Watch Out

In today’s Boston Globe, Barbara F. Meltz reports on a recently released study by the Kaiser Family Foundation that documents the substantial role played by electronic media, particularly television, in the lives of young children:

Parents rely on TV to help them perform balancing act, researchers say

Television is so woven into the fabric of family life in America that parents can’t imagine managing without it and are willing to overlook its potential risks to their children, according to a report released yesterday

Researchers already know that TV viewing is huge—83 percent of children under 6 watch an average of two hours a day, and 43 percent have sets in their bedrooms. Now they know why: Parents see TV as the way to manage busy schedules, keep the peace, and facilitate routines such as meals and bedtime. Only secondarily do parents see TV as educational, but that’s enough for them to feel “less guilty and more grateful,� said Vicky Rideout , a vice president for the Kaiser Family Foundation, which conducted the study.

“Parents have a tough job, and they rely on TV in particular to help make their lives more manageable,� she said.

Although the findings may not tell parents anything they don’t know, researchers and pediatricians said it’s a wake-up call that underscores the need to provide better information about the links between TV and obesity, violence, and academic achievement.

The report details how TV is used in the morning to help children wake up and at night to help them calm down. Parents use it to get compliance—“If you get dressed now, you can watch TV later�—and to give them time to shower, make dinner, or exercise. In some homes, TVs are in children’s rooms to eliminate fighting among siblings over what shows to watch or so that parents can view their own programs. [full text]

What the report, which can be found here, implies but does not seem to address is that there are broader social and economic forces and factors that significantly influence the decisions and actions taken by parents when it comes to regulating their children’s use of and exposure to electronic media. In many ways, families in the United States are under siege, beset by increasing demands and pressures with fewer (or simply inadequate) resources and supports at their disposal, while simultaneously being bombarded with messages that slickly insinuate that happiness can best be attained through consumption. In essence, parents have been backed into a corner, of sorts, and put in the untenable position of having to increasingly use and rely upon electronic media. They have been put in that position in large part because of the less than family-friendly policies of the state and federal governments. As noted in a 2004 report by the Harvard School of Public Health’s Project on Global Working Families—entitled The Work, Family, And Equity Index: Where Does The United States Stand Globally?—“the United States is far behind in many areas.� As to how so, the authors offer the following sobering conclusions:

The United States lags dramatically behind all high-income countries, as well as many middle- and low-income countries, when it comes to public policies designed to guarantee adequate working conditions for families. One hundred-sixty-three countries around the world guarantee paid leave to women after childbirth; the United States does not. Forty-five countries ensure that fathers either receive paid paternity leave or paid parental leave; the United States does not. Seventy-six countries protect working women’s right to breastfeed at work; the United States offers no such protection. Ninety-six countries offer paid annual leave; the United States does not require employers to provide any paid annual leave. One hundred-thirty-nine countries provide paid leave for short or long-term illnesses; the United States has no national policy regarding sick leave. The list of working conditions relevant to families where the United States lags behind goes on and includes, among others, maximum hour legislation, legislation guaranteeing minimum days of rest, and leave for major family events.

Where this comprehensive global data are available, the United States also appears to lag significantly behind in services available to children in working families. The United States ranks 39th in available data on early childhood education enrollment and 91st in student-to-staff ratios. The school year in the United States is shorter than that of 54 other countries around the world. While the United States has high rates of 0- to 3-year-olds in childcare, this is mainly due to families paying privately for care that is necessary in the absence of paid parental leave, not to either publicly-provided care or to parents choosing infant and toddler care when parental leave is available.

Initial inequities across social class are markedly exacerbated by the public policy decisions the United States has made, including, among others, the failure thus far to provide public preschool or early childhood education to parallel public school, the failure to extend the school day and school year, now that the economy is post-industrial rather than primarily agricultural, and the failure to ensure that employees have basic family-related leave from work. In most other nations, working families can count on publicly guaranteed parental leave; and in many, preschool childcare or early-childhood education is already publicly provided. Furthermore, many nations mandate that employers provide a minimum number of vacation and sick leave days, while others provide public insurance guaranteeing paid leave for families. These provisions limit what would otherwise be dangerous disparities across the social gradient. The United States does none of these. Consequently, as income levels decrease, American working families face much steeper rises in the number of obstacles to caring for dependents than do working adults in many countries around the world.

But, hey, it’s not all bad news. The United States is among the world leaders in the number of televisions owned per capita. Perhaps given recent trends in the Big Brotherliness of Uncle Sam, we simply prefer to watch while we are being watched. But who’s watching the children?

One thought on “Watch Out

  1. It’s not only the policies of state and local gov’t that are at fault. We live in a culture where work = good, and family time = bad. You don’t believe me? Go to any office of any decent-sized business, and you will find a culture that scorns the 9-5’er and adulates the person who works until 8pm and then drags a laptop, Blackberry, and cell phone home to “finish up.”

    And if you have young kids, the attitude is that you have made a very expensive life-style decision, sort of like buying a Ferrari, but one with constant maintenance demands. When you bring up the fact that you need to do something for your kids, the attitude is “well, you made the decision, but don’t saddle us with the consequences.”

    It’s absolutely pathetic. And oftentimes the same people who promote these values vote for the political party that trumpets how it stands for “Family Values” while it endorses downsizing that dumps even more work onto the laps of the ever-fewer survivors.

    And these same people will ridicule those decadent Europeans who are so lazy that they actually want to enjoy their life by spending some of it outside of work. Why on earth would you want to do THAT when you can make more money so you can buy more STUFF. And if you have too much STUFF, you need to buy more EXPENSIVE STUFF.

    Is that what America is really all about? Look around you. That is what the unconscious/subconscious cultural messages are shouting.

    I actually read a BusinessWeek article a while back that suggested working at home on weekends was an acceptable alternative to going into the office. That way, you could squeeze in 5 or 10 minutes of real “quality time” with the offspring–before sending them toddling off to spend more time with the nanny.

    For what shall it profit someone if they gain the whole world but lose their own soul?

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