“Watching television is like taking black spray paint to your third eye.” –Bill Hicks
“What the mass media offers is not popular art, but entertainment which is intended to be consumed like food, forgotten, and replaced by a new dish.” –W. H. Auden (1962)
Last time I moved, I decided not to start cable service at my new place. This was initially done to save money, between $20 and $80 a month to be exact, depending on the number of channels I wanted. 200 channels would cost more than my utility bill, which cooks my food, cools my house, and provides me lukewarm showers. Interestingly, many cable companies are considering dropping cable TV from their service menu altogether. Big Media licensing rights are becoming prohibitively expensive, and it simply costs too much for smaller, local cable companies to offer you staples like ESPN (from Disney) and MTV (from Viacom).
In fact, I went further. I refused to get internet at my new place, too. For a blogger, that’s a pretty serious resolution, but I was working so much that I simply used my new company’s internet to manage my websites, draft my fantasy football team, and pay bills. The only portal to the world I had at home was my cell phone, which I keep on silent and rarely use.
This relative lack of connectivity amplified my intellectual development. I brought home crossword puzzles and did them while standing at the island in my kitchen. I composed songs on my guitar and recorded them using my laptop camera. I started running again. I took my beer outside instead of the the couch, and I met my neighbors. One of them was a former porn star, and another was a con artist for a travel broker (Like I warned you in a previous article, never trust anyone calling themselves a broker). I delved into new topics, and I published more articles. I read work-related literature at home. This made me more productive at work, and it earned me a healthy bonus one year into my new job. In short, keeping the modern world out of my house made me a better person.
My Television History
I have my mother to thank for my ability to cast off the shackles of cable television. My sisters and I only had three channels growing up: PBS, Fox, and occasionally NBC (it depended on how our antenna was behaving that day). My mom felt that weekday TV should be limited to educational programming, and that weekend cartoons should be free. Therefore, weekdays were filled with Bill Nye, Magic School Bus, Arthur, and Wishbone, and my favorite show on Saturday mornings was Reboot. That show fucking rocked.
Since TV was off-limits most of the day, I had many hobbies. I played basketball and built forts with friends, collected football cards, built things with my Erector Set and Legos, and took various electronic appliances apart to see how they worked. I rarely put them back together, so clearly I was born to be an analyst, not an engineer.
Comics were also a major pastime. Not comic books; though, my cousin did get me into X-Men for a summer. I mean comic strips, aka “the funnies.” My favorite strips were The Far Side, Dilbert, and of course, my beloved Calvin & Hobbes. Bill Watterson shared my mother’s views on television – there’s a time for it, and it’s as little as possible.
My dad’s house had cable, and I got decent exposure to Snick and various second and third tier films on USA, TBS, and TNT. Lots of war movies. Also, lots of Super Nintendo, but that’s a whole different story.
I didn’t have full control over my own TV watching habits until college, when I started turning on MMUSA (now Fuse) in the mornings before class. Since I had missed MTV’s heyday in the late-80s and early-90s, the “music video” was relatively new to me. Still, I had plenty of other things to keep me occupied in college, so I never spent too much time watching TV, maybe an hour a day. In fact, it wasn’t until my last apartment that I began to tune in to television and tune out the real world.
Here was the problem: I was finding things to watch at midnight instead of simply going to bed. That could’ve been because I hated my job, and I was depressed. I wanted to be awake outside the office as much as possible, but there were plenty of other things to do. I put off starting my first website primarily because TV was such a distraction. I deserve some blame for getting distracted too easily, and I guess refusing to medicate my ADHD has its drawbacks.
How much TV do you watch?
Time is the most valuable and powerful thing in the universe. Unfortunately, it’s difficult to grasp how valuable of an asset it is, namely because it’s free, ergo, easily taken for granted.
Since time is of the essence, let’s do some quick math.
Imagine a sad person who comes home at 5:30 every weekday, turns on the television, and watches until bed at 11:30…that comes to 30 hours of TV each work week. Let’s give this person a weekend hobby and assume 10 hours of TV for Saturday and Sunday combined. Even so, this person could spend more time watching television per week than working. That’s 1,920 hours a year watching television (80 days). If you’re 25 years old now and watch TV like this sad person, by the time you hit 75 (i.e. not long to live), you will have watched almost 100,000 hours of television.
4,000 days of life spent passively watching a screen.
Some estimates for television viewership run as high as five hours of TV per day, so the hypothetical scenario above might not be far off from some unfortunate realities.
Luckily, Americans don’t appear to watch that much television, at least on average. I’d wager that if you’re reading this, you’re not the type of person to watch that much TV, either. But how much do you watch?
Go ahead, calculate your weekly watch time and write it down.
The 2013 American Time Use Survey stated that the average American watches about 2.8 hours of television per day, which still comes to 19.6 hours a week. Was yours higher or lower?
That’s still 3.3 full days of the month spent watching TV, or about 40 days a year, which means that 11% of an average American’s life is spent watching television.
A University of Queensland study stated that “every single hour of TV viewed may shorten life by as much as 22 minutes.”
That’s fucked up, and I guarantee if you asked people on their deathbed if they’d give back the last hour of television they watched for 22 more minutes living, most would agree to do so. Then again, a dying man will do just about anything to live a bit longer… lookin’ at you, foxhole atheists.
How is TV Killing You?
Let’s ignore the wasted time and focus on the physical impact of television on the lifespan you will experience.
You might not even make it to 75 if you watch too much television. At least, that’s what the Journal of the American Medical Association pointed out in 2011. A study showed that every additional two hours of TV increased risk of developing Type II diabetes by 20% and heart disease by 15%. In case you weren’t aware, heart disease is the biggest killer in America already, and along with cancer kills well over a million Americans a year. Diabetes is a very distant seventh, but an extra three hours of TV increases the risk of dying by any cause by 13%, so watching three hours of TV a day could increase your chance of getting diabetes by up to 33%.
The main reason for such dramatic health effects is that television is a positive calorie activity, i.e. you burn more calories sleeping than you do watching TV. Tube time also eats into leisure time that could be spent walking, exercising, or even doing other things that burn calories, such as household chores, engaging in physically strenuous hobbies, or having sex. On that last note, a 2013 study showed that too much TV can lower your sperm count, so men wishing to procreate will definitely want to avoid screen time.
How much is too much? Scientists recommend watching no more than 1-2 hours of TV per day, while the 2013 ATUS referenced above shows that Americans easily exceed that number already.
And guess what, television doesn’t just kill you faster, it fucks your kids up, too.
Public Health England reported in 2013 that excessive screen time can cause emotional problems in children. Another survey conducted in 2009 had already claimed that too much screen time makes children “materialistic,” which “affects their relationship with their parents and their health.”
The reasons for these bizarre consequences of TV among otherwise healthy children were discovered this year. It seems that “screen addiction” can cause gray matter atrophy, compromised white matter integrity, reduced cortical thickness, impaired cognitive functioning, cravings and impaired dopamine function. All this medical lingo is just a very scientific way of saying that staring at screens too long can physically and psychologically alter the brains of children.
Resolve to Watch Less TV
Television is a drug, don’t doubt that for a second. Watching your favorite shows releases dopamine and endorphins in the brain, just like marijuana and ecstasy. Television addiction is a thing, both in scholarly literature and the real world. When abused, technology has negative psychological and physical effects on your life, and the lives of others. Just look at the withdrawal symptoms for Google Glass. For all intents and purposes, it should probably be included in the DSM-IV, which is basically the Psychological Encyclopedia that now includes everything from temper tantrums to forgetfulness to gluttony. Yes, eating too much is now classified as a psychological disorder.
I know television is fun. I watched my share of BritComs, 2-3 straight hours every Saturday for almost a decade. I do own a TV, I just don’t have cable, so whatever I put on has a time frame that I don’t control. A good movie is conveniently about the same length of screen time recommended by scientists (~2 hours). Keep your TV, turn off your cable, and either dust off your movie collection or stream films via the internet. Even watching episodes on the internet requires some interactivity and causes some inconvenience. Clicking, buffering, and bad quality will discourage your watch habits and decrease screen time.
I’ll leave you with this: Have you ever wanted to learn a foreign language?
One of the other things I did when I denied myself cable was buy the complete 6-disc collection of Spanish from Rosetta Stone. I did it intermittently, not really taking it seriously. I sat down one Sunday and, instead of watching a movie, drilled through all of Section 1. The next weekend I was at a St. Patrick’s Day pub crawl and was trying to ask a bouncer if they sold green beer inside. He didn’t understand, so I asked again in Spanish “Vender cerveza verde?” He smiled and said no. I was shocked, not because they didn’t have green beer (but seriously, wtf), but because I didn’t even think about it, it just came out. The reason is because I learned some Spanish instead of watching a movie.
Now, how much TV do you watch again?