I Want My Electronic Baby Sitter!

A Slate contributor complains that the headline on the front page of the New York Times yesterday morning, “Pediatricians Urge Limiting TV Watching,” is evergreen, and damn the copy desk, he’s right. The story had some news in it, though. Pediatricians are now supposed to take “media histories” along with medical histories when they see their young patients. Doctors are to teach parents to teach their children “media literacy.” Imagine taking your child to your HMO for a stomachache and having the two of you interviewed about her ability to deconstruct a Gap ad.

Everyone knows television is bad for kids. The time they spend in front of the TV is time not spent working out the verbal and physical intricacies of the real world. The child who doesn’t develop his inner resources is left with no other source of entertainment than television. The unformed mind can’t be trusted to discount for televisual hyperbole, from McDonald’s claim that its petroleum-based “milk” shakes can make you deliriously happy to the cartoon causality that holds that shooting a criminal has roughly the same consequences as bopping a bunny to the seeming ubiquity of rape, murder, and mayhem.

But just because we know all this (and will dutifully recite some version of it for our children’s doctor’s benefit, if he insists) doesn’t mean we want to do anything about it. Television is like air conditioning: You can’t imagine how we ever survived without it. Chilled air made the South prosperous; television makes the dual-career or single-parent family possible. No one returning from a day at work or rushing through all the errands crammed into a weekend can imagine coping with a child’s demands for distraction without recourse to the boob tube. We could never get away with paying neighborhood baby sitters (or local unlicensed day-care centers) such ridiculously low rates if their child-care techniques didn’t partly involve plopping the kids in front of the TV. Children are annoying little buggers, and in a world of limited flex-time (and probably even in a world of unlimited flex-time) parents need a break. The pediatricians would do better founding a national nanny service.