Like most tweens who don't live in enlightened, overachieving homes, my 9- and 11-year-old children watch a lot of TV. Specifically, a lot of bad TV — and, thanks to new technology, they can watch it again and again.
When I was young, appointment television really was appointment television. If I missed an episode of Happy Days or Welcome Back, Kotter I'd have to wait until July to see the single repeat broadcast. But morning and night, my kids can see repeated airings of their favorite shows on Nickelodeon or the Disney Channel, record them on our DVR or order them on-demand through our cable box — for free.
I grew up with TV as a constant background companion, got good grades and turned out to be a reasonably responsible citizen. Since my kids seem to be headed down the same path, I don't get too concerned about their viewing habits — except for this one trend I've recently noticed in nearly all of their favorite shows: TV kids hate old people.
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Three prominent examples:
- The Disney XD series "Mr. Young," a comedy about a (sigh) 14-year-old science teacher, features doddering history instructor Mrs. Byrne, who has memory problems and a proclivity to make inappropriate remarks. Whenever she offers to sing, dance or otherwise get involved in student life, the kids loudly beg her not to. The show's own website describes the character as "possibly the world’s oldest human. She’s been at Finnegan High for longer than anyone can remember, especially her — she barely remembers the pureed prunes she had for breakfast."
- Nickelodeon's "Victorious" is a breakout hit about a group of teenagers at fictional Hollywood Arts High School, all blessed with musical talent and stunning cheekbones. Songwriting prodigy Andre Harris lives with his grandmother, who has "lost her mind" and is pathologically afraid of almost everything. In the episode that featured her most prominently, she is terrified by the faces and voices coming from her grandson's laptop as he works on a project with classmates via Skype. Eventually, she shatters the computer screen.
- iCarly, Nickelodeon's other ratings champ, focuses on a teenager who produces a popular webcast with her friends. In one episode, Carly discusses potential volunteer opportunities with her closest friend, Sam, including a project that helps the elderly. "You lost me at 'old people,'" Sam tells her dismissively, as the laugh track plays on.
"These offensive jokes and stereotypes — layer after layer — reinforce the concept that old is bad and young is good," says Kay Van Norman, president of Brilliant Aging in Bozeman, Mont., who has written extensively on the issue of ageism. "Children internalize negative stereotypes of aging long before they’re ever relevant to themselves. It breeds a fear of getting old. Studies have been done in which young children are asked to draw themselves at age 60 or 70, and what we find is that a lot of them will draw somebody broken down with a cane or walker. Young people have the idea that most older people are going to end up disabled, which is completely false."
I find the trend especially disturbing because my kids were raised on programs like "Caillou," "Franny's Feet" and "Between the Lions" on PBS, and "Dora the Explorer" on Nick Jr., all of which had positive portrayals of older people and grandparents whom children could rely on. But that's not the case for shows aimed at older children. "It’s sad that we’re not teaching children that an elder is someone to go to for help if they’re having a problem," Van Norman says, "and it’s extremely sad that we’re continuing to perpetuate negative stereotypes, as if people get to a certain age and can’t learn anything new — while the fastest growing segment on the Internet is age 60-plus."
There are exceptions to the "I hate old people" trend, most notably Disney Channel's remarkable animated show "Phineas and Ferb." It features two brilliant and relentlessly positive pre-teen stepbrothers who, in each 15-minute episode, devise and construct a complex, large-scale invention while their pet platypus thwarts the evil schemes of a local mad scientist. (Yes, you read correctly.) Among the show's praiseworthy elements: it encourages kids in the least preachy way possible to embrace science and outdoor activity; the boys and their big sister love their parents; and they also admire their witty, active and athletic grandparents. In one episode, for example, their maternal grandmother straps on her skates in a triumphant return to the roller-derby rink.
As a parent, I can certainly do a better job offering counterpoints to the stereotypes that run rampant on other shows. I could also turn off the TV more often, or direct my kids toward higher-quality shows we can enjoy together, like Discovery Channel's recent "Frozen Planet" series. That burden is on me. But the job of producing shows that encourage good will between generations, instead of scorn or revulsion, is squarely on the networks.
Let's hope they get the message before further damage is done.