This post is about 40 years late in coming. But I'm reading Cal Newport's Digital Minimalism, and was struck by something right at the beginning.

Newport reports that Bill Maher—some television personality I'd never heard of, but that's not the point—had a show in which he likened the deliberately-engineered addictiveness of social media to the deliberately-engineered addictiveness of tobacco. "Philip Morris just wanted your lungs," he concluded. "The App Store wants your soul." It could be argued that what both really want is your money, and I don't think Maher would disagree.

Back to Sesame Street. Maher could have looked a little further and realized that the whole television industry is just as guilty of enticing us to mainline its products. I pick on Sesame Street largely because it was so strongly sold as something good for children, and the pushers were not just the networks but teachers and doctors and social workers and neighbors.

Yet the show was filled with all the techniques that promote addiction, shorten attention spans, and actually change our brains, such as bright colors, fast, catchy music, and rapid-fire changes of focus. And when you think about it, what exactly was educational about the show? What did it teach?

Letter and numbers? Nothing that spending that time with parents and siblings couldn't have taught faster and better.

What it did teach effectively was a certain kind of socialization. Sesame Street was a neighborhood, and those who produced the show had very definite ideas about what makes a good neighborhood and how neighbors should behave. (Note that these ideas sometimes changed over time, with videos of the older shows now labelled "for adults only," because they show children riding bikes without helmets and walking to the store unaccompanied by an adult.)

If your family's own values happen to coincide with those of the show's creators, well and good. If you happen to think a complete stranger can do a better job of helping your child learn to deal with anger, grief, fear, death, divorce, illness, disability, and even love than you can, well, there you go.

But if you disagree, know that Sesame Street is a very effective propaganda machine that is teaching a whole lot more than the alphabet. Even Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, which I considered to be a far superior show, couldn't resist trying to act in loco parentis on personal and social issues. What goes on in today's children's shows I don't have the need (or stomach) to investigate.

How is it that we parents have become so timid and unsure of ourselves that we're eager to turn much of our children's character formation over to others?

Posted by sursumcorda on Friday, October 2, 2020 at 10:12 am | Edit
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