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Turning Off The Idiot Box

Idiot Box -Turn It OffWhen I was growing up, the one order we heard most from my mom was, “Turn off the TV and go outside!” If we didn’t immediately do what she said, she would rush over to the television, turn it off, and again order us to go outside.

One of my aunts, Marlene Miller, couldn’t stand seeing me and my cousins sit in front of the television in her living room. She was our next-door neighbor and anytime I went over to her house to watch television with her two sons, she would tell us, “Turn off that ‘boob tube’ and go outside and play.”

The dictionary defines a “boob” as “a stupid person; fool; dunce.” My aunt believed that if she allowed us to sit in front of the television for too long, we would turn into boobs — stupid, foolish, worthless dunces. Also, at that time, a common name for the television was “Idiot Box.”

I thought about my mom and my aunt and their attitude toward their children watching television when I read “Fighting the Internet Invasion of Childhood,” an article on the Wall Street Journal website that was written by Martin Kutnowski. Before I get to what Kutnowski said, I want to review the common traits that are found in people with addictive personalities.

While there is no single set of psychological characteristics that define all addictions, the National Academy of Sciences published a study in 1983 that was conducted by Alan R. Lang, a psychology professor at Florida State University. While Lang concluded that there is no single set of psychological characteristics associated with all addictions, he identified several “significant personality factors” that may contribute to addiction:

•   Behaving impulsively and seeking instant gratification
•   Valuing nonconformity over the accepted values of society
•   Experiencing heightened stress and lacking coping skills
•   Tolerating deviance and feeling socially isolated

For those of us who have children and grandchildren, we can easily identify some of these traits in our offspring. Keeping the traits in mind, here’s what Martin Kutnowski had to say in his Wall Street Journal article:

From inside the fortress of her bedroom, my 10-year-old daughter launches guerrilla warfare. Her weapon: piercing screams. She is angry with me because she has discovered that her iPod cannot get online. Last night I managed to selectively program our wireless modem so that specific devices connect to the Web only one hour a day, compared with the four or five hours that she and her 9-year-old brother had recently been spending online. Now I can finally limit their surfing time without constant personal involvement.


My daughter’s screams and sobs are an eye opener, indicating the real extent of their electronic addiction. As a professor in a four-year undergraduate university, I meet young people just as they emerge from the public-school pipeline, and from years of excessive electronic stimulation. Differences among these entering students are profound, in physical health, in skill level, in social and academic engagement, and ultimately in their chances for success. Many of these students have urgent needs: Some don’t understand their own nutrition, how to form a coherent and complete sentence, how to focus long enough to read one chapter of a book, or how to talk and collaborate with one another or with the teacher.


I shudder at the idea of my own children becoming like these vulnerable youth. During my children’s childhood, the quality of which is my absolute responsibility, I don’t want TV, video games, Internet, tobacco, alcohol, drugs, or any other kind of poison or addiction to wreck their development. When video games were restricted to PlayStations, Xboxes, or the Wii, it was easy: I just didn’t purchase any of these. We went once a week to the arcade at the mall.


It has now been several months since I imposed stiff electronic rations. Like fish returning to a river that had been polluted for decades, my children have radically altered their habits, behaving in ways that seemed extinct. If they get bored, they now find things to do, playing with marbles if necessary. They complain occasionally, but tough luck. They are once again avid readers, and, just as significantly, avid talkers.

When we watch TV shows together as a family — not to fill the day but because the day is done — we discuss what the story taught us. Keeping the parasitic electronic stimulation at bay, for now I have managed to emulate for them the simpler, less invasive environment of my own childhood. I dwell in the temporary truce, knowing that new parental challenges will keep me on my toes. This is a long war that can never be won — only tied perhaps — until they grow up and leave home. Soldier on.

If you have the courage to impose similar restrictions on your teenage children, you need to be ready to deal with the blowback. There’s always extreme resistance, resentment, and anger when the plug is pulled on an addiction. Unfortunately, the addictive behavior associated with the use of the Internet is much worse than the less addictive behavior of watching too much television.

I can remember many summer days when we grabbed six or eight boxes of games before going outside. We would sit at the picnic table and play for hours. We also got a lot of exercise. Growing up in a family neighborhood allowed us to easily round up enough kids for baseball, basketball, or another sports activity.

Because of the militant position my mom and aunt took concerning our television viewing habits, we spent most of our free time outside exercising our brains and our bodies. Did our parents have more courage than a lot of today’s parents?

How much courage are you willing to exercise when you see your children morphing into boobs, idiots, and zombies?


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