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Turning Off to Save the Family

Books: Kids are being ambushed by TV, online services and games, says author Mary Pipher. The result? Moms, dads and children who don't talk.


The hands shoot up. The heads nod. And the eager voices of several Porter Middle School students explode in unison. Everyone agrees that if they were home, the TV would definitely be on.

Author and therapist Mary Pipher--who moments earlier posed the TV or not TV question--has hit pay dirt. Again.

Her newest book, "The Shelter of Each Other" (Putnam, 1996), speaks to the era of high-tech electronics in which TV, the Internet, video games--an all-out media assault--seem to rule our kids. And families, she believes, need to return to old-fashioned values.

Hey, maybe even restoring the ritual of a family dinner with the TV off, the Nintendo lifeless and computers cold could be the beginning of rebuilding families lost in what Pipher calls "electronic villages." She says these are places where entertainment centers keep kids in the virtual world, not the real one.

The result is dramatic: This generation of kids could possibly be the first to grow up without social skills, Pipher says.

That's not surprising, she adds. According to research she cites in her book, by 1990, 72% of Americans didn't know their neighbors and the number of people who say they have never spent time with the people next door has doubled in the last 20 years.

But she contends in her book--and to the young people before her--that mostly it's the culture of the 1990s, not parents, who are to blame for the crisis many American families face.

She says children are growing up in the United States of Advertising--a consumer-driven, electronic community that is teaching kids "very different values from those we say we value."

The dozen teenagers in the principal's conference room at the Granada Hills school agree, nodding, their attention on the cultural anthropologist / clinical psychologist, college lecturer and radio commentator before them. Pipher is the hottest thing going in the land of popular psychology since the publication of her previous book, "Reviving Ophelia" (Putnam, 1994), which explored the pressured lives of adolescent girls.

Pipher--a soft-spoken, sensitive woman--loves to listen and talk with kids. And it's evident that the kids--barely 10 minutes into an hourlong chat fest--are enthralled.

"When I was a girl in this little town in Nebraska, my parents were almost never home," Pipher, 48, tells the group. "My mother was a doctor who worked all the time. My dad was always out working. And I'd go out and play with animals. Or I'd jump on my bike and ride around town. But it would never have occurred to me to turn on the TV."

Christie Choo, 13, tells Pipher, "Most of us are plugged into TV and computers. Sometimes I talk and eat dinner with my parents, but I feel sorry for kids who don't communicate with their families. Sometimes those kids are talking on the phone while they're eating dinner or they're eating and watching TV."

Says Daniel Ghalchi, 13: "I think that TV is taking the place of the family and that the family should step in and do something about it. I'll spend the whole night watching TV, three or more hours and on weekends go into chat rooms."

Carlin Wright, 13, admits that every day after school, "I go online and check my e-mail." And when she's alone, she turns on the TV "and I feel like someone is there with me."

But Pipher quickly adds, "The TV may feel like company, but it isn't and while you are watching television, you are not making a real friend."

Mahta Eghbali, 14, says her mother tells her, " 'You're addicted.' I tell her, 'No, I'm not.' It's hard to admit it, but you have a feeling that your day is not complete because you haven't watched at least a half-hour of TV."


Most of the students agree that usually after dinner it's off to their bedrooms to finish homework or into cyberspace or watch TV until bedtime with little or no interaction with their parents, who are usually too tired to talk at length or spend time with them outdoors.

Pipher tells the students that children watch an average of four hours of television per day.

Today's parents spend 40% less time with their children than parents did in the 1950s, Pipher says. Twice as many children live in single-parent homes today--45% of which are below poverty levels--than 20 years ago, and fathers, particularly, spend less than 30 minutes a week talking to their children.

Pipher tells the teens that 30 years ago, children learned how to behave "by watching real adults, by listening to their aunts and uncles and their cousins. They gave me a lot of advice and told me a lot of stories. That's how I learned how to behave. Now, a lot of people learn how to behave from watching TV."

And she warns the students not to fall into the "mean world syndrome."

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