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NEW YORK – The past half-century has been the age of electronic mass media. Television has reshaped society in every corner of the world. Now an explosion of new media devices is joining the TV set: DVDs, computers, game boxes, smart phones, and more. A growing body of evidence suggests that this media proliferation has countless ill effects.
A Nation of Vidiots
NEW YORK – The past half-century
has been the age of electronic mass media. Television has reshaped society
in every corner of the world. Now an explosion of new media devices
is joining the TV set: DVDs, computers, game boxes, smart phones, and
more. A growing body of evidence suggests that this media proliferation
has countless ill effects.
The United States led the world
into the television age, and the implications can be seen most directly
in America’s long love affair with what Harlan Ellison memorably called
“the glass teat.” In 1950, fewer than 8% of American households
owned a TV; by 1960, 90% had one. That level of penetration took decades
longer to achieve elsewhere, and the poorest countries are still not
True to form, Americans became
the greatest TV watchers, which is probably still true today, even though
the data are somewhat sketchy and incomplete. The best evidence suggests
that Americans watch more than five hours per day of television on average
– a staggering amount, given that several hours more are spent in
front of other video-streaming devices. Other countries log far fewer
viewing hours. In Scandinavia, for example, time spent watching TV is
roughly half the US average.
The consequences for American
society are profound, troubling, and a warning to the world – though
it probably comes far too late to be heeded. First, heavy TV viewing
brings little pleasure. Many surveys show that it is almost like an
addiction, with a short-term benefit leading to long-term unhappiness
and remorse. Such viewers say that they would prefer to watch less than
Moreover, heavy TV viewing
has contributed to social fragmentation. Time that used to be spent
together in the community is now spent alone in front of the screen.
Robert Putnam, the leading scholar of America’s declining sense of
community, has found that TV viewing is the central explanation of the
decline of “social capital,” the trust that binds communities together.
Americans simply trust each other less than they did a generation ago.
Of course, many other factors are at work, but television-driven social
atomization should not be understated.
Certainly, heavy TV viewing
is bad for one’s physical and mental health. Americans lead the world
in obesity, with roughly two-thirds of the US population now overweight.
Again, many factors underlie this, including a diet of cheap, unhealthy
fried foods, but the sedentary time spent in front of the TV is an important
influence as well.
At the same time, what happens
mentally is as important as what happens physically. Television and
related media have been the greatest purveyors and conveyors of corporate
and political propaganda in society.
America’s TV ownership is
almost entirely in private hands, and owners make much of their money
through relentless advertising. Effective advertising campaigns, appealing
to unconscious urges – typically related to food, sex, and status
– create cravings for products and purchases that have little real
value for consumers or society.
The same, of course, has happened
to politics. American politicians are now brand names, packaged like
breakfast cereal. Anybody – and any idea – can be sold with a bright
ribbon and a catchy jingle.
All roads to power in America
lead through TV, and all access to TV depends on big money. This simple
logic has put American politics in the hands of the rich as never before.
Even war can be rolled out
as a new product. The Bush administration promoted the premises of the
Iraq war – Saddam Hussein’s non-existent weapons of mass destruction
–in the familiar colorful, fast-paced, and graphics-heavy style of
television advertising. Then the war itself began with the so-called
“shock and awe” bombing of Baghdad – a made-for-TV live spectacle
aimed at ensuring high ratings for the US-led invasion.
Many neuroscientists believe
that the mental-health effects of TV viewing might run even deeper than
addiction, consumerism, loss of social trust, and political propaganda.
Perhaps TV is rewiring heavy viewers’ brains and impairing their cognitive
capacities. The American Academy of Pediatrics recently warned that
TV viewing by young children is dangerous for their brain development,
and called on parents to keep children under two away from the TV and
A recent survey in the US by
the organization Common Sense Media reveals a paradox, but one that
is perfectly understandable. Children in poor American households today
not only watch more TV than children in wealthy households, but are
also more likely to have a television in their room. When a commodity’s
consumption falls as income rises, economists call it an “inferior”
To be sure, the mass media
can be useful as a provider of information, education, entertainment,
and even political awareness. But too much of it is confronting us with
dangers that we need to avoid.
At the very least, we can minimize
those dangers. Successful approaches around the world include limits
on TV advertising, especially to young children; non-commercial, publicly-owned
TV networks like the BBC; and free (but limited) TV time for political
Of course, the best defense
is our own self-control. We can all leave the TV off more hours per
day and spend that time reading, talking with each other, and rebuilding
the bases of personal health and social trust.
Jeffrey D. Sachs is Professor of Economics and Director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University. He is also Special Adviser to United Nations Secretary-General on the Millennium Development Goals