Are you a television addict?
Is television your friend, entertainer, educator or sedator? TV’s seductive glow lures the average Australian to spend up to 10 years of their 70-year life hypnotised by its flickering pixels. But TV’s link to obesity, depression, anxiety, violence and learning disorders has many turning off the tube and switching onto life.
“Television! Teacher, mother, secret lover,” declared Homer Simpson in a sentiment shared by ardent TV addicts. Most agree this guilty pleasure is unproductive but can’t resist its instant gratification. And why not — it takes our mind off worries, quashes boredom and has been shown to reduce pain. But at what cost?
Our love/hate relationship with television is reflected in a TV network’s recent promo: “I think I love you, but what am I so afraid of?” There’s plenty to be afraid of, according to anti-television activists. Writer Julie Ryan explains why she booted the idiot box: “I don’t want my kids fed a steady diet of materialism, violence, infidelity and dishonesty.”
Though many concur, the screen siren’s call is proving irresistible. The average Western household has at least two TVs and sales of plasma screens and other home theatre equipment are skyrocketing. Television is a shameless pusher of its billion-dollar industry, reliant on hooking as many users as possible, irrespective of the responsibility or otherwise of content.
Television is powered by profit and profile, which rise with the ratings. Flashy promos, cliff-hanging dramas, unlimited cable channels and “exclusives” keep many glued like zombies. Add the rapid intercutting with zooms, pans, edits and the viewer’s attention is lulled into the alpha brainwave state necessary for brainwashing.
TV is fine in small doses, but many are becoming dependent on this accessible and affordable escape from reality. Anti-television campaigners liken it to the morphine of the masses, dulling people’s imagination, intelligence, creativity and social ties.
The TV takeover
TV viewing remains the most time-consuming pastime in developed countries. On average, individuals in the industrialised world devote three hours a day to the pursuit. That’s half their leisure time and more hours than any other activity except work and sleep. In the UK, TV tops the list of leisure activities and in the US the average person watches 4-7 hours a day.
TV is sucking in babies as soon as they’re born, a recent Australian study showing that an average four-month-old watches TV for 44 minutes per day. An immature market is being nursed by America’s new 24-hour channel BabyFirstTV. The average four-year-old watches 2.5 hours a day and older children end up watching TV more hours than they spend at school.
However, according to American research, the most dedicated audience is the over-60s, whose physical and mental restrictions leave them fewer options. But why do young, vital people get hooked and how does all those years immersed in TV’s alternative reality affect the mind, body, behaviour and society?
“You’re beginning to believe the illusions we’re spinning here. You even think like the tube. This is mass madness — you maniacs! In God’s name, you people are the real thing. WE are the illusion.” — Howard Beale, played by Peter Finch in the film Network.
Messages from television seep into our subconscious and, though adults can process them with discrimination, children don’t have such filters, absorbing it as reality. Television’s distorted window to the world then greatly affects one’s perception of others and ourselves.
Television’s influence on our beliefs is explored in George Orwell’s book Nineteen Eighty Four in which TV viewing is compulsory and in Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 in which wall-size TVs replace banned books. Their prophetic observation is that TV is a powerful propaganda tool telling us what to buy, how to look, how to act, whom to emulate and what to think. The method is repetition — who can forget the Gilligan’s Island theme or the plane crashing into the twin towers? The content is determined by what keeps viewers watching rather than what will enlighten or assist them. Hence, violent crime stories are network favourites, feeding adults’ hunger for drama and fuelling children’s fears.
Biased coverage means the news screens stories, showing those that suit their agenda and often censoring issues such as war to fit the image they want to present. TV’s main motivation is to foster “affluenza”, or blind consumerism, as evidenced by research revealing that every hour spent watching TV creates an average annual expenditure increase of $US333.
Our view of success is also governed by TV’s sanitised reality, leading to the “beautiful people syndrome”, whereby some of us feel we are inadequate failures compared with glamorised TV characters. Author of Amusing Ourselves to Death, Professor Neil Postman, alerts readers to TV’s pervasive influence: “Television has become the background radiation of the social and intellectual universe, we have so thoroughly accepted its definitions of truth, knowledge and reality.”
"We are raising the most overweight generation of youngsters in American history … This week is about saving lives." — US Surgeon General Dr David Satcher at the onset of TV-Turnoff Week 2001.
Overweight children are more likely to watch television, which in turn decreases their physical activity and increases snacking. The rise in childhood obesity and the associated type 2 diabetes is alarming health professionals and parents. A recent report by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) found 18 per cent of boys and 22 per cent of girls are overweight or obese, a level that has doubled over the past 10 years.
Exposed to more than 40,000 ads per year, children are targeted by junkfood companies as a lucrative market. According to Australia’s ADGP Junk Food Advertising Audit in January 2003, a child watching four hours of television per day over the six-week holiday period will see a total of 649 junkfood ads, including 404 advertisements for fast food, 135 for soft drinks and 44 for icecream.
Other health hazards posed by television are myopia and headaches. Sitting closer than three metres from the television and being in a dark room increase the risk of eyestrain and x-ray exposure, which contributes to headaches. Ideally, there should be soft lighting and at least three metres between the viewer and screen.
Anyone who favours sedentary pursuits over physical activity is increasing their risk of obesity, musculo-skeletal problems and poor circulation. Lethargy and lowered alertness induced by television appear to endure even after watching it. As my sister remarked, “I turn it on to unwind but it seems to drain all my energy.” Ultimately, the passive, voyeuristic nature of television discourages participation in life, fostering the philosophy that life is a spectator sport in which sitting on the sidelines is sufficient.
“I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book.” — Groucho Marx.
Television can open our eyes to new worlds, but it also competes with other ways of learning and exploring. The very nature of TV with its quick cuts and barrage of images has been shown to reduce one’s attention span and capacity to learn. Even with educational shows, television has been linked to attentiond deficit hyperactivity disorder in children.
A recent Seattle study found that “an increase in the number of hours of television watched at age one is associated with a 28 per cent increase in the probability of having attentional problems at age seven”. The American Association of Pediatrics recommends that children under two shouldn’t watch any TV, suggesting they’ll learn more through interactive activities such as talking, playing, singing and reading together. Unfortunately, this doesn’t appear to be parents’ priority: the Australian Bureau of Statistics cites that parents spend 20 times longer sitting in front of the box than they do talking or reading to their children.
Children’s reading aptitude also declines in proportion to the quantity of TV time. As researcher Susan B Neuman of the University of Lowell put it, “Reading scores diminished sharply for those students watching more than four hours a day.” A 1998 study showed 52 per cent of 12th graders who watched an hour or less of TV a day achieved reading proficiency, whereas only 14 per cent of those watching more than six hours did. In response to this, the More Reading, Less TV program is being implemented in American schools to encourage students to reduce TV viewing and increase reading.
Another interesting mental effect of TV is it can create “attentional inertia”, meaning the brain gets in a zone where it becomes increasingly difficult to look away, the more TV is watched. People used to being engaged by television may also find it difficult to amuse themselves, to spend time alone or in silence.
A sinister side-effect of TV was revealed in December 1997 when up to 700 Japanese children were hospitalised with optically stimulated epileptic seizures after viewing a high-rate flickering episode of the cartoon Pokemon.
“It seems every time I turn on TV, I’m assaulted by horrific scenes of rape, torture and murder in my living room,” Serena, mother of two shared with me. It’s become impossible to avoid violence on TV. In suburban lounge rooms, gory crimes are played out with cool detachment and quirky camera angles. An average 18-year-old American is subjected to about 200,000 violent TV scenes and 91 per cent of children have said such scenes scare them.
Of the 3500 research studies on the effects of media violence over the past 40 years, 99.5 per cent have shown a positive correlation between watching violence on TV and committing acts of real-life violence. The Kaiser Foundation report states that 81 per cent of parents have seen their children imitate aggressive behaviour seen on TV. Though networks know of the correlation between TV and real violence, they continue to increase violent shows because of high ratings.
After a seven-year-old child in Dallas killed his little brother with a "clothesline" manoeuvre he had seen on a wrestling show, UPN president Dean Valentine denied the connection. "We do not believe there is anything sexist or violent about the World Wrestling Federation.”
The violent influence continues into adulthood with a University of Michigan 15-year study of 329 youth finding that those who watched violent TV programming as children were more inclined to be violent as adults. Aware adults acknowledge the negative influence TV can have on children and monitor their viewing accordingly. After all, we wouldn’t want homicidal maniacs in our home, so why should we bring them into our lounge rooms?
Television has proved that people will look at anything rather than each other. — Ann Landers, US social commentator.
It’s impossible to compete with the glittering attraction of TV. Try chatting to someone when their favourite show’s on, or attempt to drag a sports fan away from the set to play sport — it can get nasty. I recall epic TV tug-of-wars in my childhood, leading to tears and tantrums. Television and other electronic addictions are partly to blame for the deterioration of family and community bonds, as distant and fabricated dramas on TV draw our attention from local issues and real relationships. A fascinating Canadian study proved this, showing that civic activity slumped substantially once TV came to several towns.
Many families “TV together” rather than live together, as television takes pride of place in homes. Fifty per cent of Australian families eat dinner while watching it. Kids love this extra family member with one study showing 54 per cent of four- to six-year-olds would rather spend time with TV than their dads, and one-third of four- to five-year-olds would prefer to give up their dads rather than television, according to a Michigan State University study.
We get genuinely attached to TV characters. Remember the fuss over the last Seinfeld episode? Television personalities can be more popular companions than real people replacing real relationships and drowning out personal communication. Many prefer watching Friends to having friends because TV is an undemanding, accepting, albeit one-way relationship. The surrogate TV family allows one to indulge voyeuristic tendencies while dulling one’s real relating skills.
Try as one may, it’s become impossible to avoid this omniscient entity that canvasses our attention in shops, clubs, lifts and waiting areas. This annoying intrusion led San Francisco inventor Mitch Altman to create the TV B-Gone, a universal remote control to switch off TVs anywhere. "We have these devices that are supposed to help people communicate but they have the effect of keeping people isolated," says Altman, who hasn’t owned a TV for 25 years. "I was always squandering my time, energy and creativity on something that was at best benign."
Still, many have fond memories of watching TV with others — giggling at The Goodies, cheering at World Cup soccer, exploring exotic places and entering strangers’ lives. TV can be educating and entertaining in moderation, but when it takes disproportionate precedence over interactive activities, we find ourselves watching others live — or pretending to — rather than living.
The TV test
"Not unlike drugs or alcohol, the television experience allows the participant to blot out the real world and enter into a pleasurable and passive mental state.” — Marie Winn, author of The Plug In Drug.
TV addiction is a recognised psychological syndrome, the American Psychological Association defining it as "heavy television watching that is subjectively experienced as being to some extent involuntary, displacing more productive activities, and difficult to stop or curtail".
Are you a TV addict? Answer yes to two or more of these questions and you probably are.
- Look forward to watching TV?
- Watch more than one hour a day?
- Go to the TV soon after returning home?
- Eat meals while watching TV?
- Watch TV with friends?
- Avoid activities so you can watch TV?
- Turn on TV for background noise?
- Use TV to amuse your kids?
- Discuss TV shows frequently?
- Get upset if you can’t watch a show?
- Plan your schedule around TV?
- Postpone turning off the TV?
- Watch shows you don’t even enjoy?
- Rush to complete things in commercial breaks?
- Stay up late to watch TV?
10-step TV detox
“I hate television. I hate it as much as peanuts. But I can’t stop eating peanuts.” — Orson Welles, actor.
Even brilliant people have admitted to TV addiction, including Orson Welles and comedian Peter Cook. So don’t be ashamed. Take the first step to recovery by admitting you have a problem. As with any addiction, reducing one’s TV dose has been shown to create cravings and mood swings. Initially, TV addicts will crave a fix. Children will plead with parents and rebell. However, the urge eventually subsides.
Participants in the annual TV-Turnoff Week, which has been going since 1995, report increased grades, more stable moods and improved family communication after a TV-free week. Heavy addicts are better off getting rid of the TV temptress altogether, as actress Cameron Diaz did. “I don’t even own a TV because I think it’s the devil.”
If you’re not prepared to go cold turkey, try the following steps to detox from TV:
- Record the amount of time you watch TV weekly.
- Write a list of more rewarding ways you could spend this time.
- Schedule these activities in your diary.
- Resolve to reduce viewing or stop it completely. Set rules such as no TV with meals or before a certain time.
- Highlight the programs to watch in the TV guide, vowing not to watch more, and turn the TV off as soon as the show you want to watch is finished.
- During ad breaks mute the sound and do something productive.
- Reward children for engaging in alternative activities.
- Discuss with kids the issues they have seen on TV, such as violence and sex.
- Observe how TV affects yourself and others.
- If tempted to sneak more TV, ask yourself: “On my deathbed, will I wish I’d spent more time watching television?”
Caroline Robertson is a writer, naturopath, homoeopath and ayurvedic consultant. She practises and teaches from Ayurveda Elements, Sydney, and is director of a health retreat company, www.ayurvedahealthresorts.com. Caroline may be contacted on (02) 9904 7754 or visit www.ayurvedaelements.com.
References available from the author on request.