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You’ll Never Relax In Front Of Your TV Again

More than 30 years ago, I read a book that influenced my entire life. Four Arguments For The Elimination Of Television was much discussed, a best seller, and is still in print. The author, an ad executive named Jerry Mander, didn’t spend much time on program content. That had been addressed 17 years earlier when FCC Chairman Newton Minow publicly referred to TV as a “vast wasteland.”

Before my own reading of Four Arguments in 1978, and going back well into early childhood, I’d watched a serious lot of TV. Those first television sets, despite their fuzzy black-and-white images on small screens, were magical, especially to us children. Racing home from school and grabbing a bag of cookies, I’d sit glued to the set until I was dragged away at bedtime, protesting all the way. (I was probably not a pleasant child.) By my teen years, I was seriously obese and in terrible physical condition. I was taken to a so-called fat doctor and stuffed with appetite suppressants that did absolutely nothing except make me loopy and probably more unpleasant.

But when I finished Four Arguments, I virtually stopped watching TV altogether and have never returned to it. I’m clueless about TV references in conversation, never having seen MASH, Seinfeld, The Sopranos, or The Wire–no cable programs, no Netflix, no Downton, nothing. I rent a DVD film each week (usually something I missed at the movies), but being a movie fan I like the experience of being at the theatre itself.

There is no intellectual snobbery involved here. It’s more a phobia. I don’t ever want to be that fat kid again.

Your TV, body, and mind
Mander focused on how TV affected our bodies and minds and now, 35 years after his book was published, a study from JAMA Psychiatry confirms that not only was he correct, but that TV is actually more dangerous than he predicted.

Let’s begin with the four original arguments for the elimination of television, which of course Mander knew would never occur (as an old-school Madison Avenue advertising man, he simply wanted a catchy title):

  1. Every time we watch TV, we allow it to replace our own life experiences. It’s the talking heads on TV discussing politics, not ourselves. We just nod in agreement or rage against the idiot opposition. We view golf, tennis, or baseball, but we don’t actually play. Watching a TV drama or ballet is not the same experience as being in a theatre. Even “good” TV, like Sesame Street, keeps children from being children and us from interacting with them. When you think about it, we don’t always even choose what we want to watch, many of us settling for whatever happens to be on that night.
  2. TV is physically unhealthful because you sit there passive and immobile while watching. TV is marginally more healthful than Marlboros, but not by much. Couch potatoes gain weight. Their decline in heart and musculoskeletal function has been well documented. Hidden cameras trained on families watching TV show them motionless, barely breathing, often eating, rarely interacting, all eyes fixed on the screen.
  3. Since TV watchers are so utterly passive, TV emerges as the single most controlling entity in our lives. TV guides our opinions, purchases, and lifestyle choices. TV determines what makes us happy, sad, angry, and fulfilled. TV watchers end up experiencing life second-hand, through TV characters, whether in fictional stories or on reality TV. It’s the people we see on TV who fall in love, walk in exotic places, smell flowers, sing songs, crack jokes, cook meals, and converse animatedly. Mander points out that before TV, everyone alive participated in life as a direct experience. Real people did the real seeing, hearing, touching, tasting, walking, cooking, and smelling. (Imagine Thoreau watching Walden Pond on a flat screen.) If you wanted to hear music, you played your piano and sang songs. The very idea that life’s pleasures could be processed for secondary consumption simply didn’t exist.
  4. TV’s content is guided solely by economic interests. Everything you watch is controlled by what you buy, not by what you need. As a sidelight, TV will manipulate your mind and create a “need” you didn’t even know existed. No one has ever had a physical or spiritual need fulfilled owning an item marketed “as seen on TV.”

Back in 1985, a team of researchers (some of whom themselves probably read Four Arguments) wanted to find out how TV watching could mess with our brains. They enrolled more than 3,500 young adults between the ages of 18 and 30 and followed up with regular physical exams over the next 25 years.

At years 5, 10, 15, 20, and 25, participants were asked how many hours a day, on average, they spent watching television. “High viewing” was pegged at three or more hours daily.  At year 25, all participants were give three standardized psychological tests that evaluated their ability to process information and solve problems.

You know where this is going
The test results were exactly what Mander had feared decades earlier. High levels of TV viewing were linked to dramatic drops in measurable thinking skills. 

However, lots of TV viewing is also accompanied by low levels of physical activity, so not only was there cognitive decline among heavy TV watchers, but also increased risks for obesity, muscle deterioration, and heart disease.

Lead study author Tina D. Hoang, MSPH, from the Northern California Institute for Research and Education, admitted that the causes of cognitive decline are complex. Not only was TV watching the mentally unchallenging experience Mander had warned us about, but lots of TV included lots of physical inactivity, social isolation, and poor diet, all three of which are known causes of mental decline.

Hoang summarizes the conclusions nicely: “Most people don’t really think about their brain health until later in life, but these findings are telling us that an active lifestyle is important for keeping your brain healthy, even for young and middle-aged adults.”

See? What’d I tell you?

Now every time you think about chilling in front of the TV for a couple of hours with a brew and some chips, pause for a moment and picture yourself a few years down the road. Fat, breathless, and wearing Velcro slippers because you get all confused tying your shoes.

Be well,
David Edelberg, MD

Leave a Comment

  1. calle says:

    My oh my…

    I knew this way back when. Did not own a TV for years, if a great program came on PBS would go to a friend’s house.
    Then married a TV addict! Sad so sad.
    We do not watch any longer, area where we moved has no antenna and I said we would never have cable nor a dish!
    After aa horrible fire we have so much outside work to do that a net movie can fill the entertainment need.
    Reading, pet care, food prep, arts crafts and photography fill every waking non working moment.
    Music as well as conversation can fill the rest of one’s time.
    Thanks for posting this, I have shared with many and a professional listserve.
    How many of us ask patients how they spend their time? A huge connect here.

  2. Barbara Newman says:

    Right on! Never owned a TV, never will.

  3. Luci says:

    My TV consumption is down to 1/2 hour a day to watch Jeopardy M-F. Must admit, however, that during the Downton season I do watch an additional 1 hr./week on my iPad. Reading this post made me realize that one can replace TV in the arguments with smart(???) phones and tablets…especially if you access Facebook with them! I’ll guess I spend at least 2 hours a day on Facebook, so it’s time to unplug from it as well!!! Thanks for the kick in the pants Dr. E.

  4. Tanya says:

    I’m not sure that an “all or nothing” approach is the best solution to the TV question. While I agree that endless hours as a couch potato won’t do anyone any good, selective TV watching may be fine for many people.

    Many of us are on budgets that don’t allow for tickets to concerts, theatre, or the ballet. Being able to watch music and other performances on TV is an affordable pleasure. For some, the monthly cable or satellite bill is all we can afford as an entertainment option.

    Selective TV viewing plus library books and free outdoor activities can provide access to a much wider world while still on a budget (and/or for those in remote or rural areas). I recently discovered two new authors via “sappy” Hallmark Channel holiday movies. If movie-watching can encourage reading, is it all bad?

    Today’s technology allows viewers to be more selective about what they watch via On Demand, DVR, streaming services, etc., so I think positive choices can be made. Watching TV while exercising also works well for many people who might not do it otherwise due to weather or the time of day.

    I completely agree that mindless TV viewing isn’t a good habit, and I also believe that the links that have been found between TV and video game violence and violent tendencies in children are valid. But this is one more “don’t throw the baby out with the bath water” issue. Common sense can be applied to TV habits as to all other health-related behaviors.

    Best wishes for a happy holiday season!

  5. Mary Parisoe says:

    I think i agree with Tanya on this one, though I appreciate Jerry Mander’s parents’ sense of humor or perhaps it’s a pen name.

  6. Dr E says:

    Hi Tanya
    “Selective” would be fine if viewers would press the “off” button at the end of a single TV program. Those in charge of TV scheduling well know the value of the time slot following a successful program and pervasiveness of the mantra “Oh, don’t turn it off…I’ve never seen this.” Between this and channel surfing, the couch potato hours quickly add up

  7. John Pearson says:

    Well said. Thanks Doc!

  8. E Maroney says:

    Point well taken, but I do watch TV when I’m on the treadmill!

  9. Stacy Brahm says:

    I’m surprised you only mention television… it seems to me that this can easily be extended to sitting hours on end in front of the computer surfing the internet, or sitting in front of one’s phone spending hours playing candy crush saga…

    Simply jockeying about how much television to watch or its “quality” misses the point… the real tragedy is that we as a society have traded away our social freedoms (and hence our cognitive skills training, the pursuit of physical fitness, indulging in real world experiences, etc.) for a world of instant gratification… how sad indeed…

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