Power Failure

By catalyst

TV or not TV? No question in this guy's mind.
by John Schaefer
schaefer-tv.jpgA recent study reported that the average American youth, age 8 to 18, watches 3 hours and 51 minutes of TV and videos a day. Yes, 3:51 a day. Throw in video games, the Internet, instant messaging and the iPod and the total is 7 hours and 26 minutes of media a day. My first thought is that my kids don't come even close to those numbers, which I suppose means that some other poor kid has to watch even more TV to make up for my slackers.

These statistics come from the Kaiser Family Foundation, generally considered to be the national authority on media usage. The Foundation, one of the giving arms of Kaiser-Permanente Health Care Systems, has come to identify media consumption as a major health problem. Everything from violence and conflict resolution (or lack thereof) to poor eating habits can be tied to daily behavioral patterns and at 7-plus hours a day the media is not just the message, it's the lifestyle. This issue has a major effect on their bottom line.

As a media artist I have been diligently studying this topic all my life (that is, I watch lots of  TV, but it's my job, right?), from "Howdy Doody" and "The Lone Ranger" to "Deal No Deal" and "CSI Wherever." As director of the Children's Media Workshop, my, uh, professional career has revolved around critical thinking skills, the learning process, and the media in its many forms from photography to video. The real experts are our nation's kids, the ones putting in the 7-plus hours a day. I have had the distinct pleasure of being in classrooms and working directly with teachers and students in all 50 states. I know the lay of the land. When asked what kids are thinking these days the answer that pops into my head is, "Duh." I would not have given this answer 10 years ago. Here's the news, people: If you think that today's generation whatevers aren't using their heads, wait until you see the 3rd and 4th graders coming down the pike. The Dumbed Downers are on their way.

Dumbed down? How could it be any other way? Have you watched commercial TV lately? It has one purpose only, to sell things, and its enemy is critical thinking. Even the news has replaced its journalists with actors. Couple this with a societal approach to education that treats our dedicated teachers like babysitters and our educational system like daycare, and  I rest my case.

The good news is that it has been my experience that all these minds are dormant, not lost forever. Give a person something to do, rather than passive consumption, and they are off to the races. Nothing is more fun than using energy in discovering and authoring your own life. Commercial media cannot compete.

We must make media literacy a constant in our schools. For every commercial and every minute of violence and stereotyping, we need an opposing view and the skills to decipher it. Whenever I'm in a school, whatever I'm supposed to be teaching, I always do a one hour crash course in Media Literacy. I love watching their minds engage as we deconstruct commercials ("John, do you mean up to 50% off doesn't mean 50% off?"). We aren't just deconstructing commercial TV, we are deconstructing their entire thought process.

The primary value that a society inundated with commercial media must possess is skepticism. This is not a negative attribute. The word comes from the Latin, meaning to examine, to see clearly.

As a skeptic I had trouble believing the four hours of TV a day finding. Until one summer night last year. At about 7 p.m., our neighborhood had a power outage. Within 25 minutes the streets and porches were alive with neighbors I didn't even know existed. Talk about community building. Imagine how much our lives could change if we swore off commercial TV for even a few weeks!

John Schaefer is an artist, educator, and the director of the Children's Media Workshop (www.mediadivide.org). He is a curator of the Temporary Museum of Permanent Change (www.museumofchange.org), a project using individual and community empowerment to vitalize downtown Salt Lake City.

This article was originally published on August 31, 2007.