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Family Room

Antique stores and flea markets. If you marry someone who likes to sift through aisles of nostalgia and browse quaint artifacts, you become very good at killing time and keeping the kids from touching anything expensive. That's how I found myself flipping through a wicker basket full of old magazines, only to stumble on a cultural relic.

Protected by a plastic sleeve, a Sept. 10, 1971 issue of LIFE stared back at me with a special section all about television's first quarter-century. The technology's impact. A viewer poll. The state of families on the small screen. I snatched up the magazine and willingly handed over eight times the cover price. So how do those reflections on TV's first 25 years compare to our situation 40 years later?

Concern for Children
Several of the LIFE articles worried about the narcotizing effect the electronic babysitter was having on children. No sophisticated research. Just an instinctive fear that TV would numb young minds. We share those misgivings today, but with modern science and technology to back them up. By studying brain development, researchers have concluded that toddlers are better off without television altogether. Recent studies have connected early viewing habits with obesity, attention deficit disorder and, in the case of research out of Cornell and Purdue Universities, even autism.

Of course, teenagers operate at a much higher cognitive level. But because regions of the brain responsible for considering consequences aren't fully wired until our early twenties, experts caution that TV shows glamorizing sex, violence, drinking or drug use could lead to risky behavior in young viewers. Therefore, it's crucial that rapid-fire images on the small screen send the right messages.

In 2008, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommended that children limit screen time—including TV, video games and computers—to a grand total of two hours daily. How does that compare with actual viewing habits? The 2010 Kaiser Family Foundation study Generation M2: Media in the Lives of 8- to 18-Year-Olds reported that, for television alone, children average 4:29 per day. Despite the mounting number of media options competing for young people's attention, that's still a marked increase from the 2004 figure of 3:51.

The Isolation Factor
Another concern expressed in my weathered copy of LIFE was that TV would isolate Americans socially—that we'd experience things from a recliner rather than as active participants. A 1971 Harris poll found that the heaviest TV viewers were those characterized as "lonely and alienated." Similarly, two-thirds of those polled said "television keeps family members from talking to each other."

Today we're infinitely more connected to global events, but we can still remain disengaged, substituting knowledge for action and allowing that pseudo-community to replace meaningful relationships. Not only are we tempted to retreat from the chaotic world around us, but we're more likely to use TV to isolate ourselves from family members. In 2006, for the first time in history, most American homes contained more television sets (2.73) than people (2.55), letting us disappear into different rooms to consume programming designed for niche audiences.

Furthermore, we now have the ability to consume televised content online or on any number of mobile devices, making it even easier to watch what we want, when we want, where we want. Independence is the rule. And that tends to undermine the "shared viewing experience".

Content Anxiety
Most of LIFE's special report focused on the medium rather than on content, though an essay about onscreen families stated, "After the shock of Archie Bunker, the TV family will never be the same again." Oddly, the author wasn't bothered by this. She applauded All in the Family's acerbic vision of suburbia for helping to undo the "merry charade" and "sorry subterfuge" of The Donna Reed Show, My Three Sons and Father Knows Best. Her piece and others also oozed resentment of dumbed-down programming targeting the masses.

If only "square" and "dumb" were our biggest problems in 2011. The climate is radically different. In '71 sponsors still possessed clout and conscience. And cable had yet to desensitize audiences and force networks to ramp up the sleaze just to stay competitive. Now we have an industry-regulated rating system (read: license to push the envelope), V-chips, and content that is exponentially edgier than Flip Wilson. With hundreds of channels at our disposal, TV is more unwieldy and explicit, making it increasingly important and difficult to monitor what our kids are watching.

It doesn't take much channel-surfing for parents to realize that television is in moral freefall. And sadly, America's children are spending more time than ever watching it, often without parental guidance. Nevertheless, I'm not ready to pull the plug entirely. Much the way I keep my children safe and find rare treasures while wandering through antique stores, with the Lord's help I can help them develop small-screen savvy as well. Allow me to leave you with my favorite LIFE nostalgia nugget, unearthed on page 66. It's a timeless quote from then-FCC Commissioner Nicholas Johnson who said, "All television is educational television. The only question is, what is it teaching?"

Published February 2011