I grew up in Khartoum, Sudan. There was no TV, except a poor excuse for a local channel that played old ABBA songs and grainy 'iftah ya Simsim' the Arabic version of Sesame Street. My siblings and I spent many lazy afternoons biking, making zip lines and reading Enid Blyton. We baked mud pies and jumped over walls into our neighbors' yards to catch our rabbits. Treasure hunts and impromptu plays ruled the bougainville-covered house on 33rd Street.
If you ask my kids, their memories revolve around cartoon characters or Disney princesses. I have to prompt them to talk about vacations or fun trips, which they enjoy but come second to the GREAT TV moments. I find my self jealous of Diego. It is also depressing to see the look of total absorption when the kids are watching and 1/2 an hour turns into two and soon the whole afternoon is gone.
Change doesn't happen from the outside, it starts from the inside. Some people may mock me saying that this is not the greatest challenge to the Ummah right now but I do not have control over global issues, but I can take steps in my own life to purge my soul – whether it is the environment around me or the media that my children and I are exposed to while they are in my house. If I am serious about the tazkiyah of my soul, I have to make concrete changes in my life.
Last year I switched off cable, I lived in constant fear of inappropriate ads and uncensored language. Read here why we turned in the first place after four years of being without it. My kids would wake up in the morning and switch it on and would want to watch something before being tucked into bed. It wasn't that they were watching too much by 'normal' standards. I was following most of the tips suggested by parenting websites. The incessant asking for more and the whining was out of control and I felt it in every part of my soul. I was sick of saying, “NO no more, turn it off – Listen to ME.” They were wearing me down. I threatened to have the cable turned off and when the words came out of my mouth, I realized if I didn't go through with it they would never take me seriously. It was my moment of truth. A message from Allāh.
So far the biggest change is in my toddler. Since he can't watch his favorite shows, i.e. Diego, he doesn't want to watch TV all the time. He is no longer throwing hissy fits when we turn off the telly; his tantrums were one of the major reasons I 'pulled the plug'. It is amazing how he knows that those shows are no longer available and so he has stopped asking for them. I let him watch one or two 'educational' shows, like Super Why or Words World on PBS, which doesn't have too many direct ads. He wants to play with blocks and his train set.
Materialism: Raising the super-consumer
I live on the West Coast of the United States – Tinseltown, Hollywood are my backyard – here neighborhood kids compete on brand of clothing and vacations – I want to raise children who do NOT think that their worth is based on toy cars that cost over $300, even if everyone on the street has one. When Sister Hina's article came out, I read of parents who raised such amazing children; proactive parents who didn't just read an article and then went their merry way – they did something about it.
We need to think about the media saturated culture we live in and acknowledge it affects positively and negatively on our lives. We tend to lives in cocoons and pretend that these problems aren't our problems, that these belong to others – who live a more hedonistic lifestyle than ours; wake up and unplug yourself from this illusion. Our children are surrounded by media since they were born, da‘wah from the dark side, bombarded with ads. “Ads on TV are so 20th century”, they are on the internet (fantage, webkinz), on cellphones.
According to the CEO of Prism Communications,
“they aren't children so much as what I like to call 'evolving consumers'.”
According to Direct Marketing magazine, by the age of eight children make most of their own buying decisions. Modern children can often recognise brands and status items by the age of 3 or 4, before they can even read. One study found that 52 percent of 3 year olds and 73% of 4 year olds “often or almost always” asked their parents for specific brands. Advertisers recognise that brand loyalties and consumer habits formed when children are young and vulnerable will be carried through to adulthood. Kids 'R' Us president, Mike Searles, says, “If you own this child at an early age… you can own this child for years to come.”
There are 15 conferences a year on how to reach youth through advertising/marketing campaigns. Child psychologists do massive, detailed research to help companies sell to your children through focus groups and ethnographic research. The studies are so creepy: they film them eating breakfast, in the supermarket, at school, they even follow them into the bathroom – take showers, how they use shampoo – it is sickening! Nuero-marketing is a technique used- when they do MRI's on children to detect what part of the brain light up when an ad is shown, when the color of the background is changed. Blink tests are done to hold the child's gaze at long as possible. Every ad, every cartoon has been precisely manipulated to attract the attention of children.
Advertising to children is increasing and it is not fair – everyone is trying to make them into consumers from the minute that their pure souls come to this earth. We see ads in which children decide which car the parent should buy, where they should eat, where they should go on vacation. Children are the future market. Buzz words like 360 degree immersive marketing where they get to the child from every aspect. Can you blame your children? How can they resist? We, as adults, can't resist (read Amatullah's post); we easily spend an hour just looking at the ads that come in with the newspaper, making us want to run to the mall just because there is sale at Macy's or a new iPhone is on the market or they have convinced us that our cushions aren't the color of spring. So how can we expect our children to resist? There are ad songs, ad games, ad books. I have noticed that even the Scholastic book order forms are progressively getting more commercialized, constantly promoting brands, selling toys and jewelry in the guise of books.
According to the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, children aged 2-11 view at least 25,000 advertisements a year on TV alone, and that doesn't include product placements (like the Twilight series ring that Edward gave Bella, available now at price points ranging from $35 to $2,000). More often than not, these ads teach children that the route to happiness is through consumption and robust participation in the world of commodities.
The Nag Factor- Companies study this particular children's behavior. Why do you think cartoons are a certain color vs another – hours of research has gone into deciding what will catch your child eye. It is a trillion dollar market!! Purchasing influence on parents is what they are banking on.
Children will say on the average 'can I? can I?' nine times before the parents will give in.
Concepts such as “owning” children and “cradle-to-grave” brand loyalty are enthusiastically described in advertising industry publications. Parents should be especially outraged by advertisers promoting the “nag factor” – an ad industry term for children pestering parents to buy them things. As part of the effort to get children and their parents to part with their money, advertising agencies routinely employ psychologists to improve the effectiveness of their ads. The success of this questionable partnership is evident in all aspects of children's lives, including their health. Read the rest here.
Screen Free Week is also an opportunity to consider our relationship with media and the marketing activities that underlie them. Turning off our screens is just the first step to understanding how implicated technology is in every aspect of our lives and might allow us fresh eyes to separate the garbage from the good. Read the rest here.
Every parent who has a television, computer, smart-phone in the house should watch this. Every parent who takes their child to the mall, supermarket needs to watch this. Disclaimer: background music.
If you need more info, check out this e-book the Awful truth about TV.
Trashyourtv.com has some great info as does this great website filled with articles and resources to help you make the decision of turning of your TV. Unplug your kids has great alternative activities for TV free kids as does this site. For a Muslim perspective read Khalid Baig's article and this khutbah by Brother Shareef on TV-The Third Parent.
I know my husband likes to unwind after a tough day of work in front of the television. It will not be easy and that is why I am first going screen free next week to see how life will be with out television. Many of you may have already made this decision and are living better – stay tuned for Umm Reem's post about media effects despite a TV-free home, do comment on Brother Siraaj's Reader's Opinion post on how to live a balanced life and PLEASE take this challenge with me. inshā'Allāh my hope is that after this week, Allāh (subḥānahu wa ta'āla) will give my family the tawfique to cut the cord. Pray for us and give us suggestions. How did you do it? What were the challenges? Share your experiences.
Özlem Sensoy and Elizabeth Marshall are professors in the Faculty of Education at Simon Fraser University. They are editors of the book, Rethinking Popular Culture and Media.
Sharon Beder, 'A Community View', Caring for Children in the Media Age, Papers from a national conference, edited by John Squires and Tracy Newlands, New College Institute for Values Research, Sydney, 1998, pp. 101-111.