What ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’ Teaches Us About Screen Addiction

Roald Dahl enchanted readers of his 1964 classic, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, with tales of Oompa-Loompas, everlasting gobstoppers, and snozzberries, but buried inside the story was also a strong warning about the dangers of television.

I thought of this warning when I noticed that the 2005 film version of the book was now available on Netflix the same week that a study by Common Sense Media was released that illustrated the extent to which Dahl’s predictions about screens have now come true. If we add the movie to our Netflix queue and revisit the spooky, candy-filled story (perfect for the Halloween season), perhaps we should also heed Dahl’s warning and turn off our televisions, power down our computers, and punch the “Do Not Disturb” button on our cell phones.

As the Common Sense Media study reported, children from newborn to age eight spend almost two-and-a-half hours every day staring at screens. Approximately one-third of that time is spent on a mobile device like a tablet or a cell phone. More alarmingly, the amount of time a child spends on a mobile device has increased by more than 300 percent since 2013. As well, children who have televisions or video games hooked up in their bedrooms spend more time isolated from their families than a child without in-room entertainment, according to a report published in Developmental Psychology last month. Not surprisingly, the study also found an association between a decrease in sleep (and poorer reading habits) and children who have televisions in their bedrooms.

Dahl warned his readers that this addiction had started to consume children and adults alike when his book came out in the 1960s. He predicted that TV would compete with and then replace reading as the preferred form of entertainment.

But Dahl didn’t engage in heavy-handed finger-wagging; rather, he had Willy Wonka’s Oompa-Loompas, the factory’s work-hands imported from a far-off island, deliver his message through song. The cocoa bean-crazed creatures scrutinize each golden ticket winner and pass judgment on their character—they chant that gluttony rules Augustus Gloop and greediness defines Veruca Salt, for example.

Mike Teavee—“the television fiend,” as Dahl describes him in his book—demands that Wonka take him to the factory’s TV room halfway through the tour. When he sees that Wonka has invented “Television Chocolate,” a way to put his chocolate bars into television screens for people all over the world to eat, the boy performs the experiment on himself and appears onscreen. Mr. Teavee retrieves his shrunken and shriveled son from the monitor moments later.

Before Mike and his father can exit the room to search out the taffy puller that will stretch Mike to his original size, the Oompa-Loompas appear to sing their rhythmic reproach: “The most important thing we’ve learned/ So far as children are concerned/ Is never, NEVER, NEVER let/ Them near your television set —/ Or better still, just don’t install/ The idiotic thing at all/ In almost every house we’ve been/ We’ve watched them gaping at the screen/ They loll and slop and lounge about/And stare until their eyes pop out.”

Dahl’s judgment of the modern household might have seemed bleak in the 1960s, at a time when most American families owned a single television in addition to a radio. Imagine the fit Dahl would pitch now that televisions, cell phones, computers, and tablets regularly silence conversations at the dinner table (so much so that organizations like Common Sense Media now sponsor campaigns for #DeviceFreeDinner that enlists celebrities to get parents and kids to put down their phones and have a conversation during their meal).

Dahl doesn’t let his readers simply acknowledge their guilt as they realize how technology has turned their minds “as soft as cheese,” however. He instead motivates parents, children, and whoever else will listen to read books instead. As the Oompa Loompas sing: “So please, oh please, we beg, we pray/ Go throw your TV set away/ And in its place you can install/ A lovely bookshelf on the wall.”

The next time you settle on the couch for an hour of relaxation, don’t reach for the remote. Don’t let Instagram make you jealous of your friends’ lives, don’t allow Twitter to fill you with rage, and don’t empower stupid TV shows you’ve already watched twice-over to melt your brain into brie.

Instead, grab a book. Might I recommend Charlie and the Chocolate Factory?

Image: Original Book Cover/Amazon

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