal of parents should not be to provide mindless blather as a cheap substitute for childcare so that we can slump into our own unrealistic fantasy worlds. Raising intelligent, engaging individuals is a healthy goal for parents (kudos to your parents). We can use technology toward that goal, but it will require maturity, selflessness and intentionality. Raising brilliant kids also likely involves some quality time with sharpies and cardboard boxes or a good book under a blue sky.

  4. If it seems like I interpreted Alicia’s belief wrong, I’m sorry, but I would draw attention to the sentence “What bothers me most about television is its allowances for the inexcusable.” Since she’d just been dealing with language and children, that would seem to suggest that “crass language” is “inexcusable.”

    I think to avoid “flip flopping,” I’ll leave the loaded topic of porn out of this, since my own feelings on porn are complex, particularly as the radical feminist that I am.

    I agree the “real world” is always changing, so for the purposes of my argument, assume I’m talking about it as it is right now in Western Canada. Obviously, that still encompasses a wide range of experience, but hopefully that helps narrow it down a bit.

    I make the argument that technology doesn’t shape the values of society because technology for the most part is neutral in my view. That’s exactly what I’m saying when I say that it’s a medium which is message dependant; it’s about what we do with the technology. As for “Good, bad or amoral,” that depends on a philosophical view of morality, and again, that’s probably too large a topic to really get into.

    I don’t think there are underlying guidelines because that seems to me to imply a universal experience (and universal morality). I’ll admit, my view could be seen as too relativist by some. Personally, and this is a matter of opinion, I think the current North American “standard” for appropriate viewing for children is skewed, both prohibiting kids from seeing some things that could actually be beneficial AND allowing kids to see certain things which might be harmful. But I think that’s more about taste and personal values, and I’m trying to make an argument based on something more “objective” (if there is such a thing as objectivity, which I think we talked about at length in the journalism program).

    Finally, I would say that, I think Alicia and I are agreeing on the point that parents need to be more involved and not let television do the work for them. I meant it when I began by saying that I agree with some of the points Alicia makes, and that is one of them where I think we align.

  5. Hi, Angi. I have to get working, but just a few quick comments.
    Thank you for clarifying the primary point of discussion; I likely didn't read through your post carefully enough so for that I think I should apologize. I do understand that every home is different in how they approach "crass" language. I see where you're coming from. My opinion on the matter is likely irrelevant to those reading your blog, so I won't bore them with it. :)
    Re: porn - good call.
    Technology in itself is admittedly wires, codes, radio waves, etc. You're very right in saying that it's message dependent. Children seem to have common characteristics at different ages and their entertainment and gaming practices appear to have at least some effect on their behaviour and thought patterns. Every child is different, though, and I'm with both of you on the point that parental involvement in the child's life is crucial.
    As far as overall guidelines in this society, I think the majority of people agree on some things. I doubt that there are many parents in Western Canada who would encourage their five-year-olds to consume a steady diet of war training videos with strong anti-Semitic teaching. Other areas of the world, it's a different story. Is that dangerous? Again, that topic is likely beyond the scope of a blog comment, but my opinion is that yes, it is. On the opposite end of the spectrum, is it a mind numbing experience for a toddler to sit in front of non-verbal characters and mimic only their vocal patterns (which describes a toddler I know)? I suppose the question comes down to whether or not the governing bodies of our society have any authority to regulate what is and is not appropriate for children; or any of us. Yes, parents should be involved; but will that happen? If the parent is unwilling or unable to do so, to whom does it fall to maintain healthy boundaries (assuming that at least some boundaries are healthy for children)?
    Finally, because I didn't sit with you and Alicia in the class regarding objectivity, I can be brash enough to state my humble opinion. Objectivity is impossible unless you're brainless... like technology; and there I'm starting to go in circles so I'll get my butt in gear and get to work. :)

  6. For the record, I love how this has sparked conversation (though it is a little weird reading about myself in the third person ;) )

    As for the subject touched about language... just not sure that showing kids it's ok to use it in every conversation so flippantly is probably what bothers me. There was a whole cartoon about how the "f-word" can be used as a noun, adjective, adverb, etc. With the whole English language at our disposal, words that show such ... character?... just aren't really necessary.

    But of course it's all the way you look at it, too, and I agree with the point you make about words having the power you give them. Unfortunately, as I think we discussed in our communications class, you can use a word with all the intentions you want and expect it to mean something out of the ordinary, but when the common person knows it to be something else, your definition doesn't matter.

    Parents should definitely be more involved and not just use the television as a cop-out and substitute teacher! We definitely align on that :)