Children's Channel Unplugged

Chucking the television can give parents more quality time with their kids. Just watch out for the beckoning computer screen.

There comes a moment in some parents' lives when they feel no choice but to take drastic action. Their children's glazed eyes are staring at the gladiator arena on the Children's Channel. The TV is on so loud that it's impossible to breathe, and none of the kids react to being called to dinner repeatedly. And then, in a moment of crystal clarity, a decision is made. The parents decide to get rid of the television set.

Kinneret Friedman of Tel Aviv did just that. Friedman, whose kids are 5 and almost 3, says she acted in part to end her own TV dependence. "I'm a former television addict," she says. "For me, there had to be a clean break and that's all. It was my husband's idea, not mine. I went along with it."

How does she handle the long afternoon hours? She says the children mostly play games and go outside. But getting rid of the television did not completely cut them off from the world of popular TV characters like Dora the Explorer.

"The children know from nursery and kindergarten what 'Dora' is," says Friedman. "Sometimes when the older one returns from kindergarten, he watches an episode or two of a favorite show on YouTube." But this time around, the mom is in control. As she says: "I control the content and the kids' time. A computer is still something with limits. The older one will not turn on the computer on his own, and it's not as if you push a button and start zapping."

Journalist and author Roni Gelbfish, whose children are 11, 8 and 3, stood at a crossroads when her youngest child was born.

"We had some deliberations," she recalls. "Television is not a bad thing, but I had a growing sense that television was bad for our family life on so many levels. We discovered that when it's there, it's an easy solution. I don't have the energy to leave the house? The kids will sit for a while in front of the screen, it's not so bad. They don't have the energy to read? They watch a movie."

Friedman family of Tel Aviv (Daniel Tchetchik)
The Friedman family of Tel AvivDaniel Tchetchik

Children who watch television for hours become glazed or confused, she adds, and "get very nervous when an attempt is made to turn it off. I don't think they enjoy it at all." The results of the upheaval are refreshing. Gelbfish says her children used to read books before, but "now they read four times as much."

Lack of control

A growing number of parents are getting rid of the television with little regret. They do so as a way of criticizing the shallowness of the programs as well as because they realize that watching TV eats up their time, including what should be quality time with the kids. That entails something of a sacrifice for the parents, since the boob tube can be an excellent babysitter, though it can also lead to fights over what to watch.

The switch to a TV-less life is not easy. There are parents who initially keep their cable or satellite subscription for their own viewing, as Gelbfish did at first. But she soon decided to turn off the TV for good.

"Sometimes, after we spent an entire evening watching television, we would get up and say, 'Actually, what did we watch just now? Why did we spend the evening watching such a stupid show?'" she recalls. "After just about everything broadcast, there was a feeling that we could have done something good with our time."

The Kastans of Karkur - the mother, a therapist named Sharon; the father, Shaked, who is in computers; and their sons, 8-year-old Noam and 5-year-old Alon - have lived without a television for five years now. Like Gelbfish, Sharon Kastan refers to a lack of control in her life.

"The feeling was that there is a loop of programs," she says. "My Noam was only 2 and a half, but I became aware that he sits for hours, and of my need to get him up and away from the screen. When we had another child, the thinking was then, 'How do you do this when there are two kids?'"

After the initial sense of euphoria, the parents were left trying to figure out what to do with the kids. The burden usually falls on the mothers, who are often the ones who spend the afternoons and evenings with the kids.

"I won't say that I wouldn't mind a little downtime, but undoubtedly the price of living with a television is worse," says Kastan. "What pushed me to get rid of the television were the problems with the kids, the endless policing."

And how do the kids feel about it? "It's okay with me," says Noam Kastan, a second-grader. "Usually I play in my room. My room is big mess because I play so much on the floor. When friends come over, we watch movies on a projector while sitting on the floor and eating snacks and that's fun."

He doesn't feel that he is cut off when friends start talking about popular TV shows, saying, "My grandma has a television and I watch there."

Noam has other friends who don't have TV at home. In Karkur, his mother says, "these ideas are circulating and exist and are discussed among mothers in the park, in the kindergarten. And so the idea makes headway and it is discussed."

Breaking the news

How do you break the bad news to children? According to Gelbfish, the children were involved in the deliberations. "We said we were going to make a decision, but it was important to us to hear what they have to say. It was a process. At first we tried letting each child watch one program. I also said that I would watch [the news program] 'Uvda.' But we didn't succeed, and that's why we decided to go all the way."

Gelbfish says this act makes you feel like a better person, a better parent and educator, but she also acknowledges that it is a type of illusion. Now her kids are at the age where their online habits can be controlled, but she is aware that she will soon have to worry about how much time they spend on the computer, as well as which sites they access.

Indeed, most of the families who made the break with TV essentially switched to a different screen, though they say there are differences.

"After we got rid of the television, we were liberal with the computer, because it was clear that the kids needed screen time," says Gelbfish. Today her kids watch movies with educational content on the computer - "less aggressive films in terms of the color and pace." It is Gelbfish herself who, she says, is most attached to the computer.

Sharon Kastan's children also watch their favorite shows on the computer. But it's not as bad, she says. "Sitting in front of the computer is not the sprawling there was in front of the television," says Kastan. "At the most it gives you 20 minutes for yourself."

An elitist illusion

Dr. David Gurevitz, who heads the media and popular culture program at the School of Media Studies, part of the College of Management Academic Studies in Rishon Letzion, says those who think ditching the TV will keep popular culture at bay are just fooling themselves.

"The ones who get rid of the television are making a gesture," he says. "They feel a sort of heroism in their attempt to create an alternative lifestyle. They don't want a certain type of cultural trash. ... They want to avoid of getting swept up in mass culture, and still they are victims of this phenomenon. They delude themselves, because popular culture grabs them everywhere - if not on television, then on the computer screen."

Gurevitz accuses the anti-TV crowd of trying to remain insulated within what he refers to as "the Tel Avivian bubble" and flee from reality.

"They are fed up with the news, because television is, after all, associated with current events programs, with the living and real dimension of the news," he says. "Basically, on a deeper level, the ones getting rid of the televisions are in a hysterical flight from life."

Removing the television from the living room, Gurevitz argues, is symptomatic of a broader political apathy in Israel.

"What do people want? A good coffee," he says. "It's actually not control over your life, but you have created for yourself an individual, hedonistic life in the place where you live." But that's an illusion, he says: "The sense of freedom or democracy in the new media is imagined. The old box was replaced by a new box."