The Common Good
September-October 1999

Raised by TV

by Danny Duncan Collum | September-October 1999

By now the Littleton, Colorado high school massacre has become the cultural Rorschach test for the new millennium.

By now the Littleton, Colorado high school massacre has become the cultural Rorschach test for the new millennium. Every faction, fraction, and ideological or religious subgroup in America sees in that horrible event exactly the message it has been trying to get across to the rest of us. "If only we’d listened to [insert the group or guru of choice], none of this would have happened."

Cultural conservatives blame the entertainment industry. Liberals, especially those dependent on entertainment industry dollars, blame the gun industry. The gun industry blames everyone else. Religious conservatives blame the breakdown of family. Feminists point out that all the teen-aged assassins from Pearl to Littleton to Atlanta are future men. Many educators and parents blame a corrosive and soul-less youth culture (a wholly owned subsidiary of the entertainment industry). Youth culture outsiders blame an officially sanctioned school culture of intolerance and repression that drives today’s young rebels over the edge.

They’re all right in their own way.

Guns are a convenient issue for Democratic politicians, and personally I’d support a complete ban on all handguns and automatics. But I don’t think guns are the core issue. I’ve never lived in a place like Littleton, Colorado, but I can testify that in places like Pearl, Paducah, and Jonesboro, the previous school shooting sites, guns have been easily available for a long, long time without mass murder ensuing. It seems more likely to me that something has happened to the kids.

I suspect that we are seeing the results of children raised from the cradle on round-the-clock TV. Most baby boomers can say that they were raised with TV. The first family set entered my house in 1957, when I was 3. But we were not raised by TV the way kids are now. Back then, kid-specific programming was limited to Saturday morning and maybe an hour or so after school. Yes, I planned my life around Loony Tunes, Yogi Bear, and Deputy Dawg, and rushed home to see the latest bands on Where the Action Is. But most of the time what was on TV was boring, and we amused ourselves.

THAT WORLD changed in the early 1980s. First the Reagan-appointed Federal Communications Commission dropped the limit on the number of ads allowed per hour on TV. In the same spirit of deregulation they dropped the requirement for broadcasters to offer even a token amount of constructive children’s programming.

At the same time, cable access became the middle-class cultural norm. That brought a shift away from the "broad"-casting approach of appealing to whole families and communities. The strategy was "narrow"-casting and communities and families were divided into niche markets. You got Lifetime for Mom; ESPN for Dad; MTV for Big Brother; Nickelodeon for Little Sis; and AMC for Grandma. By the end of the 1980s, many middle-class households had a TV, with cable connection, in every bedroom. By 1998 a near majority of children under age 5 had TVs in their bedrooms. The world of computer games and networks that has arisen is an even more unregulated extension of the video world.

This relentless, 24-hour-a-day exposure to fake fights, simulated bloodshed, withering cynicism, and unlimited advertising was bound to make a difference in kids’ lives. And it has. The children who were born in 1981 are now 18. Maybe that’s just a coincidence. And maybe it’s not.

IS THERE A way back from this cultural abyss? I don’t know, and neither does anyone else. History suggests few precedents for putting genies back into bottles. This may be a time when all we can do is tend our own little corner of the world. There are things we can do to help unhook our families and immediate communities from the world of electronic illusions and reconnect with the real world of real people on the real earth. My amateur observation suggests reading; involvement with the natural world; do-it-yourself art and music; and community service as among the many non-virtual leisure activities that serve to root us in a place where human life and relationships matter more than anything else.

And there may be things to do in the big world to keep matters from getting worse. Re-regulating the television industry is one. There is no inalienable constitutional or human right to send anything into homes where there might be children. The New Deal settled that issue when it established the Federal Communications Commission, and the courts have upheld it. Electronic communications are subject to the common good as defined by democratic institutions.

It happens that the richest and most powerful people in America at the moment are dead set on reversing that historic principle. An all-out war on behalf of family and community values against such New Age robber barons as Rupert Murdoch and Bill Gates might do wonders for our national morale, and lead to some interesting new alliances in our politics.

DANNY DUNCAN COLLUM, a Sojourners contributing editor, lives and writes in Ripley, Mississippi.

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