Last week we looked at the ways television has done violence to the community by isolating people into their separate homes and keeping them there. This week we will look more specifically at how, once families were isolated in their homes, the family itself began to fracture under the influence of this technology.
One study shows that husbands and wives spend “three to four times as much time watching television together as they spend talking to each other.” This illustrates the obvious fact that increased viewing of television naturally decreases interpersonal communication. If that wasn’t enough, excessive viewing has particularly detrimental effects on developing children by providing a purely passive visual stimulation, which develops neither thought, nor reflection, nor communication skills. This is exacerbated by the “isolation factor” resulting from multiple television sets in a home, which we will examine next.
By 2006, the average American household had 2.55 people living in it, and the same average household had 2.73 televisions. That means that our residences are home to more TVs than people, allowing the television to begin the same isolating process within the home that it had already completed outside the home. More than one TV in each home meant that the “800 pound gorilla” of leisure time could not only pacify a whole family, but it could go further by entertaining each family member individually and in separate rooms.
By the year 2000, about 40 to 50 percent of our television viewing was done alone. In 1970, 6 percent of sixth-graders had a television in their bedroom, and by 1999 that number had risen to 77 percent.
Remember that the average American viewer uses a 4-hour dose of television each day. Combine that with the fact that children 8-18 spend less than 5 percent of screen time with their parents. That is a very large amount of solitary viewing.
This has some interesting psychological effects. As human beings, we cannot help but be influenced by the picture of the world we see in front of us, and when the “picture of the world” that we see is the distorted one found on TV, we will be unduly influenced by that distorted reality. Children, for example, who already are constantly trying to relate to someone, will begin relating to the TV world.
For white male children, this tends to work out OK (sort of) and television can actually raise self-esteem. The white male character on television is often rich, impressive, and in a position of power. Think of all the popular super-heroes like Superman, Spiderman and Batman. Also, the white male frequently has a beautiful and skinny wife, even if the white male is fat (King of Queens), nerdy (Big Bang Theory), or submissive (Everybody Loves Raymond). Basically, you can win in life no matter what.
Page 2 of 3 - On the other hand, if you are a non-white male, or if you are a female of just about any race, it works in the opposite direction. TV decreases self-image because you are either pigeon-holed into some humorous or exaggerated stereo-type, or you are a one-dimensional sex-object.
Those are some interesting psychological problems caused by the “content” found on television, but I want to return to the earlier points because they are the most important.
As we saw early on, it doesn’t so much matter what is on the television, because the availability of television itself tends to fracture the family. The more television sets there are in the home, the less likely it is for the people living there to speak to each other.
This is not because those people are evil or hateful; it is simply because the television is far too easy a recourse for sensory stimulation. We live ever more hectic lives, and we come home tired. In the competition for an individual’s leisure time, TV has too many immediate perks, and the disadvantages are too subtle and distant to be immediately noticed and easily fought against.
The poet, T.S. Elliot, captured the problem well when he said that TV “is a medium of entertainment which permits millions of people to listen to the same joke at the same time, and yet remain lonesome.”
The deficiencies of the television experience can be illustrated better in another example: imagine watching one of your favorite comedic sitcoms without the “artificial laughter.”
There is something in us that finds it difficult to laugh without someone else laughing with us. The simulated laughter which we demand from the television screams the truth about human nature: we desire to share our joys. Funny things are just funnier when someone else is laughing next to us. The “laughter box” is a picture of the great deceit of television, which is that we can fully experience life’s joy while alone.
Early in the television revolution, the device was called the “electronic fireplace,” expressing an optimistic hope that it would replace the old crackling hearth. This pointed out a similarity between the fireplace and the television, which is the fact that families do still gather around each. But it missed the primary difference between the two, which is far more important: families are likely to talk to each other, when sitting around a fireplace.
Migrating away from the fracturing effects of television might seem easy, but it is not so simple. Television, as a habit, shares the characteristics of common addiction, and is not easily discarded. This aspect of the television experience will be next week’s subject of exploration.
Page 3 of 3 - The opinions in this column do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the The McPherson Sentinel or GateHouse Media. If you have any related questions or suggestions that you would like to see explored here, simply email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.