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East County Wednesday, May 18, 2011 8 years ago

MY VIEW: Turn off the TV. Quick!

by: Rod Thomson

The topic here is a departure from our normal focus on Longboat Key, regional and sometimes state issues. But our bet is we are speaking to the choir here; you’ll agree with our argument, which is …

The more TV you watch, the more you become fat, dumb, lazy, anti-social and indifferent to public affairs. The TV and its kindred brain-cell suckers in digital form could yet spell the wreck of our country. And it all starts with children.

Have your attention? Good. Because unfortunately, I do not have the attention of most people who over-participate in the TV-watching slough and yet manage to find their way to a voting booth based on some mostly untrue commercial they blurrily saw the night before between CSI:Dubuque and The Biggest Loser:Us.

Sometimes you just have to step back and look at TV-land fare and, slapping yourself in the forehead, say, “What the heck am I doing?” Alas, we don’t. We crank back the La-Z-Boy, pop open a Mountain Dew and rip into the Cheetos. And, therein starts the decline of Western civilization.

Ridiculous overstatement? Read on.

Amazingly, TV watching continues to rise, even with the other forms of digital entertainment vying for slacker time. In 1950, 9% of households had TVs. Today, the average U.S. household actually has more TVs than people. Check out restaurants. You can hardly find a table where a TV is not trying to mesmerize you. Sporting events? Very big TVs. Shoot, you can’t pump gasoline sometimes without having a mini-TV going above the unleaded. The Neilsen Co. reports the average American watches more than five hours of TV every day — highest rate ever.

So, we spend a lot of time in front of TV. But so what?

It dulls our brain and trains it to mildew for long periods, requiring ever greater amounts of stimuli for entertainment. In 1953, the average length of a movie shot was 28 seconds. In 1986, it fell to 7 seconds. Today, it is 2.5 seconds and falling. That’s because we need ever more stimulation to keep our ever-shrinking attention spans engaged. But the shorter the shot, the less we retain and our brain stops trying. When you don’t use muscles, they atrophy. Tons of research backs this.

And it all starts early. The Archive of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine published a rather stunning study last year on the effects of TV on toddlers.

“We found every additional hour of TV exposure among toddlers corresponded to a future decrease in classroom engagement and success at math, increased victimization by classmates, a more sedentary lifestyle, higher consumption of junk food and, ultimately, higher body mass index,” said lead author Linda S. Pagani, a psychosocial professor at the Université de Montréal.

That should wake parents up. Studies have found the same correlation among older children and adults, and add in more aggressive behavior, messed-up sleeping patterns and sharply reduced attention spans.

And obesity? Research suggests it is partly from the sedentary act of watching TV but also from how much more people eat during the zoning-out effect of TV. We get hypnotized and keep pushing in the Cheetos.
Does all this really matter for the future of our country?

Ben Berger, professor of political science at Swarthmore College and author of Attention Deficit Democracy, writes that “the overall data tell a clear story: TV-watching correlates negatively with social and community life.”
Further, he says, “Such citizens may be tempted to delegate increasing authority to a centralized administration. Inattentive and inwardly focused, having lost the habit and art of associating, they would be unlikely to notice the erosion of their freedom.”

The future of Western civilization, right there. This seems to be a piece of the puzzle explaining what, to some of us, is inexplicable: Why are so many Americans, who come from such a stock of independent pioneers, so willing to give away freedoms?

Well, with minds numbed and bodies made lethargic by TV, they don’t even see it happening. How can they be told that for every new rule, tax and giveaway from the government they are losing another slice of freedom? How can they be told that they are sleepily letting slide what others purchased with blood?

They can’t. “Hey, be quiet, ‘Glee’ is on!”

It starts young, but continues throughout life, including for the college kids, with no dumbing-down bottom in sight.

AOL is re-doing CliffsNotes summaries of classics — which was bad enough as CliffsNotes — by turning the brief summaries into even shorter, funny videos. Dostoyevsky’s “Crime and Punishment” meets Beevis and Butthead for college credit. Wonderful.

Is there some policy prescription to save us from ourselves? No. There is absolutely nothing government can or should do. If you think there is, you have already watched too much.

This, like so many solutions, starts with parents. A TV in a child’s bedroom means a 56% average increase in brain-destroying, life-wasting TV time. This is not a plea for tossing out TVs entirely — although there may be merit to the idea. Nor is it even about content — even news and documentaries run ever-faster eye candy to keep audiences.

This is about drastic moderation. Full disclosure: I saved money for a year, and a few months ago, bought a flat-screen, hi-def TV, mostly for sports and sometimes movies. It is the only TV in the house and even with six children still at home, my wife and I decide when it is on and what is watched. It’s our TV.

A couple of movies a week, a couple of sports games, maybe a news program. Studies don’t show that a moderate amounts of TV is a problem. But moderate is something on the order of an hour per day. Not five.
There is only one solution. Turn off the TV, put down the smart phone and pick up a book. Or newspaper. Or play ball in the yard. Or have friends over. Or volunteer somewhere. Just turn it off, for you and your children, and just maybe, for our country.

Rod Thomson
is editorial pages editor of the Observers and can be reached at [email protected].

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