Should You Toss Your TV?
Why turning off the television could be a positive move for you and your family
By Kristen Laine
Photos by Brooks Freehill
Elisa Bosley traces the decision back to one particularly boring day in the summer of 1984. She and her husband, Dave, had tuned in to the Olympics on their tiny TV in the tiny living room of their tiny apartment in Palo Alto, California. They'd already logged quite a few hours; the obscure sport now on the screen held little interest. Nonetheless, they stayed glued to their set. As Elisa remembers it, she turned to Dave and asked, "Why are we watching this?"
Thousands, if not millions, of Americans probably ask this question each year as they sit in front of their televisions' flickering blue screens. They are willing captives. American adults watch more than four hours of television daily, their children just under three hours. By age 70, the average American will have watched nine years of television. Both Elisa and Dave had grown up watching television. Dave's family ate dinner with the TV on. Elisa watched TV almost every day after school. "There were times I'd turn it on and say, 'Oh, there's only golf on.' Then I'd sit there and watch golf." But on that summer day in 1984, Elisa thought, "This is stupid. This is a waste of our time." Later that year, when the Bosleys moved to Seattle, they left their TV behind.
An Active Minority
Nearly half of all Americans admit that they watch too much television, and most parents (73 percent in a 1994 U.S. Department of Education report) would like to limit the amount their children watch. But "screen time"—now including time spent with VCRs, DVDs, video games, and computers—has expanded in recent years, to almost 46 hours a week.
It seems almost quaint, then, to consider living without television. It's certainly unusual. In 1980, the U.S. Census Bureau stopped asking respondents if they owned a television; the number who did not (less than 2 percent of Americans) had become statistically insignificant. Members of this tiny minority, however, are anything but insignificant, according to Robert Putnam, professor of public policy at Harvard University. In Bowling Alone (Simon and Schuster, 2000), Putnam portrays people who watch little or no TV as the leaders of our communities—statistically more likely to volunteer, write letters to their congresspeople, and attend public meetings than their fellow citizens who watch television.
Did you know?
In 1999, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), representing 57,000 pediatricians, declared the influence of mass media a public-health concern. The group recommended that children younger than 2 not watch television, that parents limit the total media time of their older children to 1 to 2 hours per day, and that families keep television sets out of their children's bedrooms.
Other studies fill out the family portrait. Barbara Brock, professor of recreation management at Eastern Washington University, surveyed 1,200 TV-free families for a forthcoming book. She reports that the typical TV-free family looks a lot like a typical middle-class family: married with two children and a pet, college educated, suburban, with an income slightly above the national average. But she has discovered that TV-free families spend significantly more time together than do TV-watching families. The American Family Research Council in 1990 determined that parents in the average American family spend less than 40 minutes a week in "meaningful conversation" with their children. Participants in Brock's research reported spending an average of 55 minutes a day in meaningful conversation with their children and 48 minutes a day in such conversation with their spouses. As for TV-free children, Brock's survey corroborates other studies: Children who watch little or no TV are more likely to read, excel in school, and spend time outside than their peers who watch two or more hours of TV a day.
The three families profiled here followed individual paths to becoming TV free and express that decision differently (though in all three families, parents made the original decision, maintain the restrictions, and nurture the family's TV-free life). They aren't saints or superhumans. They've struggled with dissension and backsliding. Their collective experience, however, suggests that life without television may improve our health and well-being.
Firing The Electronic Baby-Sitter
A single mother of two boys aged 5 and 3, Kirsten Elin, 37, used to produce TV commercials in New York City. She grew up in Vermont, the latchkey kid of a divorced working mother, and watched many hours of unsupervised TV. When her oldest son was born, she had a gut-level feeling that she didn't want to use the TV as a baby-sitter.
"It's not just the content: I could screen for that," she says. "It's also the medium. TV is so much worse than it used to be, so much faster paced." Much current television programming, especially children's programming, uses techniques refined by the advertising industry that Elin once worked in. Rapid camera movements, flashes of color, and sudden loud noises engage and hold the brain's attention involuntarily. A brain so captivated is essentially left passive, although highly stimulated, which may block it from fully developing language and certain types of complex reasoning. So, though Elin kept her large-screen TV, she decided to use it to watch only movies.
It was hardest in the beginning, Elin remembers. Her children needed someone to watch them constantly, as all small children do. A single mother, Elin had little downtime. "I knew if I put them in front of a TV, they would just sit there," she says. "But then they wouldn't learn to entertain themselves." Instead, she carried them while she prepared meals, let them muck about in the mud while she gardened, set them up with paints and crayons, and separated them when they squabbled. She did these things over and over and over.
Elin also decided to send her older son to a Waldorf preschool. Waldorf schools strongly oppose the use of all media, including television, by young children and typically request that parents enforce a no-TV rule at least on school nights. By enrolling her son in such a school, Elin became part of a community that shared her concerns and her values. On play dates, TV simply isn't an option.
Elin's determination has paid off, she believes. Her boys play outside every day, except on the coldest and most rainy days. They create games with trucks and trains or whatever is at hand, ignoring the TV in the corner of the living room. The screen remains dark except when one of the boys is sick. Then Elin allows them to watch movies. After an illness, Elin says, it takes about a month for the boys to stop asking to watch a video. But they don't miss it day to day.
The only ads Elin's sons know are the ones Elin herself once worked on. She's grateful that her boys don't pester her to buy things they've seen on TV. (Children who watch TV view approximately 20,000 commercials each year, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics.) Familiar as she is with TV commercials, Elin believes she and her sons are better off for having fired the electronic baby-sitter.
Avoiding The TV Wars
Emma and Jake Linde were 3 and 5 years old when their parents decided not to replace a broken TV. Emma only dimly remembers watching TV and says she prefers reading and being outside. But eight years after the old TV died, Jake still misses it. "I would rather have a TV now," Jake says emphatically. "I watch it at my friends' houses, and I really enjoy it. Sometimes my friends get annoyed because when I come over, I only want to watch TV."
TV-Turnoff Network. This nonprofit encourages children and adults to watch less television. It sponsors two programs to encourage people to watch less TV: TV-Turnoff Week, which runs the last full week in April, and More Reading, Less TV, a program that encourages elementary school students to replace TV watching with reading. The organization has just launched a program, AmericaLive, working with pediatricians to help families find alternatives to TV. Visit the organization's website at www.tvturnoff.org.
Of course, for Tom Linde, 44, this is exactly why TV is not allowed in their Seattle home, and why he and his wife, Mary Weiss, 42, set a kitchen timer for the half hour each day that they allow the children to play computer games. Linde, a social work therapist, sees the pull of TV in his clients' lives. Watching TV, he says, "gives the illusion of recovery time. You can avoid problems, avoid physical activity, avoid other people." But just because TV is an "easy default" doesn't make it an effective choice, he notes. "As a therapist," Linde says, "I ask my patients, 'How do you feel after watching TV? Do you feel energetic or happier?'"
The DDB Needham Life Style surveys, extensive surveys taken over a quarter century, provide one answer to Linde's questions. The surveys show a consistent strong correlation between heavy TV watching and physical malaise. Further, they indicate heavy reliance on TV for entertainment is a powerful predictor of unhappiness. In other studies, people rank watching TV at about the same level of enjoyment as doing housework.
So when Jake occasionally protests his parents' choice to be TV free by reminding them that most of his friends have TV, Linde and Weiss tell him, "We are not going to follow in everyone else's footsteps." Linde finds it helpful that one of the neighboring families is also TV free. The two families work together to come up with alternative activities; both sets of parents have on occasion pointed across the street to other children somehow surviving without TV. Linde admits, "If we were the only family our children knew without a TV, it would be harder."
That said, they don't make Jake's life too hard. When the family goes on vacation, the first thing they do in a hotel, no matter how exotic the location, is turn on the TV. Even then, Linde needs to tell Jake to turn it off. "If we permitted it," Linde says, "he'd watch TV ad nauseam."
Jake agrees that it would be bad to have a TV in the house—at least for his parents. "In the beginning, I would ask them every single minute if I could watch it," he says. "I'd tell them I'd only watch a few shows, but I know I'd want to watch more." So although he doesn't love the idea of a TV-free household, Jake spends his time at home doing other things.
Jake's family shares an insight with other TV-free families: It is often much easier to do away entirely with the TV than to limit it. Taking the TV away removes the battleground. Linde and Weiss's household may experience occasional skirmishes, but they appreciate not having a full-scale TV war.
Kicking The Habit
Elisa and Dave Bosley now live in Colorado. Their children, Sam and Bethany, are 15 and 12. The Bosleys set limits on all forms of media with their children—videos, movies, radio, and magazines, as well as television—and they've persisted in those limits. Although their house has a TV, without cable or a satellite dish, it is basically just a tiny movie screen. Elisa and Dave allow Sam and Bethany to watch one approved video a week. "We preview movies before we let them see them," Elisa says. "We are the strictest parents we know."
Elisa can tell that other parents sometimes feel judged when they find out the Bosleys don't watch TV. "They'll say to me, 'Well, I'm a bad mom. I let my kids watch TV,'" Elisa says. "I am completely sympathetic to how hard it is to be a parent. But at the same time, I want to tell them, 'You can do it without TV. There are alternatives.'"
Although TV seems addictive, turning off the "plug-in drug" carries virtually no side effects. "Invariably, people who turn off the TV tell us they're happier," says Karen Lewis, program director of the TV-Turnoff Network, which has introduced an estimated 24 million people to the concept of turning off their televisions for at least one week a year. "We've never had someone tell us they're unhappier without a TV."
Time's Black Hole
People who are TV free are not immune to television's seductive appeal, however. After moving to a new house in Vermont, Kristen Elin immediately pulled up the satellite dish on the lawn but needed help dismantling the antenna on top of the house. She scheduled a handyman two months out. In the meantime, however, she began watching TV after her boys had gone to bed.
One month in, she has averaged about eight hours a week, about one-fifth the national screen-time average. But even that amount has affected her life. Elin volunteers at her son's school and helps run a community organization. She has recently become more serious about her photography. In one month, she has fallen behind in her volunteer work and her hobby.
"I haven't sent around the notes from the last meeting," she laments. "And negatives are just piling up on the floor."
Between 1965 and 1995, Americans gained an average of six hours a week in added leisure time, according to Bowling Alone author Robert Putnam, and spent almost all of them watching TV. Watching television is the primary leisure-time activity of most Americans. In numerous surveys, Americans express their unhappiness about time pressure and a desire for more time in their lives. Perhaps the solution is right in front of them.
Elin will be relieved when the handyman finally comes to remove the antenna—and her temptation. She says, "I don't have time to watch TV."
Kristen Laine is a frequent contributor to Delicious Living. Her article on obesity in childhood appeared in the June 2003 issue.