A vast wasteland

rickmcginnis2 I had dinner recently with an old high school friend, now a father with two daughters, and the talk turned – as it so often does – to how we’ve managed to keep our house from turning into a pit of TV torpor. My girls are many years younger than his, so I was expecting the usual war stories of diligence and ever-receding lines in the sand, of rear-guard battles against the crass commercialization of childhood and the gaudy monster looming over every parent’s nightmare of treacly, insipid kid culture: Barney the Dinosaur.

My friend’s story was an awful lot shorter, however; their TV broke before their oldest child was in school and was exiled to the attic, where it’s remained ever since. He and his wife managed to dodge that bullet, at least until now; my friend works for a well-known technology firm, and while TV wasn’t an issue, there have always been computers around the house. “Now, of course, there’s the internet,” he said with a shrug and that was all he needed to say.

Thanks to some choices that seemed easy at the time, but have transformed into regret with the years, I’ve been writing about entertainment for pretty much the whole of my nearly 25 years as a professional journalist. Until I was laid off earlier this year, I wrote a daily TV column that obliged me to have at least a passing familiarity with what’s on the small screen. Which means not only that I needed to have a functioning television in our house, but that it would be hard to negotiate a total ban on TV watching for our kids when at least a few hours of my own day were spent basking in its cool glow – for professional reasons, of course.

Playing gatekeeper over your kids’ entertainment choices isn’t a role exclusive to Christians or conservatives, however. Every year, it seems like a new study is published linking TV viewing with obesity, poor marks, diminishing attention spans or aggression, with particular condemnation reserved for parents who let the TV babysit their toddlers or pre-schoolers. As a result, parents often compare their TV strictness as a slyly competitive icebreaker, reserving conspicuous admiration for anyone who proudly admits they’ve gone cold turkey, with no TV in the house.

Privately, however, we’ll shake our heads and admit that there’s no way we could go that far and, in any case, how far into Luddism are you willing to plunge your family before principle starts looking like mere eccentricity? The computer has changed the game, though, as my friend acknowledged without even needing to explain.

After writing about TV for a year, I realized that what was actually on TV wasn’t the story, as much as how it got to us. Television, as a piece of furniture or a medium, was rapidly going the way of the zoetrope and the telegraph and my foresight was vindicated the same month I was laid off, when Canada’s broadcast corporations all admitted they weren’t making enough money for their current business models to survive and that they wanted to charge cable and satellite carriers a fee for the non-specialty stations they’d historically carried for free – a fee that the carriers admitted they’d pass on to us. (Great, I thought – something else for the “we don’t own a TV” people to feel smug about.)

As long as your children were little, you could oversee how they amused themselves, with only the slightest anxiety about what they might see on a play date at a friend’s house. (Until now, the most alarming thing my girls have witnessed is the egregious 1982 film Annie.) Once their social orbit moves from you to their peers, the possibilities multiply, but at least no one who came of age anywhere from the ’70s to the ’90s can claim to be unfamiliar with the landscape’s cultural or technological features – until now.

The computer has finally evolved from an intermittently efficient delivery system for type and low-resolution pictures to the surging multi-media pipeline it always threatened to be and it’s not only shattered the way TV networks (and record companies and movie studios and newspapers) do business, but its potential to distract and overwhelm our children has blossomed exponentially – though, to be fair, it’s the parents who seem distracted and overwhelmed.

At this point, you can either go into lockdown and make your home over to 1914 standards – though I’ll let you agonize about what to do about the microwave and the food processor – or acknowledge that the torrent is now a Torrent and that navigating yourself and your family through it demands enhanced critical wherewithal and will feel not unlike piloting a speedboat with the accelerator taped to the floor through a gun battle in a hail storm. The first option is always on the table, but 2009 is always outside the door and I’d like to hope this column can be a checklist of hazards at its worst and a useful guide at its best.

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