Television makes us fat, lazy, inattentive, unsociable, mistrustful, materialistic — and unhappy about all of that. It cheapens political discourse, weakens family ties, prevents face-to-face socializing, and exposes kids to sex and inures them to violence. Yet Americans can’t get enough. In 1950, just 9 percent of U.S. households owned a television; by 1960 it was 90 percent, and by the year 2000 TVs were just about everywhere. Now the average U.S. household has more TVs than people.
High-quality programs may enrich us, and moderate viewing is not so bad. We do not view moderately, though. According to the Nielsen Company, in 2009 the average American watched more TV per day (over five hours) than ever before. If you’re reading this article, you’re probably in better shape than most, since those who read seriously tend to watch less TV. But don’t get smug. As TV continues its inexorable merger with computers, the Internet, and mobile technology — when I write of TV, I mean not only the traditional boob tube but any way of transmitting video content from afar — even dedicated readers will contend with its siren song.
The hunger for stimuli may result in our favoring visual media over print, and spectacle over depth. Print makes us translate words into mental imagery and sounds, which exercises our minds. Television is less taxing; it does all of the work for us. The late media theorist Neil Postman found in TV an inherent bias toward the shallow, and not just for sit-coms and the like. Eventually, programmers feel pressure to make even the news and other serious programming more entertaining, if only to compete with alternatives. When we are constantly bombarded with spectacular images, we find it harder than ever to face the weighty and comparatively dull issues of public life. Postman worried that our combined tendencies to take the path of least resistance and the path of greatest pleasure would mean a stampede from any kind of meaningful reading: “Television does not ban books, it simply displaces them.”
Recent events reveal Postman’s prescience. Witness AOL’s initiative to transform CliffsNotes book summaries into short, humorous online videos for students who can’t be bothered even to try hard at cheating. Traditional CliffsNotes offer text-based shortcuts to imitate knowledge’s external indicators without the hard work or educational benefits of reading the material. The newly proposed AOL videos offer shortcuts for shortcuts. Having stripped classic literature of all essential nutrients, the videos would add a comedic candy coating: a spoonful of sugar to help the sugar go down.
The same goes for public affairs. Because TV deals in images, “you cannot do political philosophy on television,” Postman argued. “Its form works against the content.” Postman and his fellow media guru Marshall McLuhan both insisted that “the medium is the message,” that it matters less what we watch than that we watch — watch rather than listen, read, or think in silence. Content is not irrelevant, of course: Watching violent programs in high doses correlates with reduced sociability and increased volatility, especially in youngsters. Watching crime shows and even news in high doses correlates with the excessive cynicism that the late media scholar George Gerbner called “mean-world syndrome,” which impedes social trust and public-spiritedness. And a number of economists have found that TV’s commercialism makes viewers more materialistic and less satisfied. All of those effects flow from television’s content. But to glimpse the small screen’s big picture we must see how the medium itself affects us.
Writing in 1985, Postman worried about TV content’s ever-increasing speed and flux: more fleeting images and stimuli every year. That trend has continued. The average shot length of American movies stood at 27.9 seconds in 1953, just after TV began its ascent, fell to 7.3 seconds in 1986 as MTV gradually took hold, and was 2.5 seconds in 2007. TV programs have followed a similar path. Why? Visual and aural stimuli trigger what Pavlov called our “orienting response,” a reaction to novel events that can be seen even in infants and that probably carried evolutionary advantages. Fast TV cuts get our attention. But we quickly acquire stimulant tolerance. In order to hold our attention, programs and advertisements use ever faster cuts and brighter colors. Who among us, having once seen The Electric Company as a child, could go back to watching Mister Rogers?
Unfortunately, the pace race carries costs. Communications scholar Annie Lang argues that when visual edits and cuts come too quickly, we still pay attention but cease retaining information effectively. And by making real life seem dull by comparison, they may impair our ability to pay attention to it.
Heavy TV viewing produces heavy TV viewers, not to mention ones who tend to be inattentive, lazy, gluttonous, and — no surprise after all of the preceding — unpopular. A 2010 study in Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine finds that among toddlers, even when controlling for socio-economic status, “every additional hour of television exposure” corresponds to significant decreases in later “classroom engagement . . . math achievement . . . time spent doing weekend physical activity . . . and activities involving physical effort,” and significant increases in “victimization by classmates . . . consumption scores for soft drinks and snacks . . . and body mass index.” Among older children, heavy TV viewing correlates with inconsistent sleep patterns, a problem most intense among the high percentages of children with TVs in their bedrooms. (A multi-year report by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that the 71 percent of children 8–18 with TVs in their bedroom watch 56 percent more TV than those without them.) Adults who view heavily also experience problems with attention span, sleep patterns, and obesity. Researchers blame the obesity less on viewers’ physical inactivity than on the number of calories they consume with the tube on: Television induces a semi-hypnotic state in which we may eat without noticing quality or quantity.
Excessive television watching would be a problem for any society, but it’s an especially critical problem for a free one that wants to stay free. Democracy requires that people pay attention and participate in public affairs. Television encourages the opposite, exacerbating a preexisting condition in American culture first diagnosed by Alexis de Tocqueville, who long before American Idol saw what might make Americans idle.
Tocqueville sought to understand democracy itself as a new technology. Democracy extends citizens’ movement beyond their previous boundaries in feudal and aristocratic hierarchies, enabling them to do pretty much what they like. In that sense it constitutes a technology of freedom. But Tocqueville worried that citizens might use the new technology in ways that undermined their prospects for maintaining freedom. He observed Jacksonian-era Americans with relatively modest aspirations:
adding a few acres to one’s fields, planting an orchard, enlarging a house, making life ever easier and more comfortable, keeping irritations away, and satisfying one’s slightest needs without trouble and almost without expense.
So far, so good. The problem lies not with these “petty aims” but with attachment:
The soul cleaves to them; it dwells on them every day and in great detail; in the end they shut out the rest of the world and sometimes come between the soul and God.
If we move beyond the historical specificity of the examples — I struggle just to keep my grass mown, let alone plant an orchard — we see that Tocqueville captures our present dilemma. TV, like democracy, is a technology of freedom. It provides a window onto many worlds and offers vast amounts of information. It also caters ever more perfectly to the very proclivities — materialism and privatism — that in Tocqueville’s view produce dissatisfaction and disengagement, tending “to isolate men from each other.”
Sound familiar? It should. Robert Putnam’s 2000 book Bowling Alone chronicled a 40-year decline in community engagement and social connectedness, or “social capital,” a trend that closely resembles what Tocqueville called “individualism.” Putnam subtly divided the blame among a host of social, economic, and political factors, but TV viewing came in for the lion’s share. The more TV you watch, the more likely you are to be disengaged from your community, disengaged from political affairs, and disengaged from all kinds of face-to-face socializing. As Putnam put it, “people now watch Friends rather than having friends.” Critics have contested Putnam’s findings, arguing that news programming does not have the same negative correlations as entertainment TV, and that the worst effects are of heavy rather than moderate TV viewing. But the overall data tell a clear story: TV-watching correlates negatively with social and community life. The Italian economists Luigino Bruni and Luca Stanca concur, arguing that while “relational goods” (Putnam’s “social capital”) vitally affect our sense of personal happiness, TV crowds them out with its cheap short-term pleasures.
Marshall McLuhan proposed that all technologies, including television, extend human abilities and senses. A shovel extends the hand. A microscope extends the eye. Television and other forms of electronic media extend our entire central nervous system, providing a radically enlarged selection of stimuli. (A scientist in Don DeLillo’s novnovel White Noise feels “proud to be an American” because “we still lead the world in stimuli.”) Given the human weakness for instant gratification, it should come as no surprise that TV-viewing supersedes pursuits with less certain or immediate payoffs, whether informal socializing and community involvement (as Putnam observes) or book-reading (as Postman feared).
This would not have surprised Tocqueville, who would have appreciated the political dimension of our attention-deficit democracy: For those who immerse themselves too completely in their private worlds, self-government can seem an annoying intrusion. Such citizens may be tempted to delegate increasing authority to a centralized administration. Inattentive and inwardly focused, having lost the habit and art of associating, they would be unlikely to notice the erosion of their freedom and unable to stop it in any case. In the end, democracy as a technology of freedom may actually make citizens more dependent: dependent on an overweening administration and on the petty pleasures for which they sacrificed self-government.
Does Tocqueville give any reason for hope in our struggle with TV’s negative influences? For all of his anxieties, he admired many features of American society that counterbalanced democracy’s pull toward privatism. In particular he appreciated the decentralized government that attracted self-interested citizens to participate locally and taught them public-spiritedness. He lauded Americans’ religiousness because it drew people out of their homes and out of themselves while setting salutary yet voluntary moral limits. He especially appreciated the non-political “art of associating” by which Americans learned to cooperate for common purposes without relying on distant and impersonal powers.
In the present day, organized religion may serve some of the same functions that Tocqueville observed. Sociologist Christian Smith finds that extremely religious American teenagers watch much less TV than their unreligious peers. But for the moderately observant and unobservant, TV watching continues to rise. Like Gerbner, media scholar Larry Gross proposes that for many Americans television plays the role of socializing influence that religion once did. Nothing could be worse from a Tocquevillean perspective. Organized religion might combat social isolation and egoism, but television as religion puts the isolating force in the pulpit.
Engaging with community affairs would get us out of the house and develop beneficial social capital to boot. But since heavy TV watching seems to undermine community engagement, prescribing the latter as a remedy for the former would be like prescribing robust health as a tonic for illness. In the end, each of us bears the burden for himself, and parents bear a multiplied load. TV offers a pacifying anchor for turbulent family life, but over time that anchor becomes a ball and chain. Here are two simple pieces of advice for parents: First, keep TV out of children’s bedrooms, since in that private setting viewing time rises and negatively affects children’s sleep, focus, and schoolwork. Second, make a concerted effort to limit TV exposure generally. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends withholding TV entirely from children under two and limiting its viewing by older children to less than two hours a day.
While our 19th-century Frenchman offers wise counsel, his 21st-century countrymen offer a poor example: In 2008 France’s High Audiovisual Council, desiring to “protect children,” banned from French TV all programming aimed at kids under three. That heavy-handed approach not only set a bad precedent, using the state to parent parents, but likely undermined its own aims. French parents wealthy enough to afford international programming can circumvent the ban altogether; poorer citizens who treat TV as an electronic babysitter for their toddlers turn to shows whose content is even less appropriate.
What to do? The legendary newsman Edward R. Murrow insisted that when TV is used responsibly, “this instrument can teach.” Neil Postman disagreed, maintaining that whatever TV teaches is not worth learning. Perhaps there is a middle ground: TV may instruct us — but not, contra Murrow, primarily on the subject of current events. It can provide an object lesson in our shared public philosophy: Though citizens from across the political spectrum find TV-viewing problematic, most of them would agree that the problem can’t or shouldn’t be solved through state action. As Tocqueville argued, we citizens err about our long-term interests, but the only worse judge would be anyone else. Even when faced with TV’s barrage of stimuli, it is up to us to focus on what matters most.
— Ben Berger is an associate professor of political science at Swarthmore College. His book Attention Deficit Democracy: The Paradox of Civic Engagement is forthcoming this summer from Princeton University Press. From the April, 18 issue of NR.