At the center of home and hearth is the VCR. Videos are changing the way families live and children learn

`OUR whole family danced together in the living room!'' exclaims sociology professor Brenda Vander Mey. She's talking about the time she brought home a Disney video featuring '50s pop-rock for her four-year-old son. ``At first my husband and I groaned at the prospect of watching it. But we loved it. I mean, can you dance at the movie house?''

Although Professor Vander Mey, a Clemson University media specialist, has a trained eye for such reactions, her feeling typifies that of many VCR users.

The videocassette recorder has had a greater leisure-time impact - on the family and society - than anything since the TV boom after World War II. Its performance over the last 10 years makes it one of America's fastest-selling appliances ever, as shown by figures from the Electronic Industries Association: It can be found in some 60 percent of American homes, up from 10 percent in 1982. And Americans rented more than 2 billion prerecorded tapes in 1987, and bought some 65 million, at a combined cost of about $6.4 billion.

Even more striking is the sociological impact of the VCR:

It is squarely in the middle of a current change in the way families relate to one another, bolstering what sociologists call ``familism'' - a feeling of unity and common activity.

Its programmable recording feature has made people masters of their own viewing time, freeing them from the tyranny of TV schedules.

Prerecorded tapes, meanwhile, have enormously increased choice of content.

These changes have put a premium on parental responsibility to monitor content and viewing time.

Although a new learning tool for schools and homes, VCRs raise troubling questions about children's verbal literacy. ``I've heard, `This is yet another baby sitter, another indication of the couch-potato phenomenon,''' says Vander Mey. ``I think that's a cheap and easy explanation, insulting to Americans, especially to parents. I find the VCR obviously gives us an element of control that TV did not allow.''

Aletha C. Huston, a psychology professor at the University of Kansas at Lawrence, agrees. ``You have a wider selection of programs,'' she says. ``You see them when you want to, you can turn them off and on to leave the room. You can repeat them. You can do all kinds of things you couldn't do with broadcast TV.''

Yet Professor Huston also sees danger springing from ``what people do with that freedom.'' As co-director of her university's Center for Research on the Influence of Television on Children, she finds that young people ``now have much more opportunity to get stuff that is really sadistic, more explicit and brutal, than you'd see on broadcast television. There certainly is evidence that kids from 11 to 14 years old are watching a lot more stuff that is really pretty awful. They rent it themselves.''

As a result, there's a new demand for self-discipline and leisure-time organization and for a keener eye on screening what kids watch, as well as for an awareness of the growing list of desirable subjects.

Vander Mey's response is to select tapes based on mutual interests. She says it's not just the act of watching videos that brings families together. ``The content itself expresses family life. For instance, if you're into home repairs, you can get tapes to help you do that with your family. Families in America are trying to eat together more. We're adding rooms to our houses. We're gardening. It's a return to familism; I think the VCR is a big part of it.''

VCRs, in fact, have been called ``video campfires,'' and a recent study of Midwest communities supports that point. It discovered that family members did more viewing together after buying VCRs than they did watching broadcast TV. And an study by the research group called AGB found that prerecorded-tape viewing becomes a ``social event,'' with nearly three people per household watching together on average, versus 1.7 for prime-time TV.

``It's literally like having a video meal,'' says Garth Jowett, communications professor at the University of Houston. ``Mommy or Daddy or one of the kids goes out and buys the product.''

When they get it home, the attitude is quite different from merely ``watching TV.'' It's an occasion. You've made a commitment of time, money, and taste. You gather to see what you've chosen. The family may discuss their choice. The screen hasn't fed it to you, as it does with broadcast TV, which is sometimes like visual elevator music. You have fed it to the screen.

All that togetherness may be fine, says Professor Jowett, ``but for someone like myself who has to teach kids, it raises the problem of people starting to acquire their information through the visual sense rather than the written word.

``It's already beginning to pose problems,'' he says, ``as any teacher will tell you. And it's only going to exacerbate the fact that students already believe they can acquire most of what they need to know without actually having to read something.''

Yet American schools have made wide use of VCRs. They not only play prerecorded tapes, but tape programs off the air under specially contracted ``dubbing rights.'' Printed materials are often handed out in class to supplement the screen images.

``Teachers don't just turn on the VCR and walk out for a coffee break,'' Huston explains. ``They stop the tape, talk to the class, point things out. With broadcast television they had to turn the set on whenever the program was aired, and that was a real drawback for school use.''

``There's tremendous interest in VCRs among schools,'' says Jamie Horowitz, a spokesman for the American Federation of Teachers. ``They're on their way up, being used more and more, and the educational programs are getting better at making teacher guides more available to schools. I have a whole stack of them from the networks ... - language quizzes, multiple-choice tests, and all kinds of other aids.''

Richard Hastings, a teacher at the Woodrow Wilson High School in San Francisco, finds VCRs a big plus in the classroom.

``I use them when I teach French,'' he says. ``They're great to show an example of the way native speakers speak. They're used in the science department and extensively in the social studies department. In teaching English, I find them very useful for studying a play that we've read. We study some of the play, we see the play on VCR and it really comes to life. Then when I give a test on it, the students almost always understand a great deal more.''

Outside school, Huston sees the VCR as a new ``peer social event'' for kids. ``The pattern among children from elementary to high school has been to make it the basis for get-togethers,'' she notes. ``Kids rent a bunch of movies and go to someone's home. They may have a slumber party, or just be together to watch movies.''

And adults are entertaining at home more with the VCR. ``You can have home- and family-centered activities,'' says Vander Mey. ``That's important with the current `boomlet' - the increase in births this country has seen from 1980 to 1986. You simply cannot get a baby sitter and go out. VCRs are not a causal agent, but they assist those who wish to have more family-centered activities. It gives families a broader range of choices.''

One choice she sometimes makes is to ``go to the movies'' at home with her husband, complete with popcorn.

``With both spouses working - in all social classes - who's going to get dressed up and go out at night?'' she asks. ``We can wear our pajamas and watch the video. We can dance and sing without embarrassment in our own home.''

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