It Wasn’t Me!!—Blame TV

Marcia Forbes PhD

“Honey came home and caught me red-handed banging on the bathroom floor”   Despite this confession to his friend Shaggy, the latter was clear in his instructions to Ric Rok, “Say it wasn’t you”. We all celebrate Shaggy and his successes even with this ‘barefacedness’, succinctly captured in his advice to deny, deny, deny. 

Many parents and caregivers in Jamaica, even with the evidence staring at them, are as ‘barefaced’ and ‘dry eyed’ as Shaggy. They refuse to take any responsibility for what their children watch on TV. When confronted, the response is simple, “It’s not my fault -- it’s the TV station/ the cable company/Government/overwork/underpay/stress/crime.” Anything but a response with some modicum of accountability and some sense of responsibility!
Over the years having heard the complaints about inappropriate television content, in my survey I posed questions pertaining to parental restrictions on viewing. This would give me an idea of the extent to which Jamaican parents were taking their role seriously with respect to having some control over what their children watch on TV. Yes, I can already hear the howls—“But we never know what they going to show!” Alright I concede that this may be so at times, but with parental advisories and ratings, things have been improving in this regard. I also want to make it abundantly clear that I am not absolving the TV stations or the cable systems of their duty of care to our children.
In response to the question as to whether or not parents/guardians restricted the amount of television they were allowed, adolescents reported that during the week, Mondays to Thursdays, they were virtually as likely as not to have limits on the amount of TV they were allowed to watch. On these four days, 51.5% to 54.6% of adolescents reported restrictions. This leaves almost half of them free to watch as much as they liked although they had school next day. What concerns me is the extent to which parents and guardians fail to establish any boundaries on the amount of television they allow their children to watch. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not banning TV. It serves a useful function but like most technologies such as cell phones and email, it must serve you, not become your master.
Studies have found that even when parents are not around, children will respect pre-established restrictions in terms of TV watching—what they can watch and how much.   Of course there will be some who break the rules but in general we tend to underestimate our children and don’t assign them enough responsibility and then hold them accountable. The Kaiser Family Foundation, a US organization, conducts regular research on children and media in that country. A 2005 study by them found that in homes where there were rules and these rules were applied, the children watched one and a half hours less TV each day. I’m not saying that everything that applies to the USA will do the same for Jamaica but our children are no more ‘hard ears’ or ‘think them big’ than those in ‘Merica’.  I would venturea guess that they are much less so. 
In focus group discussions many adolescents had their own opinions about parents, the good and the bad ones, as it related to their control of TV. There was a view that those who failed to establish boundaries just didn’t care. One inner city girl felt that, “the adults some of them don’t care for their children, they don’t business ‘bout them”, while a middle class girl opined, “most Mothers or good Mothers wouldn’t really want you to watch those things.” This was in reference to inappropriate television content. Clearly then, young people believe and expect adults to take a stand and to set rules.
Against the numerous complaints from parents about ‘pure slackness’ in music videos, when asked if they were allowed to watch every type of music video, 57% of adolescents in the survey  said ‘yes’.   So we see a very large number of young people pretty much allowed to watch as much of and whatever types of videos they want to. When this data is cross referenced with what else they do while watching, we see that many are doing homework or studying. Two-thirds (66.2%) of those who were allowed to watch all types of music videos indicated that they ‘sometimes’, ‘most times’ or ‘always’ watched while doing homework or studying. Of note is that those who were not allowed to watch all genres of videos were just as likely to be studying or doing homework while watching (65.3%). In the aforementioned Kaiser study, 24% of respondents reported watching TV ‘most of the time’ while doing homework. This compares to 32.6% of the Jamaica adolescents who watched music videos ‘most times’ or ‘always’ (the ‘sometimes’ category is excluded from this).
These very high percentages of young people who are watching TV while doing school work led me to contemplate issues of attention, retention and recall. Especially since so many of them indicated that they watched ‘most times’ or always’, what are they paying attention to when they multi-skill in this manner? Which is loosing out, school work or TV?  Is it the same for boys as for girls?  Does age play a role? Are older adolescents better able to multi-skill in this manner than the younger ones? One factor which will influence the answers is the extent to which the viewer is aroused by what is being watched on TV.
Arousal has been defined as, “an automatic, nonspecific physiological response that is conceptualized as an activator or energizer” (Pearse, 2001) and is usually triggered by something in the environment. Once aroused, one pays greater attention. The concept of arousal is important to media effects since the state brings on physiological changes which by influencing attention may impact how media contents are interpreted. The general concept of arousal goes beyond any specific type of media content, so I’m not just referring to sex on TV. 
Various types of media content (e.g. erotica and violence) or media technologies (e.g. surround sound, 3 D and big screen) have been shown to elicit a state of arousal in viewers. Within the music video genre several standard filmic styles and practices serve to enhance arousal. These include the high level of motion usually present in this programme genre as well as use of sound effects, cuts, colour and composition of shots. Auditory stimulation can be used to attract visual attention away from whatever other activity the viewer may be involved with. The trend now is to copy the music video style for commercials, movies and even to some extent, news. Children watching TV while doing homework or studying are hard pressed to focus on the latter while the former uses all strategies to capture and hold their attention.
Although the amount of time spent watching TV tells one story, quite another is told when one examines the extent to which this activity is performed in solo as opposed to being engaged with alongside other activities. The amount of attention devoted to TV, both in terms of quantity and quality of time, can influence the outcomes of the viewing experience. In one oversees study the majority of participants (65%) reported using TV as a partial activity, as opposed to those (31%) who reported watching TV as the ‘only’ activity. From my own study, one gets the impression that there is a great deal of other things going on when young people in Jamaica watch TV.
Often the majority of them (93%) are likely to be eating and drinking as well. A very high percentage, 90%, is likely to be singing along. Then there are those (82%) who are talking to other people in the room. What a commotion!! Add doing their homework or studying to the mix and one begins to understand why it is so important for parents to take charge. Although I haven’t yet got to the point of determining the extent to which the same children are engaging in all these various activities, based on the high percentages for the previously mentioned ones, there clearly will be overlaps. 
Some of these activities such as singing along to music videos plus talking to other people in the room while doing homework must be very distracting. This begs the question, ‘How much homework or studying can our children really get through when so many other activities are competing for their attention, retention and recall?’ Multi-tasking is great but retention and recall require some degree of focused attention. Parents need to take responsibility to set the rules for homework as well as TV watching. Using Shaggy’s advice to Ric Rok may make you feel better but not a soul will believe it wasn’t you.