Children spend close to a thousand hours a year in front of screens. Even adults spend more time looking at the screen than talking with real people face to face. Immersion in entertainment media leaves the viewer living in a Harry Potter fantasy world.. with a broken wand. I don’t watch a lot of TV, but I helped raise troubled youngsters for a few years. They acquired all kinds of magical thinking from television and movies. I’m going to use my experience as a foster parent to highlight where their point of view departs from reality. Can you see your family in this story?
School and career-
These youngsters thought being a music rock star was an alternative career to finishing high school and finding a job. They knew that top entertainers had money and fame. When I asked if any of their friends or family was a successful entertainer, they named the characters they watched on TV. These on-screen characters seemed like real friends to these children since the children had spent hours with them every week. (These kids also thought Elvis Presley was still alive but they didn’t know the name of our president or governor at the time.) In their world, it was more important to entertain your friends and be popular than to study and get good grades in school. They are the norm, rather than the exception. Some of them went on to attend junior college.
Work and reward-
Most of us get rich by earning one small paycheck at a time. Success happens over 30 years rather than in 30 minutes as shown on screen. If we ever achieve sudden success, it is usually after many years of persistence and repeated failure. My kids thought wealthy people cheated other people to become rich. They had never seen two married people work a lifetime, raise a family and own a home. I asked if I was rich because I cheated other people. I kid you not, they thought I was rich because the state paid me to take care of them. They were cute but clueless. Several of these kids are on welfare today.
Marriage and fidelity-
Most of these children came from broken or re-assembled families. They had a soap-opera view of life where sexual relationships came and went. This is more realistic for them than of most of us because these children had lived a soap-opera life as well as watched them on TV. One of their parents would sometimes leave the family for months or years at a time. They had little or no experience observing life-long married love until they stayed with my family. They certainly didn’t see committed love on TV. We couldn’t protect them from the culture. Some of the young girls we fostered are now single moms.
Honest and generous neighbors-
Detective dramas and police reality shows give us a distorted view of law enforcement. My kids had real world experience. They remembered the stick of gum they got from a policeman and the toothbrush they got from a CPS worker. Those were the good memories. They also remembered the police being there when their family finally broke apart. My foster children were more realistic than most television viewers in that they did not expect cops to show up just in time and protect them. They knew the police were never there when their parents broke the law.
Knowing I was being watched and judged by young eyes helped me set a good example. My family and neighbors reminded these kids that adults were trustworthy and honest. That is much too boring for TV. We had to tell the children that TV was crazy when they came home from a neighbor’s house and told us what they’d watched. Our house is still unplugged.
Safe and trustworthy men and women-
The state, a star actor right out of central casting, was the most significant agent in their lives. These children had all been to family court time and again. They watched the great wheel of justice turn slowly and sometimes mete out drabs of justice. Usually it spit out more bureaucracy. Even the well intentioned social workers lacked the knowledge of what these kids needed in their lives. Sometimes the children knew too much already; some of the kids had learned to use lawyers in frivolous lawsuits.
Like most kids, they grew up with a square headed electronic babysitter. They’d seen horror movies on battery powered TVs while they lived in a van. After that, it took months to calm their fears of the dark. We tried hard to show them that the real world was worth trusting, but I can’t really fault them for being mistrustful. They saw a lot of scary stuff, both on TV and in their real lives. They had too much screen time and not enough face time.
As foster parents, we tried to show them the real life they could have. That is more than you can say for modern entertainment on TV and in the movies. Frankly, their magical thinking of these kids was pretty scary. These children are my countrymen. They were raised by Hollywood, and they will soon grow up to vote and sit on a jury.