We All Know That TV Is Bad For Us

Or do we?


"Watching TV is a lot like smoking. People know all the crummy side-effects and continue to do it anyway," declares one typical anti-TV rant. "Most smokers are aware that their habit can cause cancer and emphysema. Most TV watchers know that their habit is mind-numbing and wasteful,"

A man recently threatened to sue his cable company. Why? "I believe that the reason I smoke and drink every day and my wife is overweight is because we watched TV every day for the last four years," he claimed. These assertions regarding the ill effects of TV seem so obviously true that few even question them. Surely reams of academic studies over the decades have amply confirmed television's pernicious mental and moral influences.

Or have they? Is the conventional anti-TV wisdom true?

When I was a boy growing up on a dairy farm in southwest Virginia in the early 1960s, the black-and-white television that dominated our living room was a magic kaleidoscopic window onto a wider and more alluring world. It enlarged my sense of what was possible. It showed me different ways of life that didn't involve chasing after brute stupid Holsteins twice a day. As silly as the old programs might seem, one could be inspired by images of Danny Thomas living in a high-rise apartment in Manhattan or the dolphin Flipper rescuing people in the Gulf of Mexico. Television wasn't the only thing that motivated me to flee the farm up the nearly completed Interstate 81, but it helped.

However, our self-appointed moral guardians and cultural mandarins have largely been blind to the liberating aspects of television. Then Federal Communications Commission chairman Newton Minow famously declared on May 9, 1961, that television was a "vast wasteland." He invited his listeners to sit through a full day's programming, promising: "You will see a procession of game shows, violence, audience-participation shows, formula comedies about totally unbelievable families, blood and thunder, mayhem, violence, sadism, murder, western bad men, western good men, private eyes, gangsters, more violence and cartoons. And, endlessly, commercials—many screaming, cajoling and offending. And most of all, boredom."

Curmudgeonly cultural critic Neil Postman piled on in his 1986 book Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business, claiming that "a great media-metaphor shift (from typography to television) has taken place in America, with the result that the content of much of our public discourse has become dangerous nonsense."

Despite the hectoring from bureaucrats and intellectuals, the nation continued to tune in. In 1950 only nine percent of American households owned a television set. By 1961, when Minow pronounced his execrations on the boob tube, nearly 90 percent of U.S. living rooms were bathed in blue light each night. By 2001, according to the Census Bureau, 98.2 percent of American households owned at least one of the 248 million TVs in the country, for an average of 2.4 per home. American adults watch about 4.6 hours of television per day, or 1,669 hours per year.

Critics ceaselessly point out television's alleged faults. The growing girth of the nation is blamed on it; increased violence; higher levels of teen sexual activity; and finally, we are assured, the idiot box is generally dumbing us all down.

But we have plenty of reasons to doubt that bill of indictment on television. Children today are watching slightly less television per day than they were a decade ago, even as they continue to pork up. Violent crime rates have been falling in the United States for a decade; and rates of teen sexual activity and pregnancy have fallen dramatically since the mid-1990s. Average IQs have been soaring along with TV viewing for decades.

And it's not as though Americans have been sitting in front of their boob tubes and drooling all day for the past half-century of mass TV viewing. Our real gross domestic product has more than quintupled since 1950.

A lot of anti-TV attitudes are based in mere differences of opinion over what qualifies as a judicious use of one's free time. Critics are constantly hectoring viewers to wrench their eyes away from their flickering screens and get out and do something! Commentator Nina Buck offers a typical anti-TV screed, claiming that television "steals your life." Buck badgers couch potatoes: "Learn Italian! Take up underwater basket weaving, practice your circus act! Call your grandma, make dinner for your sweetheart, go salsa dancing, use pipe cleaners to make your hair look like Pippi Longstocking's!"

The suggestions are amusing (and I appreciate the tip on how to make my hair look like hair look like Pippi Longstocking's), but there is a solemn assumption behind them: that any activity will be less wasteful and more edifying than, for example, watching a good episode of The West Wing. It's not as though two or three generations ago people were sitting around discussing Kierkegaard and Kant with their children over the family dinner table every evening. In fact, most of them were fully engaged in the basic drudgery of earning a living or managing a household. In their scarce leisure time, they might go to a baseball game or read a penny dreadful. In a similar fashion today we might switch on the TV to watch a ball game or an episode of The Simpsons.

The New York Times recently described a new survey that reported "what many Americans know but don't always admit, especially to social scientists: that watching TV is a very enjoyable way to pass the time, and that taking care of children—bless their young hearts—is often about as much fun as housework."

All of which is not to say that watching TV does not have some bad aspects—one can always get too much of a good thing—but it is hardly the instrument of mental, cultural, and moral degradation it is so often portrayed as. So feel free to wield that remote from time to time and just relax: There are few things more liberating than doing what you want with your time.