Friday 15 August 2014

Children and TV

Children and TV
By Dr Joseph Shaw

I recently took my two oldest children, aged ten and eight, to see a Shakespeare play in Stratford on Avon. We were greeted with incredulity wherever we went. One of the theatre employees remarked that his own children didn’t have the attention span to watch a whole episode of Neighbours. That struck me as a revealing remark.
               The world created by television is an adult world, not because it is profound, but because it is shallow. There is more wisdom in a Victorian fairy story than in twenty episodes of a soap opera.  There is a more sophisticated vocabulary, a wider range of styles, and even an appreciation of more different cultures. In reading The Blue Fairy Book or Treasure Island to my children, I was consulting dictionaries, maps, and Wikipedia to keep up. But children are content to understand things at their own level, and to fit what they don’t know in with what they do.
               Indeed this true of everyone’s appreciation of what is genuinely profound in literature or art. We don’t understand it all; we don’t suck it dry; we take from a parable of Jesus, or a great painting, something, not everything; perhaps something we need at that moment. We needn’t be afraid of children having the same experience. Simple art and simple stories need not lack depth, but what is presented on the TV nearly always does. TV producers need to feed the short attention-spans they have created, and they are prisoners of a conception of human life which lacks a spiritual dimension, and sometimes even an emotional one. Which came first, a medium which creates passivity, or a world view which assigns value only to pleasurable sensations? It would seem they have grown up together.
I’m unable to do a ‘before and after’ study of my children with TV, because we haven’t had broadcast TV since before the oldest was able to watch it. My children have watched DVDs: their favourite is a 30-minute animated version of Mozart’s Magic Flute made by Welsh TV, followed by The Taming of the Shrew in the same series. But while there are advantages to them knowing what moving pictures look like (they aren’t instantly mesmerised when they see them in a friend’s house), it is true to say that the telly doesn’t play a significant part in their lives.
               What do they do all day? Chesterton remarked that it is perfectly possible to turn the clock back; it is just a matter of effort. In their free time my home-schooled children do the things children did fifty or a hundred years ago. They play; once they learn to read, they read. They play card games. They’ve just learnt to play draughts, and that has become quite a craze. Last Summer they discovered croquet; it was set up on the lawn and on fine days they’d be playing before breakfast. They aren’t especially precocious: they don’t actually understand Shakespeare plays without it being explained, and I can still beat them at chess. But they are having a childhood.

Dr Joseph Shaw is a Tutorial Fellow in Philosophy at St Benet’s Hall, Oxford, he is the chairman of the Latin Mass Society and runs St Catherine’s Trust  which promotes Catholic education in accordance with the traditional teachings of the Church. He is a regular blogger on Traditional Catholic Issues. His latest series of blogs has caused quite a debate and explores what happens when religion is used for nationalist purposes. See To understand ISIS, look at Anglicanism To Understand ISIS, look at Anglicanism


  1. Tv destroys the fantasy world children create for themselves. It also de-skills children , because a generation ago children spent a lot of time making things from soap box cars to model aeroplanes .

  2. In the nineteenth century, Charles Dickens used to travel around the country, doing readings of his own novels to packed audiences. His readings were extremely popular; people crowded to hear him. Yet many of his sentences are long and grammatically complex, the language is by no means simple, the humour can be subtle, the plots and sub-plots weave in and out of one another. I doubt if many of us living in the twenty-first (and late twentieth) century would have the attention-span to cope with a Dickens reading, now that we have become used to the crude visual impact of television.

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