There are few things more inescapable in American life than the TV screen.
Sitting at the lounge at the airport, there is CNN Headline News overhead, invariably blaring. In the back of New York City cabs, there is a little screen playing stale TV news clips. In waiting rooms, in elevators, in the back of people’s cars, and in practically every room in the American home, there it is — insistent, noisy, the background track to our lives.
It is a sign of the apotheosis of the TV screen that the two great sports palaces opened in recent years, Cowboys Stadium and the new Yankee Stadium, have enormous (and enormously distracting) high-definition screens. The one at Cowboys Stadium, suspended over the field, stretches from 20-yard line to 20-yard line. Why bother with the actual game playing out on such a smaller scale?
Television is the most ubiquitous and insidious force in everyday American life. If it were a drug, it’d be illegal, and federal agents would be raiding the studios of the networks. If it were a foodstuff or tobacco product, New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg would ban it, and other cities would follow suit. It’s none of those things, of course, and its deadening influence steadily spreads.
Ben Berger of Swarthmore College notes that in 1950, fewer than 10 percent of U.S. households owned a television. Today, in the average American household, TVs outnumber people. It’s now considered a deprivation to be limited to watching The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills only in the family den. As of 2009, we were watching more TV than ever — on average, more than five hours a day. (Which makes you wonder: How does that leave any time to play video games?)
This inexorable trend mostly serves the cause of sloth, stupidity, and superficiality. “Television,” Berger writes, “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.” Besides that, it’s a boon to its viewers.
TV can be entertaining and even informative. At times of national tragedy — the JFK assassination, September 11 — it draws us together in a web of immediate shared images. As a general matter, though, TV is the Love Canal of our culture. It’s a conduit for all that is low and toxic.
If there were ever a concerted public campaign against TV, its architects could legitimately claim to wage it — in that inevitable rationale for all do-goodism — “for the children.” The University of Michigan Health System reports that kids ages two to five spend on average 32 hours a week in front of a TV. Among 8- to 18-year-olds, 71 percent have a TV in their bedroom (and they spend on average 1.5 hours a day more watching TV than kids without a TV in the bedroom).
Watching TV is worse than a mindless activity, since mere mindlessness needn’t be harmful. “Excessive TV viewing can contribute to poor grades, sleep problems, behavior problems, obesity, and risky behavior,” according to the University of Michigan.
Berger cites a 2010 study from Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine that found that among toddlers, “every additional hour of television exposure” eventually means decreases in “classroom engagement . . . math achievement . . . time spent doing weekend physical activity. . . . and activities involving physical effort,” and increases in “victimization by classmates . . . consumption scores for soft drinks and snacks . . . and body mass index.” The American Academy of Pediatricians recommends that kids two and younger avoid TV — and everything else on a screen — altogether.
For the rest of us, that is all but impossible. It speaks to the power of TV that even when what’s on doesn’t truly interest you, it’s hard to take your eyes off it. It literally demands our attention. The only defense is fewer TVs and more of them turned off. That’s surely too much to hope for in a culture long ago utterly conquered by the TV screen.
— Rich Lowry is editor of National Review. He can be reached via e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. © 2011 by King Features Syndicate.