If you want to know what’s wrong with family life in America today, look no further than the televison set in your home. Today, 98% of American families have at least one television set in the house around which family members gather, sometimes up to six hours per day!
According to communnication scholars Lynn Turner and Richard West, in a recent sruvey, 86% of respondants indicated that watching television comprises their “WeTime” as a family unit (2012). And their influence is often pervasive. Many Americans believe what they veiw on television even though the content isn’t likely to approach how actual families fare in everyday life.
Since the 1950’s, television sitcoms have sought to portray family life in an idealized manner, offering the public a snapshot of what government officials and media producers view as desirable, normative behavior among family members.
In their book, Family Communication, Turner and West give a brief historical analysis of prominent family themes played out in sitcomes on television, themes that have directly or indirectly challenged family life and values since the 1950’s. Here’s a brief list of some of them:
- Parents are often portrayed as unreasonable and overprotective of their wiser, smarter children.
- Families always seem to quickly and easily resolve internal conflicts while maintaining peace and harmony in the family unit.
- Indeed, most conflict between family members portrayed on television hardly require confict management strategies for resolution.
- At the end of the show, everybody in the family unit seems to understand and accept each other’s points-of-view and the family is restored to perfect harmony.
- Interestingly, television portrays openness and self-disclosure as readily taking place between family members thus blurring the distinction of an openness/privacy dialectic and established, private boundaries between parents and children. Even more surprising, students tell me in papers and online discussion boards that in real life, no member of their family harbors secrets from other members. Directness and openness is maintained almost as a fait accompli in their family life.
- Television sitcoms rarely portray family communication about daily activities. How many times have you seen a family gathering on television talking about real-world, everyday events and activities in the lives of its members? Indeed, much of television’s focus in sitcoms is in dealing with family members’ relationship to each other.
- Finally, sitcoms tend to treat issues within a family unit without considering external social influences and their impact on family life.
Given that television programming presents us with an idealized, almost surreal, image of family life, it’s shocking that 86% of us say that their “WeTime” is spent around the television set. Do we believe the media images of families? You bet we do! In fact, if sitcoms were portraying a realistic understanding of families in programming, nearly all of us, by reflection, could consider that our family unit is indeed, dysfunction.
It’s amazing how many of us will watch anywhere from 3-6 hours of television per day while we interact with our spouses and children in our “real” family less than 30 minutes per day. No wonder the American family is in deep trouble!
What might help today’s family are television shows that realistically portray family life as it’s really lived. Such programming may even be instructive if it is focused on portraying interdependence of family members, boundary-setting strategies, dealing honestly with interpersonal conflict, private messages between family sub-groups and general discussions about family goals and daily activities. But would anyone actually watch such programming? It is doubtful, indeed.
Therefore, let me advance another suggestion: turn off the television and get to know your family members. Restore family dinner hour, talk about day-to-day activities, learn how to resolve deeply help conficts and learn time management strategies that actually hold the family unit together, play together and come to love your time, and each other, together.