Monday, November 15, 2010


A recent study of the effects of television suggests that two hours a day ought to be the limit for children – beyond that it may be detrimental in terms of both physiology and learning/development (even if the child gets a good amount of outdoor time).* This strikes me as being a common sense conclusion. That is, in a game of trivia, most players would likely guess that something around two hours is about right for kids and TV.

Another recent report also makes sense, although it is perhaps not quite as intuitive. That is the finding that happy people watch less TV than unhappy people. I had a real-life experience of this fact a few months ago. Caryl was away for a week, during which time I drifted into watching more television than usual, and I could feel the torpor invading my body and mind. After a while I thought, “This ain’t no fun.” Even with engaging content -- a movie I’d been meaning to watch, or a two hour in-depth interview with a Civil War scholar on C-Span -- the physical and mental process of simply sitting and watching was draining, including emotionally draining. I said to myself, “I’ve got to get outside!” (The very thing the research encourages.)

In fact, this study reveals a number of things that are linked to happiness in a way that TV viewing isn’t: socializing, reading newspapers, going to church! But like a similar study showing that those who engage in deep conversations are happier than those on a steady diet of small talk, the research is inconclusive on the chicken-or-egg question, “Do happy people watch less TV, or does watching TV make one less happy?”

The junior neuroscientist in me posits that perhaps in the act of television viewing the brain is disengaged – being fed the impulses externally; and that in activities like reading, exercise, and conversation the brain is engaged, at work, responding and initiating – buzzing with activity.

Steven Johnson (a writer I admire), in his provocatively titled, “Everything Bad is Good for You,” seems to contradict my little theory. He compares the 1950s “Dragnet” with “The Sopranos”  in making the case that more inventive and complicated story lines are providing a creative challenge for the viewer, and that television, like the internet, is becoming more interactive. If true, his thesis would seem to support the idea that a reasonable amount of television may be a legitimate component of a healthy-life mix -- an idea I have no argument with (and the TV-Happiness study allows that happy people do watch some TV) --  but that still leaves the question of the difference between the brain-work in reading (or conversation) and the the brain-work in viewing.

So this may simply call for the application of the Golden Mean. The comparison to alcohol, for example, seems apt: A moderate amount may be stimulating and enlivening, an excessive amount drugs and deadens.

One often hears, these days, that television is “the new Hollywood,” and I find some evidence for that. This thesis, too, seems to argue in favor of moderation: Perhaps the role that television plays in a complete and vital life should be more like going to the theater and less like, well… watching television.

A full-disclosure admission may cause the reader to question my credentials for declaiming about TV: Although I am a frequent viewer of programs like Sunday night’s Masterpiece Theater and C-Span’s weekend “Book TV,” and I have lately discovered some compelling shows on HBO (the new Hollwood?), it recently dawned on me that for the last thirty-five years I have essentially seen no prime-time TV. Dear reader, what have I missed? (This is not an exercise in TV snobbery; I admit to watching far too much late-night junk over the years.)

A number of years ago, when our daughters were in junior and senior high school, our family experimented with eliminating television for the six weeks of Lent. I admit this was not their idea, but they went along with it. (My argument was that giving up TV was a more authentic Lenten sacrifice than giving up chewing gum.) We put the set in the closet and lived for the six weeks with no evidence of the bug-eyed monster. I’d like to say that our experiment resulted in family Scrabble games in front of the fire and Great Conversations about the books we were reading. That didn’t exactly happen; but what did happen was that after about twenty minutes – and for the whole six weeks – we didn’t really miss it. We did this, in Lent, for two or three years. It worked so well that I wondered then and I wonder now, “Why don’t we just give it up?”

But we didn’t, and it’s back on.

Two hours for kids, the study says. How much for me? 

*The Center for Disease Control (CDC) and the American Academy of Pediatricians recommend essentially no television for infants and children under two. Here is a summary paragraph from a CDC report: “Excessive exposure of infants to television and videos is associated with impaired cognitive, language, and emotional development and with irregular sleep schedules. Despite the accumulating evidence of the deleterious consequences of excessive television viewing in young children, parents have cited educational value, child enjoyment, and the need to get things done as reasons for having their child watch television or videos. Because excessive viewing time in early childhood is associated with excessive viewing time and higher body mass index in middle childhood, limiting viewing time in children under 2 years might have a role in preventing childhood obesity. Also, reducing viewing time in early childhood might help decrease the large amount of media use among school-aged children, which now averages 4.5 hours of television content and approximately 7.5 hours of total media use daily, and the attendant health risks."

1 comment:

Warren Hanson said...

I've never seen "The Sopranos" or "Seinfeld" or "Desperate Housewives". Maybe I saw "Cheers" once or twice. Every once in a while there's a news item about "the longest running program in TV history", and I realize I've never seen it. What have I missed? Well, the only ill effect I can think of is that, at a party, in a group making small talk about TV shows, I don't say much. But considering your dissing of small talk in your blog, I guess that's not much of a loss. Oh, but what I have gained by spending all those thousands of hours doing better things!