Television vs. Computers

by Ron Kaufman
"This instrument can teach, it can illuminate; yes, and it can even inspire. But it can do so only to the extent that humans are determined to use it to those ends. Otherwise it is merely light and wires in a box."

-- Television Journalist Edward R. Murrow in TV Guide, December, 1958

The Kill Your Television web site went online in its current form in August, 1995. Since that time, I have received lots of e-mail responses saying that television is really no better than computers. Some of the comments I've received include:

"Please don't take this the wrong way and I don't mean to insult you, however, your web page KYTV is basically true, but couldn't the same be said about the computer?"
Chris K
Abilene, Texas

"Dear Sir,
I wrote and spoke with you before. I would like you to include some of the information now coming forth regarding video games and children, since there is no other site of your caliber on the net, and people need access to this information. What is happening with the video games and children is far worse than what is happening with TV...since you cover one so nicely, could you please incorporate the other? Although I am not a parent, I really care about the minds of kids, and seeing that during their early years, they are somewhat protected."
Joanne Stephenson
KIN International

"Computers are televisions too! Staring into a CRT, be it television shows or otherwise has a similar effect upon the mind. Granted, one interacts with the computer, none the less, it is the same basic medium which involves staring into a flickering light, creating the same addictive illusion that something is continually happening of entertainment value. I am not a luddite, but I am both a television and computer addict who recognizes the stultifying effects of this flickering, elusive and seductively medicating medium.

"I do not subscribe to the idea that it is the content that is the problem, but rather that it is the medium and the voyeuristic attitude it elicits.

"Television is a drug. So are computers."
Thanks, Roland

"Greetings Mr. Kaufman,
I am a 16 year old male who attends High School in Toronto, Canada. As have many people of "my generation," I have spent numerous hours sitting in front of my television. However, unlike many at my age level, I barely watch the television these days. I find television boring, time consuming, and especially mindless. I believe that the computer, is a much better way to fulfill your entertainment needs. The computer is basically the same as television, except for one thing: Interactive. In television, I agree with many that all the work is done for the viewer, leaving the him/her to sit mindlessly."
-- Merlyn F. Xavier (not my real name of course)

This last letter is the one with which I tend to agree. Television watching is passive. Besides the physical act of actually turning on the TV set, nothing more needs to be done. Watching TV involves sitting . . . and sitting . . . and staring . . . and sitting . . . and staring . . . for hours and hours. Using a computer is an entirely different experience.

Computer use is interactive. Yes, computer monitors, whether CRT or LCD, are similar to TV screens in their form, but certainly not their function. Simply turning on a computer is not enough. One must do something to the machine to make it operate. People who like computers find them fun because they are actively doing something while using a computer.

There are many similarities between the two mediums. Obviously, both have screens. The World Wide Web has developed an extensive advertising component. Surfing the Web for hours and hours can be easily compared to watching TV. Televisions and computers can keep people informed and convey news events in a timely manner (and so can radio). I'm sure one can think of many other ways in which modern computer usage and television usage are similar.

However, computers, unlike televisions, are expensive, complicated, and require patience and training in order to operate. Anyone can push POWER and turn on a TV set. In order to make a computer work, there is a lot more involved. From the operating system to the printer to the modem to the mouse, computers a different from TVs from top to bottom.

I teach a subject called Computer Science in an elementary school. I teach children from 1st Grade to 8th Grade how to word process; use spreadsheets; use Web browsers; how to COPY and PASTE; how to print; how to draw; and many other uses of a computer. I teach in a computer lab with 30 computers so each student gets a chance to learn on a machine. At the end of each semester, I give the children a grade because the work is hard and requires them to think. There can be no argument that Television could be a subject in an elementary school. What would be taught: "Today class, we will compare and contrast the differing styles of Jerry Springer and Geraldo Rivera," or maybe, "Today's research topic is: Does Friends imitate life, or does life imitate Seinfeld?" Silly, huh?

The proliferation of violent video games does present a concern for computer users. The effects of television violence on the passive viewing public are well documented. Children who regularly play violent video games may also be shaped by the same desensitization that TV violence causes.

On December 1, 1998, U.S. Senator Joe Lieberman issued a Video Game Report Card which warned parents about the growing numbers of violent video games.

"Over the last few years, we have seen the rise of a small but significant core of ultra-violent games that are far more realistic and gruesome than the shooting games that first caught our eye six years ago," said Lieberman. "They are also far more perverse and anti-social in the way they reward death and depravity. Killing and carnage is not enough any more -- to torture and maim is often the name of these games now.

"But don't take our word for it. Just read what the makers of these games are saying in their own marketing. "More fun than shooting your neighbor's cat," boasts an ad for Namco's Point Blank. "Escape. Dismember. Massacre," reads the bloody headline for Interplay's Die by the Sword. "Happiness is a warm cranium," promises an ad for Sony's Cardinal Syn," noted Lieberman.

Violent video games are all the rage. Teenage children all play games with ultra-violent acts and themes. Yet, where TV violence is something parents must closely monitor, video game violence does not get the same attention.

According to David A. Walsh, Ph.D., president of the National Institute on Media and the Family the reason is that not much research has been done on the affects of video game violence. "Since there is not an extensive body of research on the effects of video game violence, some state that there is no harm to children. That was the same argument used to defend television violence for more than three decades. It was only after many years of research had accumulated that that argument was abandoned," said Walsh in a 1998 report.

My favorite video game is Duke Nukem 3D, an ultra-violent, bloody interactive shoot-'em-up game with explosions and lots of blood and strip clubs and lots of bad deviant stuff. Does this make me a bad person? For me, blowing aliens to bits with shotguns and rocket launchers is fun. But I'm an adult and I don't think I would permit small children to play.

Computers and televisions are different, but violence is violence. Parents must be involved in their children's lives and monitor television shows, video games, web sites, e-mail, etc. Bad stuff can be on television and on computer screens, but what you let into your home is up to you.

Copyright 1999 by Ron Kaufman