TV Turnoff Week: Kicking the Boob Tube Habit

By the time average Americans turn 70, according to conservative estimates, they will have spent a total of seven years (24 hours per day) watching television. This amounts to over 29 years of 40-hour work weeks, with no vacations, spent in front of the tube. Almost 10 of these years will have been spent watching commercials.

If you think that's a lot of wasted time, you're not alone. A growing coalition of anti-television activists is gearing up for the week of April 22-28 -- the eighth annual TV Turnoff Week. What began as a grassroots movement has blossomed into an organized celebration of TV-free life, sponsored by groups ranging from the American Academy of Pediatrics and Physicians for Social Responsibility, to the National Educator's Association and the Adbuster's Media Foundation. This year, according to TV Turnoff Week Executive Director Frank Vespe, "There are 16,000 organizers directing events around the globe, motivating millions of kids and adults to experience what life is like when you do more and watch less."

In 2001, the U.S. Surgeon General came on board promoting the movement, kicking off the start of TV Turnoff week with a speech where he argued that, "We are raising the most overweight generation of youngsters in American History ... This week is about saving lives."

Saving lives? Indeed, TV has been shown to contribute to many health problems, and obesity is at the top of the list. While we are watching, according to a Memphis State University study, our metabolic rates drop down to an average of 14.5 percent lower then they would be if we were lying in bed. Add the fact that the time Americans spend in front of the TV is time lost from more active pursuits, and that TV is laden with seductive ads for junk food and liquid candy soda-pop, and it becomes self evident why America is suffering from an unprecedented obesity epidemic.

TV is also hyper-violent. The reason is simple: Violent programming crosses cultural boundaries and exports well to a global audience -- whether or not they understand the language or the cultural contexts of the programs. Hence, the entertainment industry turns out an endless gaggle of violent trash. According to the American Psychological Association, American children watch approximately 10,000 televised acts of violence per year. The Neilson Index puts the number slightly higher, estimating that by the age of 16, American children have witnessed 200,000 televised acts of violence and 18,000 dramatized killings. The Media Education Foundation estimates that 70 percent of prime time television programs contain violence, with a full 65 percent of characters involved in violent actions. The results of this televised carnage are ominous, with over 3,000 studies conducted since the early 1960s offering evidence that televised violence has a profound and measurable effect on young minds.

TV watching not only contributes to making us more violent, primarily by modeling violence as a conflict resolution strategy of first resort -- it also serves to make us more frightened of the society we live in. Studies conducted by George Gerbner, founder of the Cultural Environment Movement, show that the more TV one watches, the more violent they believe the world around them to be, and hence, the less likely they are to leave their homes or interact with other people. He calls this the "Mean World Syndrome." Of course, the less people leave their homes, the more they watch TV. Hence, as they become trapped and isolated in front of their TV sets, the meaner they believe the world they no longer interact with to be.

The more people watch, also, the more they consume and the deeper they fall into personal debt. According to Harvard Economist Juliet Schor, the images we see on television inflate our sense of what is normal, introduce us to a new richer reference group, and in turn raise our aspirations to consume. A study by the Merck Family Fund found a correlation between how much TV people watch and how heavily indebted they are. The study showed that each additional hour of television viewing led to increased spending. In short -- ads work. If they didn't, the advertising industry wouldn't spend $565 per American per year.

The advertising industry, with Television as its most potent delivery vehicle, specifically targets children. The reason is simple. With a lifetime of consumption ahead of them, corporations are busy jockeying to secure the next generation's allegiance. According to a study published in American Demographics, American children form mental recognition images of brand logos by the time they are six months old. By the time they are three years old, they ask for products by brand name -- often demanding adult products such as addictively caffeinated soft drinks. By the time a child enters kindergarten they will have spent more time watching TV than a college student would have spent in class earning a B.A. By the time an American is 19 years old, they will have spent 11,000 hours in school and 19,000 hours watching TV.

TV doesn't just promote addictive products -- the appliance itself is addictive. According to the TV Turnoff Network, heavy TV viewers display six dependency symptoms, which is two more than is needed for a clinical diagnosis of substance abuse. These are: using TV as a sedative; indiscriminant viewing; feeling a loss of control while viewing; feeling angry with oneself for watching too much; having an inability to stop watching; and feeling miserable when kept from watching.

As an appliance, TV has profoundly changed our physical and cultural landscape, poisoning our minds and leading us to poison our bodies. But we can fight back. That's TV Turn-off Week's message -- that you can take command of your own mental environment, decolonize your soul, seize control of your own thoughts and emotions. In other words, turn the damned appliance off and get a life. No one lying on their deathbed will ever look back over their life and lament that they didn't watch enough Drew Carey.

Dr. Michael I. Niman is a professor of American Studies at Medaille College in Buffalo, New York. For more information about TV addiction see

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