Sunday, March 14, 2010

Unschooling and Access to Media

Yesterday, I asked, in a YouTube video, for people to ask me questions about unschooling.  And I got lots of interesting questions!  I tried to do a video on this one, but I was having a lot of trouble getting my opinions on this subject across in that format.  So, I decided to answer it in a blog post instead!  The question is in italics, my answer in regular font.

Let's say children are like seeds. In order to grow into good people, they don't need to be *forced* to grow, because they do that naturally. But that said, a seed must be planted in fertile soil, in the right climate, and must be watered, etc. What if some kinds of media today threaten the minds of the young- for example, television which provides immediate satisfaction but gives no decent returns in the long run may be more compelling than a book.

Firstly, I think you’re making a huge jump in saying that television gives “no decent returns in the long run”, and automatically assuming that a book has more value than a TV show!  I totally disagree with that!  Also, what’s wrong with instant satisfaction?  A life well lived is one made up of many happy moments: if watching TV gives you joy, I don’t really see how it’s in anyway unworthy of your time.  I’m an avid reader, and have been for many years.  Books have enriched my life in many ways!  But, so has TV.  When I was young, I watched tons of science shows and history shows.  Tons of “educational” shows on a variety of topics.  I also just watched some fictional shows.  I was never a particularly big TV watcher, but it was never forbidden to me, and I enjoyed what I did watch.  I also learned a ton!      

My opinion is that if kids have less manufactured entertainment stimuli they are forced to use their imagination to invent their own games, stories, etc. But because of the exponential growth of media, it is getting harder and harder to give children a world which does not numb their minds and imagination.

Again, I totally disagree.  Storytelling fuels imagination, and at their hearts, ALL types of fiction, be it novels, comic books, TV shows, movies, or oral storytelling, is just that: storytelling.  You find similar elements in all of them, and stories, no matter the medium they’re told in, can bring great joy, fuel imagination, cause you to question deeply held beliefs, ask profound questions…  Storytelling is an amazing art, and I find it rather sad when people start passing judgments on what types of storytelling are “good” or “bad”.

I also want to give some real life examples of this.  Far from squelching my very creative sister’s imagination (she currently writes tons of fiction), my sister would play pretend all the time based on various favourite movie characters.  She would also, as a young child, spend hours alone in her room just creating huge complex stories and worlds.  Soon, that imagination was used to start writing fiction.  She’s currently working on her first novel!  And she even plays video games, supposedly the most mind numbing things out there, and has played them for years. ;-) 

And yet- this brings up two competing ideas about freedom: should we free the child in the immediate moment, by imposing no limits on how they spend their time; or can we control their environment so that they are more likely to build their imaginations and judgements?

I’m sure you’ve gathered my opinion on this by now.  I do recognize that some (okay, a lot) of stuff on TV has messages that really aren’t so great (as do tons of books out there, I might add).  But I’m not advocating casting your kids loose and ignoring them while they do nothing but watch TV.  When you have a good, attentive relationship with your kids, one where you discuss what they’re seeing, have good dialogue, you’re exposing them to the world around you, with all of it’s negative and positive “influences”, and doing so while remaining a loving, supportive, and knowledgeable companion.  I don’t think that sheltering your kid does anything but make things more difficult for them later on. 

I also think that any time you make something forbidden to your child, you’ve just made it the most interesting thing out there.  Kids are curious, and if they’re denied access to something, chances are they’ll both really want to get access to it, and quite likely resort to lying and going behind their parents backs to do so.  Really, I don’t blame them!  I’ve come to this conclusion from my own experiences growing up, which were that the more controlled a child was, the more likely they where to frequently lie to their parents.  It was the only way they could have freedom.

I also want to add that even now, I find TV very “educational”.  I find advertising fascinating, I find the underlying assumptions and worldviews in mainstream shows fascinating, and watching TV sometimes helps me to remember how most of the world thinks (my sister regularly tells me I’ve forgotten what “normal” is)!

So that’s my answer to that question.  I hope I’ve given some insight into it!



  1. First of all, I love your new look! Second, I also enjoy advertising. I think it's fascinating and fun to analyze. My oldest son has a really good grasp on television and advertising and he seem to enjoy it much like I do.

  2. My ideal is to give my children as much access to the world as possible, and as much access to myself, other adults, and other people of all ages as possible. Then be open about everything. Ask them: "What do you think about the differences between TV and books?" "Do you think TV and books help your imagination or hinder it?" "What do you think about that advertisement? How did it make you feel?" "Do you feel like I control your life too much? Is there something you'd like more access to?" "Do you understand why I make the choices for our family that I do?" And if they don't, have genuine discussions about it and take their feelings into consideration. These are all discussions that children should be openly in on, as much as they want to be.

  3. Excellent post, Idzie. My daughters (10, 10, and 6) are into advertising from a sociological standpoint. They watch what they want to watch, and the older ones often read a blog called "Sociological Images." The dialogue is what's important. Starting when the kids were very young, I would say things like, "Hey, there aren't any girls in that Tonka commercial. You girls have Tonka trucks, why wouldn't they put girls in the commercial?" And if it was My Little Pony, I would say, "You know boys who love My Little Pony..." etc. And now my older girls love to make fun of commercials. They use their Barbies to make fake, sarcastic commercials about beauty products and whatnot. They know how to view media critically *and* enjoy it. If I had limited their tv viewing to "protect" them from advertising, they wouldn't be the little sociologists that they are.

    You get the idea. I'm just putting in here in case other parents visit your blog who aren't sold on the idea of anything other than educational programs having value. ;)

  4. Great response Idzie!
    I agree that media can be a great tool for learning. If it wasn't for TV, I probably wouldn't have learned to read as early as I did. And actually, I get a lot more in depth information from watching the History channel than I ever did while taking a History class at a traditional public school.

  5. I appreciate your point of view, and I think it's true to the extent that you're just considering the *message* portrayed through the medium of television. The problem is that TV (as well as video games and the internet) has been shown to be damaging simply as a medium, irrespective of the content - it's addictive and conditions brains (particularly those of very young children) to expect a far greater stimulus than in real life, amongst other effects. So sure, it's out there and I'm not going to artificially forbid my children to dare to look, but I'm not going to invite it into my home for them either. When they're old enough to ask (right now the eldest is not yet 4) and I think they're old enough to understand the arguments, we'll have the discussion and see where it takes us...

  6. Television, like all technology, is anything but neutral. It reduces the brain to a lower state of activity, which, when combined with the omnipresent messages of television (racism, sexism, heteronormativity, consumerism, corporate allegiance, nationalism, etc) is a very very dangerous thing. See: Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television by Jerry Mander.

    That said, there's no point of absolutism and watching television without commercials, or with an active critique of what you see can be a something fun. It's important that anyone who watches television have the ability to actively critique both the messages and the medium or else one runs the risk of absorbing the messages of the dominant culture hook, line, and sinker.

  7. I suggest the book, EVERYTHING BAD IS GOOD FOR YOU, by steven johnson.

    some compelling evidence that media is making us smarter

  8. "The problem is that TV (as well as video games and the internet) has been shown to be damaging simply as a medium, irrespective of the content - it's addictive and conditions brains (particularly those of very young children) to expect a far greater stimulus than in real life, amongst other effects."

    "Irrespective of the content" implies that it's the screen itself that is the problem. So, I'm sitting here at the computer reading -- I've been reading all morning, in fact -- and I believe that I'm sitting here because I find the information-gathering a compelling activity, not because the screen has some property that keeps my brain from having the will to turn away from it. If you have a scientific explanation for why I'm wrong, I'd really like to hear it, and I mean that sincerely.

  9. There are a number of books that summarise the research on this, Remotely Controlled by Dr Aric Sigman is a good one - my half remembered explanation is unlikely to be as good as the source, so if you're interested I'd give it a read. It's not, of course, the case that a backlit screen means you're physically unable to turn away, any more than drinking a glass of wine forces you to down the bottle; but yes, there are aspects of the way your brain is stimulated by 'screens' that are massively different to activities like reading from a printed page, interacting with another person, or staring at a tree flickering in the breeze.

    Which isn't to say the content doesn't also matter, and the internet in particular offers unparallelled opportunities, which may well offset the negative effects; but those effects are still there, just as a bottle of finely aged whisky has the same alcoholic effects as a skinful of Tennant's Extra.