Television: The Plug-In Drug


Marie Winn was born in 1936 in Prague, in what is now the Czech Republic, and raised in New York City. She is an author and a translator of Czech writers such as Vaclav Havel, playwright and president of the Czech Republic (1993-2003). The Plug-In Drug: Television, Children and the Family (1977, revised 2002) was the first in a series of books by Winn about family in modern society: this excerpt is taken from that book. As you read, follow her sophisticated argument closely.

Not much more than fifty years after the introduction of television into American society, the medium has become so deeply ingrained in daily life that in many states the TV set has attained the rank of a legal necessity, safe from the repossession in case of debt along with clothes and cooking utensils. Only in the early years after television’s introduction did writers and commentators have sufficient perspective to separate the activity of watching television from the actual content it offers the viewer. In those days writers frequently discussed the effects of television on a family life. However, a curious myopia afflicted those first observers: almost without exception they regarded television as a favorable, beneficial, indeed, wondrous influence upon the family.

“Television is going to be a real asset in every home where there are children,” predicted a writer in 1949.

“Television will take over your way of living and change your children’s habits, but this change can be a wonderful improvement,” claimed another commentator.

“No survey’s needed, of course, to establish that television has brought the family together in one room,” wrote the New York Time’s television critic in 1949.’

The early articles about television were almost invariably accompanied by a photograph or illustration showing a family cozily sitting together before the television set, Sis on Mom’s lap. Buddy perched on the arm of Dad’s chair, Dad with his arm around Mom’s shoulder. Who could have guessed that twenty or so years later Mom would be watching a drama in the kitchen, the kids would be looking at cartoons in their room, while Dad would be taking in the ball game in the living room?

Of course television sets were enormously expensive when they first came out on the market. The idea that by the year 2000 more than three quarters of all American families would own two or more sets would have seemed preposterous. The splintering of the multiple-set family was something the early writers did not foresee. Nor did anyone imagine the number of hours children would eventually devote to television, the changes television would effect upon child-rearing methods, the increasing domination of family schedules by children’s viewing requirements-in short, the power of television to dominate family life.

As children’s consumption of the new medium increased together with parental concern about the possible effects of so much television viewing, a steady refrain helped soothe and reassure anxious parents. “Television always enters a pattern of influences that already exist: the home, the peer group, the school, the church and culture generally,” wrote the authors of an early and influential study of television’s effects on children. In other words, if the child’s home life is all right, parents need not worry about the effects of too much television watching.

But television did not merely influence the child: it deeply influenced that “pattern of influences” everyone hoped would ameliorate the new medium’s effects. Home and family life have changed in important ways since the advent of television. The peer group has become television-oriented, and much of the time children spend together is occupied by television viewing. Culture generally has been transformed by television. Participation in church and community activities has diminished, with television a primary cause of this change. Therefore it is improper to assign to television the subsidiary role with its many apologists insist it plays. Television is not merely one of a number of important influences upon today’s child. Through the changes it has made in family life, television emerges as the important influence in children’s lives today.


Television’s contribution to family life has been an equivocal one. For while it has, indeed, kept the members of the family from dispersing, it has not served to bring them together. By its domination of the time families spend together, it destroys the special quality that distinguishes one family from another, a quality that depends to a great extent on what a family does, what special rituals, games, recurrent jokes, familiar songs, and shared activities it accumulates.

Yet parents have accepted a television-dominated family life so completely that they cannot see how the medium is involved in whatever problems they might be having. A first grade teacher reports:

I have one child in the group who’s an only child. I wanted to find out more about her family life because this little girl was quite isolated from the group, didn’t make friends, so I talked to her mother. Well, they don’t have time to do anything in the evening, the mother said. The parents come home after picking up the child at the baby-sitter’s. Then the mother fixes dinner while the child watches TV. Then they have dinner and the child goes to bed. I said to this mother, “Well couldn’t she help you fix dinner? That would be a nice time for the two of you to talk,” and the mother said, “Oh, but I’d hate to have her miss Zoom. It’s such a good program.”

Several decades ago a writer and mother of two boys aged three and seven described her family’s television schedule in a newspaper article. Though some of the programs her kids watched then have changed, the situation she describes remains the same for great numbers of families today:

We were in the midst of a full-scale war. Every day was a new battle and every program was a major skirmish. We agreed it was a bad scene all around and were ready to enter diplomatic negotiations…In principle we have agreed on 21/2 hours of TV a day, Sesame Street, Electric Company (with dinner gobbled up in between) and two half-hour shows between 7 and 8:30 which enables the grown-ups to eat in peace and prevents the two boys from destroying one another. Their pre-bedtime choice is dreadful, because as Josh recently admitted, “There’s nothing on I really like.” So…it’s What’s My Line or To Tell the Truth… Clearly there is a need for first rate children’s shows at this time…

Consider the “family life” described here: Presumably the father comes home from work during the Sesame Street-Electric Company stint. The children are either watching television, gobbling their dinner, or both. While the parents eat their dinner in peaceful privacy, the children watch another hour of television. There is only a half hour left before bedtime, just enough time for baths, getting pajamas on, brushing teeth, and so on. The children’s evening is regimented with an almost military precision. They watch their favorite programs, and when there is “nothing much on I really like,” they watch whatever else is on-because watching is the important thing. Their mother does not see anything amiss with watching programs just for the sake of watching; she only wishes there were some first rate children’s shows on at those times.

Without conjuring up fantasies of bygone eras with family games and long, leisurely meals, the question arises: Isn’t there a better family life available than this dismal, mechanized arrangement of children watching television for however long is allowed them, evening after evening?

Of course, families today still do things together at times: go camping in the summer, go to the zoo on a nice Sunday, take various trips and expeditions. But their ordinary daily life together is diminished-those hours of sitting around at the dinner table, the spontaneous taking up of an activity, the little games invented by children on the spur of the moment when there is nothing else to do, the scribbling, the chatting, and even the quarreling, all the things that form the fabric of a family, that define a childhood. Instead, the children have their regular schedule of television programs and bedtime, and the parents have their peaceful dinner together.

The author of the quoted newspaper article notes that “keeping a family sane means mediating between the needs of both children and adults.” But surely the needs of the adults in that family were being better met than the needs of the children. The kids were effectively shunted away and rendered untroublesome, while their parents enjoyed a life as undemanding as that of any childless couple. In reality, it is those very demands that young children make upon a family that lead to growth, and it is the way parents respond to those demands that builds the relationships upon which the future of the family depends. If the family does not accumulate its backlog of shared experiences, shared everyday experiences that occur and recur and change and develop, then it is not likely to survive as anything other than a caretaking institution.


Ritual is defined by sociologists as “that part of family life that the family likes about itself, is proud of and wants formally to continue.” Another text notes that “the development of a ritual by a family is an index of the common interest of its members in the family as a group.”

What has happened to family rituals, those regular, dependable, recurrent happenings that give members of a family a feeling of belonging to a home rather than living in it merely for the sake of convenience, those experiences that act as the adhesive of family unity far more than any material advantages?

Mealtime rituals, going to bed rituals, illness rituals, holiday rituals-how many of these have survived the inroads of the television set?

A young woman who grew up near Chicago reminisces about her childhood and gives an idea of the effects of television upon family rituals:

As a child I had millions of relatives around-my parents both come from relatively large families. My father had nine brothers and sisters. And so every holiday there was this great swoop-down of aunts, uncles, and millions of cousins. I just remember how wonderful it used to be. The cousins would come and everyone would play and ultimately, after dinner, all the women would be in the front of the house, drinking coffee and talking, all the men would be in the back of the house, drinking and smoking, and all the kids would be all over the place, playing hide and seek. Christmas time was particularly nice because everyone always brought all their toys and games. Our house had a couple of rooms with go-through closets, so there were always kids running in a great circle route. I remember it was wonderful.

And then all of a sudden one year I remember becoming suddenly aware of how different everything had become. The kids were no longer playing Monopoly or Clue or the other games we used to play together. It was because we had a television set which had been turned on for a football game. All of that socializing that had gone on previously had ended. Now everyone was sitting in front of the television set, on a holiday, at a family party! I remember being stunned by how awful that was. Somehow the television had become more attractive.

As families have come to spend more and more of their time together engaged in the single activity of television watching, those rituals and pastimes that once gave family life its special quality have become more and more uncommon. Not since prehistoric times, when cave families hunted, gathered, ate, and slept, with little time remaining to accumulate a culture of any significance, have families been reduced to such a sameness.


The relationships of family members to each other are affected by television’s powerful competition in both obvious and subtle ways. For surely the hours that children spend in a one-way relationship with television people, an involvement that allows for no communication or interaction, must have some effect on their relationships with real people.

Studies show the importance of eye-to-eye contact, for instance, in real-life relationships, and indicate that the nature of one’s eye-contact patterns, whether one looked another squarely in the eye or looks to the side or shifts one’s gaze from side to side, may play a significant role in one’s success or failure in human relationships. But no eye contact is possible in the child television relationship, although in certain children’s programs people purport to speak directly to the child and the camera fosters this illusion by focusing directly upon the person being filmed. How much might such a distortion affect a child’s development of trust, of openness, of an ability to relate well to real people?

Bruno Bettlheim suggested an answer:

Children who have been taught, or conditioned, to listen passively most of the day to the warm verbal communications coming from the TV screen, to the deep emotional appeal of the so called TV personality, are often unable to respond to real persons because they arouse so much less feeling than the skilled actor. Worse, they lose the ability to learn from reality because life experiences are much more complicated than the ones they see on the screen…

A teacher makes a similar observation about her personal viewing experiences:

I have trouble mobilizing myself and dealing with real people after watching a few hours of television. It’s just hard to make that transition from watching television to a real relationship. I suppose it’s because there was no effort necessary while I was watching, and dealing with real people always requires a bit of effort. Imagine, then, how much harder it might be to do the same thing for a small child, particularly one who watches a lot of television every day.

But more obviously damaging to family relationships is the elimination of opportunities to talk and converse, or to argue, to air grievances between parents and children and brothers and sisters. Families frequently use television to avoid confronting their problems, problems that will not go away if they are ignored but will only fester and become less easily resolvable as time goes on. A mother reports:

I find myself, with three children, wanting to turn on the TV set when they’re fighting. I really have to struggle not to do it because I feel that’s telling them this is the solution to the quarrel-but it’s so tempting that I often do it.

A family therapist discusses the use if television as an avoidance mechanism:

In a family I know the father comes home from work and turns on the television set. The children come and watch him and the wife serves them their meal in front of the set. He then goes and takes a shower, or works on the car or on something. She then goes and has her own dinner in front of the television set. It’s a symptom of a deeper-rooted problem, sure. But it would help them all to get rid of the set. It would be far easier to work on what the symptoms really means without the television. The television simply encourages a double avoidance of each other. They’d find out more quickly what was going on if they weren’t able to hide behind the TV. Things wouldn’t be better, of course, but they wouldn’t be anesthetized.

A number of research studies done when television was a relatively new medium demonstrated that television interfered with family activities and the formation of family relationships. One survey showed that 78 percent of the respondents indicated no conversation taking place during viewing except at specified times such as commercials. The study noted: “The television atmosphere in most households is one of quiet absorption on the part of family members who are present. The nature of the family social life during a program could be described as parallel rather than interactive, and the set does seem to dominate family life when it is on.” Thirty-six percent of the respondents in another study indicated that television viewing was the only family activity participated in during the week.

The situation has only worsened during the intervening decades. When the studies were made, the great majority of American families had only one television set. Though the family may have spent more time watching TV in those early days, at least they were all together while they watched. Today the vast majority of all families have two or more sets, and nearly a third of all children live in homes with four or more TVs. The most telling statistic: almost 60 percent of all families watch television during meals, and not necessarily at the same TV set. When do they talk about what they did in that day? When do they make plans, exchange views, share jokes, tell about their triumphs or little disasters? When do they get to be a real family?


Of course television has not been the only factor in the decline of the family life in America. The steadily rising divorce rate, the increase in the number of working mothers, the trends towards people moving far away from home, the breakdown of neighborhoods and communities-all these have seriously affected the family.

Obviously the sources of family breakdown do not necessarily come from the family itself, but from the circumstances in which the family finds itself and the way of life imposed upon it by those circumstances. As Urie Bronfenbrenner has suggested:

When those circumstances and the way of life they generate undermine relationships of trust and emotional security between family members, when they make it difficult for parents to care for, educate and enjoy their children, when there is no support or recognition from the outside world for one’s roles as a parent and when time spent with one’s family means frustration of career, personal fulfillment and peace of mind, then the development of the child is adversely affected.

Certainly television is not the single destroyer of American family life. But the medium’s dominant role in the family serves to anesthetize parents into accepting their family’s diminished state and prevents them from struggling to regain some of the richness the family once possessed.

One research study alone seems to contradict the idea that television has a negative impact on family life. In their important book Television and the Quality of Life, sociologists Robert Kubey and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi observe that the heaviest viewers of TV among their subjects were “no less likely to spend time with their families” than the lightest viewers. Moreover, those heavy viewers reported feeling happier, more relaxed, and satisfied when watching TV with their families than light viewers did. Based on these reports, the researchers reached the conclusion that “television viewing harmonizes with family life.”

Using the same data, however, the researchers made another observation about the heavy and light viewers: “…families that spend substantial portions of their time together watching television are likely to experience greater percentages of their family time feeling relatively passive and unchallenged compared with families who spend small proportions of their time watching TV.”

At first glance the two observations seem at odds: the heavier viewers feel happy and satisfied, yet their family time is more passive and unchallenging-less satisfying in reality. But when one considers the nature of the television experience, the contradiction vanishes. Surely it stands to reason that the television experience is instrumental in preventing viewers from recognizing its dulling effects, much as mind altering drug might do.

In spite of everything, the American family muddles on, dimly aware that something is amiss but distracted from an understanding of its plight by an endless stream of television images. As family ties grow weaker and vaguer, as children’s lives become more separate from their parents’, as parents’ educational role in their children’s lives is taken over by the media, the school, and the peer group, family life becomes increasingly more unsatisfying for both parents and children. All that seems to be left is love, an abstraction that family members know is necessary but find great difficulty giving it to each other since the traditional opportunities for expressing it within the family that have been reduced or eliminated.

Writing Project:

Read “Television: The Plug-In Drug” and write an essay that supports, challenges or qualifies Winn’s position on the influence of television on family life. You can use evidence drawn from your own experience and observation (800 words).

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