Is it all right to own a television?

August 26, 2010

Question: My husband thinks that television is a baleful influence on the children and wants to get rid of our sets. I think that’s going too far and it’s better for them to learn to view in moderation than deprive them of the experience. Which of us is right?

Rabbi Naftali Brawer

Naftali Brawer is rabbi at Borehamwood and Elstree United Synagogue.

From your question it appears that there is no disagreement between your husband and yourself as to the negative influence of television. Where the two of you differ is about whether one should remove it entirely or learn how to watch TV moderately and responsibly.

I agree with the premise that TV can have a corrosive effect on children. While there are clearly some worthwhile, well-made documentaries and good educational programming, most of what passes for television programmes is nothing more than cheap and empty entertainment. That is when it is not violent. According to one statistic, by the time the average child reaches 16, they will have observed on TV 100,000 violent acts and 33,000 murders. It doesn’t take a child psychologist to figure out what that does to one’s social and personal development.

I grew up without a television and as a result I spent huge amounts of time reading good books when I was not interacting with other children. My wife and I decided to raise our own children without a television and while they are not always happy about it, it has not hampered their intellectual or social development at all; on the contrary I think they are better for it.

Is it possible to teach children to view television selectively and in moderation? It certainly is, provided you set down clear rules, but it will not be easy. The question you must ask yourselves is how much energy you want to expend enforcing those rules. And how tempted might you be to overlook the rules, when sitting your kids down in front of a television screen will buy you an hour or more of peace and quiet.

Whatever decision you come to, bear in mind that it is not just television that presents a challenge to raising moral, well-adjusted, articulate children; computer games and the internet are far more hazardous. The problem with internet today is that, unlike television, it is virtually impossible to live without. We have internet at home but we mitigate the risk by insisting that whoever uses it, does so in an open space and not behind closed doors.

You and your husband face a difficult dilemma. So did my parents when they agonised over whether or not to get rid of their television. In the end they did not have to. On Yom Kippur when they were both in shul someone broke into their house and stole it. They took it as a divine sign and never had it replaced.

Rabbi Jonathan Romain

Jonathan Romain is rabbi at Maidenhead (Reform) Synagogue.

Yes, there is much rubbish on television, and as someone who almost never watches (albeit for time reasons), I can sympathise with your husband. The command “not to put a stumbling block in front of the blind” (Leviticus 19.14) — which is extended to harming the vulnerable — could well apply. It is estimated that a child who watches television to an average extent will have see 18,000 people murdered by the age of 14 and become immune to the consequences of violence.

Yet it is equally true that there are many programmes — for instance about history or the natural world — that are superbly made and highly enriching. Television also shapes the way we are now. Could one appreciate the awful and awesome nature of New York’s twin towers being destroyed without having seen it? Should one decide how to vote at the next general election without watching at least part of the political debate?

As with so much in life — from wine to atomic power — it all depends how one uses or abuses it. One of the tools you can teach your children is how to discern between programmes of value and those lacking worth, as well as the discipline of selecting programmes to watch and then immediately using the off button.

Bearing in mind that they will certainly encounter television outside the home, it is far better to equip them in this way rather than ban it and make it all the more alluring.

It is worth adding that their Jewish knowledge and identity can benefit from you looking out for programmes of Jewish interest — and then watching them together and discussing the issues afterwards.

Of course, the best argument for not watching television — or at least doing so in a measured way — is the good use to which one can put all those extra hours, be it strengthening family relationships, pursuing hobbies, doing good works for others and deepening one’s Jewish learning.

It is not enough for you simply to limit your children’s viewing habits, but it is incumbent on you and your husband to provide them with so many enjoyable and positive experiences that they thoroughly enjoy such activities and find them much more fulfilling than watching the screen. Far more fun, for instance, to go horse-riding than watch the Lone Ranger doing it for you.

Last updated: 11:23am, August 26 2010