"Educational television should be absolutely forbidden. It can only lead to unreasonable disappointment when your child discovers that the letters of the alphabet do not leap up and dance around with royal-blue chickens."
-- Fran Lebowitz, Metropolitan Life, 1978
The term "cyberspace" was coined by writer William Gibson in his book Neuromancer. Published in 1984, Neuromancer was one of the first "cyberpunk" novels that involved a virtual world alongside the real one. The novels of Gibson, Neal Stephenson and other "cyberpunk" authors tell stories of a not-so-distant future where video screens, computers and other media channels are pervasive throughout the society. These fictional works describe powerful computers the size of small books and sometimes attached to a person's head in the form of an earpiece or eyeglasses. Though science fiction often makes grand exaggerations, the "real" world is becoming increasingly virtual. Televisions, video games, and computers dominate the marketplace.
"Over the next 18 to 24 months, consumers will be barraged with a host of gadgets and media outlets attempting to redefine radio, television, the Web, and leisure time," states Internet World magazine. "Serious entertainment is coming online, and developers, investors, and pundits are scrambling to make dollars and sense of the emerging 24 hour-a-day party." And caught in the middle of this media maelstrom are the children.
The children of this new millennium will be barraged with more electronic media than ever in history. The nature of a child's curiosity will naturally drawn him or her to a video game or interactive television. The other influence is that cable operators, television networks and video game publishers target children (and their parents) as part of the consumer base. Children will not be able to escape electronic media and in the future may be drawn more and more toward it.
Though the new media-saturated world may be wonderful in many ways, what suffers may be traditional educational practices. If children spend their time watching TV and playing video games they are not spending a great deal of time reading and writing. Statistics collected by the U.S. Department of Education's National Center for Educational Statistics (NCES) show that student achievement in both reading and writing has been declining in recent years. The NCES 1998 Writing Report Card states that 16 percent of 4th and 8th graders and 22 percent of 12th graders have not mastered basic writing skills (March, 1999). The NCES 1998 Reading Report Card shows that across grades 4, 8, and 12, no more than 40 percent achieved the "proficient" level of reading and only 7 percent of 4th graders, 3 percent of 8th graders, and 6 percent of 12th graders could read at the "advanced" level.
"The average, or typical, American student is not a proficient writer. Instead, students show only partial mastery of the knowledge and skills needed for solid academic performance in writing," said Gary W. Phillips, Acting NCES Commissioner in a press release after the 1998 Writing Report Card report was issued (Sept. 28, 1999).
These are both disturbing trends that reflect what children spend their time doing. Even though these national studies only reflect samples of students and not the entire population, it is clear that student achievement is going in the wrong direction. In order to become a good reader and writer, children need to practice reading and writing. Whether one believes that teaching the "phonics-first" method (the study of individual word sounds) or the "whole language" method (using full text to discover word sounds) to children in order to develop good reading skills should be used, both theories dictate that a child must practice what he learns.
There is a popular theory of language acquisition called "schema" theory. This idea contends that children develop separate schemata for experiences they have and then apply these experiences to situations that may occur later. Children will also apply schema to things they read and write about so they are not confused. Literacy is achieved when children apply the experiences they have on a regular basis to what they are reading or writing.
"Comprehension of text occurs when we are able to find slots within particular schemata to place all the elements we encounter in a text," states researcher P. David Pearson. "We learn when something goes awry with comprehension and we have to make some structural change in our existing array of schemata to account for that anomaly. Experience guarantees a dynamic quality for all our schemata."
Another language researcher, Robert B. Ruddell, explains that "language and literacy then continue to develop throughout the school years, progressing in a parallel and interactive manner, and their use becomes increasingly flexible and complex." He notes that many social and environmental factors can influence how a child creates his own language models and literacy routines. Additionally, Ruddell points out that "congruence between home and school language and literacy routines and expectations increases the likelihood for success in learning to read and write." He states and previous research has shown that high-achieving children "had enriched home environments -- more books available for reading, more verbal interaction with parents, and more frequent opportunities to be read to than did low achievers."
Basically, the students who read the best are those that spend their non-school hours reading and writing. Households that value literacy and push the children to read will have kids that excel in this area. Children develop and revise their schema throughout their life in school. As schema change, comprehension may change, and the theory states that the child will become more literate and well-rounded. But, what if their are no books in the household? In a household where literacy is not valued, but instead a television set is made readily available, what kind of literacy routine is the child developing? If children spend their time mostly watching TV and playing video games, then the NCES statistics make some sense.
Watching television is a passive experience. The viewer simply sits on the couch and stares at the screen. There is little thought and little physical movement (besides clicking the channel change remote). When discussions of how television affects children arise, it often centers around what is being watched. The effect televised violence and sex has on a child has been documented by many research teams through the years. However, what is being watched is not nearly as important as the simple act of watching. Whether a child is watching Sesame Street, Nickelodeon, or ABC News, the process is the same. "Again and again parents describe . . . the trancelike nature of their children's television watching. The child's facial expression is transformed. The jaw is relaxed and hangs open slightly; the tongue rests on the front teeth. The eyes have a glazed, vacuous look. . . . There is certainly little indication that the child is active and alert mentally," states Marie Winn in the book, The Plug-In Drug.
When a child learns to read and write, he must access the schema developed in his brain. As he reads, the child creates pictures in his mind and uses imagination and points of reference to put the story together. "Television images do not go through a complex symbolic transformation. The mind does not have to decode and manipulate during the television experience," says Winn. "It may be that television-bred children's reduced opportunities to indulge in this 'inner picture-making' accounts for the curious inability of so many children today to adjust to nonvisual experiences." Watching television (and playing video games) does not develop a child's skills in word recognition, decoding, vocabulary, spelling or high-level thinking.
Winn asserts that "the connection between television's effects on children's reading abilities and the decline in their writing skills is clear: there is no question in the minds of educators that a student who cannot read with the true comprehension will never learn to write well. Writing, after all, is book talk . . . and you only learn book talk by reading." Winn makes a direct connection between television watching and inadequate writing skills. She notes that reading and writing are simply neglected by a generation raised on television.
Television is an easy target because the action of watching is passive and its content is usually violent, sexual or moronic. However, other electronic media such as video games, taped television shows, videos, movies, CDs, tapes, and computer use (to some extent), can have the same detrimental effects. Though all these different types of media interact with the mind uniquely, they involve stimuli that is presented and packaged for the viewer or listener. Companies that distribute electronic media do so in an organized way. The target audience is meticulously researched and marketed.
A study released in November, 1999 revealed that most children between 2 and 18 years old are exposed to an average of 6 1/2 hours of daily media exposure, of which television is the most dominant. The study, sponsored by the Kaiser Family Foundation, shows that 88 percent of all U.S. households have two or more television sets; 60 percent have three or more sets; and 53 percent of all children have a TV set in their room. The report states that about 7 out of 10 households with children under 18 own a computer and 45 percent of those have Internet access. Most children also had a radio, CD player or tape player in their bedroom, usually with headphones. "Today's youth have access to more media with more channels or outlets within each medium, offering more content, more vividly than even the most 'outlandish' mid-century science fiction novels once predicted," and, states the Kaiser report, is creating "a media environment in which youth use these media largely independent of adult supervision or comment -- indeed, often absent adult awareness."
The Kaiser Foundation report also notes that while the average child spends 6 1/2 hours each day with some type of electronic media, exposure to print is extremely low. On the average, 2-4 year olds and 8-13 year olds spend around 50 minutes a day reading; the 14-18 year olds spend only 13 minutes a day with print; and 5-7 year olds spend 10 minutes a day reading. The 7th through 12th graders sampled for this survey only reported 22 minutes of daily leisure reading and 25 minutes of reading to complete homework assignments.
In addition to these statistics, the Kaiser Foundation report also presents one other chilling fact. The study's creators measured something called the "contentedness index," which is how children rate questions such as "I get along well with my parents," "I often feel sad and unhappy," and "I get into trouble a lot." The report found that "youngsters who scored at the 'less contented' end of the index reported more media exposure than those who scored at the more contented end." Though the writers admit that this part does not necessary create a causal link between the two factors, it is a concern that "less contented kids read less, but report more exposure to all other media."
How children spend their free time is something that should be paid closer attention by parents. There is a relationship between reading, writing, and how much time children spend doing these activities. If the "contentedness index" data is to be believed, then children may even be happier when they are involved with doing something other than simply watching TV. The Kaiser report concludes that when results show that "a measure of children's contentedness and social adjustment are strongly and inversely related to amount of media exposure and to at least some common aspects of kid's media environment, alarms should sound." When the television is blaring in the house all the time, even when no one is watching, then the message children receive is one of laziness and media control. The television controls the household, not the other way around. Do children come home from school and do their homework, or just play video games with their friends all night? How much time do most children today spend being creative by themselves?
If the problem is too much media in children's lives, then what can be done? It should be understood, that shutting out the media is impossible. The world of 2000 and beyond is one of video screens and computers and nothing short of a catastrophic paradigm shift will change this trend toward electronics. Even if educators continue to value "alternative assessments" in looking at student achievement, this still does not alleviate the problem of poor reading and writing skills. In the age of hyper-media, reading and writing skills are suffering. If educators begin to abandon books and look to other more electronic means of assessment, then something is lost.
"In the television experience a viewer is carried along by the exigencies of a mechanical device, unable to bring into play his most highly developed mental abilities or to fulfill his individual emotional needs," explains Winn. "He is entertained while watching television, but his passive participation leaves him unchanged in a human sense. For while television viewing provides diversion, reading allows and supports growth." Children lose something valuable and personal when they don't read. As Winn contends in her book, children are interacting with a video machine and not with themselves. This is something parents can control.
Parents are the only answer to solving this problem. Children read and write while in school, however, when they leave they become captains of the video world. "American youth spend more time with media than with any single activity other than sleeping," stated the Kaiser report. With this in mind, parents must learn to establish controls in the house regarding media and support reading, drawing and quiet activities. For the most part, parents may be unaware of how the large amount of media exposure effects their child. In order to change the trend of diminishing reading and writing skills, parents may have to do radical things such as . . . gasp . . . turning off the TV.
Copyright 2000 by Ron Kaufman
The TV viewer in the pictures is Howard Schechtman.