Kids' TV Like Sesame Street Is Producing a Generation of Young Loners, An Expert Claims

updated 10/08/1979 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 10/08/1979 AT 01:00 AM EDT

America's classroom without walls, Sesame Street, has graduated nearly an entire school generation out of playpens. Now, a decade after Big Bird first introduced pre-kindergarten kids to the letter "A," the major networks are employing high-level academic advisers to determine how effective television is as a teaching instrument. For the past six years Roger Fransecky, 39, a consultant for CBS's children's programming, has been studying the subject. After earning a B.A. in English at the State University of New York, Fransecky taught at the YMCA in Baltimore. When he had difficulty converting his TV-addicted students to reading, he tuned into their wavelength. "I now watch TV through kids' eyes," he says. Fransecky, who has a Ph.D. in psychology and education from the University of Cincinnati, heads his own New York consulting firm. Besides CBS, his clients include Scripps-Howard Broadcasting Company and the Public Broadcasting System. Twice divorced and a single parent to his daughter, Jennifer Lynne, 9, he has helped develop more than 15 children's programs, including Kidsworld and Fat Albert and The Cosby Kids for CBS and Young People's Specials for NBC. Recently he discussed the impact of television on children's learning with Barbara Rowes for PEOPLE.

How early does TV begin to affect kids?

Most children start watching at age 3 and have seen between 5,000 and 8,000 hours of television before they even go to kindergarten—that's more than 30,000 commercials a year. Just as a lot of us used to read under the sheets with a flashlight, kids today are sneaking their little Sonys into bed. Some kids watch the tube from the time they get home from nursery school until 11 or 12 o'clock at night. By the time they are 4 or 5 years old, they've become pretty cool and laid-back.

What are some of the positive effects?

Superficially, television has made them aware of and very well informed about a lot of issues. Since television is essentially global, it does bring to the viewer the awareness that there is an England and a Belgium and that the Olympics are going to be in Moscow. Of course, it has also brought a very early sophistication in vocabulary, manners and dress. We have a whole army of 7-year-olds strutting around like Erik Estrada or trying to look like Suzanne Somers and desperately wondering how they can carry it off!

Is children's television harming children?

It is clearly harmful if kids spend most of their time watching it instead of reading, talking, playing and discovering some of the music inside themselves. Most of the children's shows have really grown up with this television generation. They're brighter and have more respect for the kids who watch them, but we still have a long way to go to bring children's television to the level of craft and artistry that we often see in prime time.

Which programs are the best?

Sesame Street is beautifully written and integrates great visuals and animation with excellent music. CBS's 30 Minutes is a half-hour version of 60 Minutes for kids that doesn't speak down to them. There's a good deal of excitement about the new NBC program Hot Hero Sandwich, which uses contemporary music and makes some important points about growing up.

How does this television generation adapt to classroom learning?

When kids come to school for the first time, they are often confused. Television hasn't made any demands on them. Suddenly they enter the classroom, and the teacher starts making demands. They have to listen, talk, respond on cue and even occasionally think. It's a shock—and at that point the kids either respond or withdraw. A large percentage of the television generation are psychic drop-outs by the third grade.

Is this true of the graduates of Sesame Street?

Absolutely. The formal learning style of the school is slow and cumbersome to the child used to learning through 60-second segments on television. The teacher doesn't look like Big Bird, or sing like him or have a bag of cartoons stashed behind the desk. We are beginning to see a whole television generation that is restive and restless.

How are teachers responding to the TV generation?

Teachers today seem both confused and impatient, because bright kids are not responding to the most traditional ways of teaching. Kids are demanding that learning be packaged, preferably in bite-size chunks. What we are facing is a very real clash between teachers and kids—and teachers aren't yielding.

What is the school system doing to incorporate TV?

In the past five years the schools seem to have discovered commercial prime-time television. There are commercially produced study guides for shows like Roots and Holocaust. The National P.T.A. is developing a program to help kids view TV more critically and selectively. There is still resistance from teachers, who feel they have to compete with TV, and from school boards, who hesitate to pay a teacher to watch live or taped TV shows in class with the students. But television is slowly conquering the school system. It is becoming our major invisible teacher.

How does television affect relations between students?

We used to see in children a wonderful spirit of collaboration and play. But since the rise of the medium in the American culture, kids don't seem to know how to share, cooperate or play together. In fact, we are discovering more and more young children who are loners or isolates—kids who play by themselves. They seem to have tremendous problems, for example, sharing toys.

Is television the cause of isolation?

Not entirely. Certainly the family of the 1970s has been a major factor. Many kids spend more time with television than with their parents. In fact, most families no longer even eat together. Kids don't have a lot of models in family life for playing and sharing together. Out of loneliness, the child seeks his models from the tube.

What is the effect of these role models once children get to school?

Confusion. Kids are getting double or even triple messages—from television and family and school life—about who and what they can become. Parents tell them they can be whatever they want to be, yet on TV the message clearly is that to make it you need to be beautiful and have perfect teeth and a body like Loni Anderson of WKRP in Cincinnati. That image is replayed on every network, from The Dukes of Hazzard to what I think is probably the most deplorable show—Charlie's Angels.

What's wrong with Charlie's Angels?

The message of that show to children is that these three gorgeous nymphets are orchestrated by this male pimp whom they are desperately trying to please. They seem to have little if any initiative or imagination themselves. I also think Three's Company is the classic example of the same moronic image of both men and women. These are not real, capable, autonomous, strong, vital people—they're a bunch of simps.

But aren't the stereotypes changing?

Definitely. We are seeing television growing up. Now we can find characters who actually have dirt under their fingernails. But the change is slow because as viewers we tend to be a bit hypocritical. When asked in public-opinion polls what we want to watch, we say more ballet and Masterpiece Theatre. In reality, we turn away from anything good for us like the plague. Given the opportunity to watch something thoughtful, we return to the dribble. The networks respond to us.

What is the responsibility of parents?

One of the saddest facts is that parents today are simply not exercising their responsibility to monitor what their kids watch. We're really hung up about being incredibly popular with our kids, and we don't often say, "No, you shouldn't watch that program," and explain why. Thus, the child is denied the opportunity of knowing what his parent thinks is important and that the parent cares enough to intercede.

What can parents do to improve relations with the television generation?

We can begin by taking control of the television set in our own home—by watching one program a week with our children. We'll be amazed by what that shared experience elicits in the child. Parents must start to integrate television into family life. Not as a baby sitter, but as a visual experience they can share with their children.

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