Outside the Box: Living TV-free
Imagine inviting a guest to your house who seems – at first – charismatic and endlessly entertaining, able to expound on topics from current events and sports to history and world travel. Before long, though, drawbacks begin to appear.
Besides talking relentlessly, he has an annoying habit of interrupting himself every few minutes – jumping off to a completely different topic and talking in a hyper-animated way. Worse still, he embarks on “organ recitals,” where he enumerates the side effects of countless medications. It’s awkward and offensive – especially when kids are around – to have him blathering on about digestive and hormonal complaints.
Fortunately, this “guest” can be silenced by detaching an electrical plug. It can even be ushered out of the house permanently. Yet only 1 percent of American householders choose not to have a television.
The perspectives of those who live without TV are rarely shared in mainstream media. Two researchers, though, have done in-depth studies of their motivations for living TV-free and the effects it has on their lives.
Barbara Brock’s Living Outside the Box and Marina Krcmar’s Living without the Screen confirm that there’s a wide range of religious, political and social beliefs among those who don’t own TVs – from conservative Christians offended by television’s sex and violence to liberals who balk at shameless advertising and shallow news coverage.
What they hold in common is a deep belief that life is inestimably better without television.
I share that conviction, never having lived with TV as a prominent part of my day. We had a “closet TV” in my childhood that surfaced only rarely for National Geographic and other specials. As an adult, I gradually acquired a few appliances that I had a clear need for – like a blender, a toaster oven and a computer, but a television never made that cut.
When our first child was due, relatives suggested that we reconsider our decision so our child wouldn’t miss out on valuable educational programs. We deliberated pros and cons, but not for long. “Why get a pet python on the day you decide to raise fuzzy little gerbils?” Barbara Kingsolver quips in her essay “The One-Eyed Monster, and Why I Don’t Let Him In.” Sure, there are valuable programs, Kingsolver acknowledges (and I would concur). But with vulnerable children around, would you knowingly install a faucet that – in her words – “runs about 5 percent clear water and 95 percent raw sewage?”
Having no TV in the house means there’s no squabbling over the remote. There’s no whining for more screen time, or begging for the latest candy, soda or designer jeans (hyped in ads that fill 17 minutes of every hour). There’s no gnawing sense that our reality doesn’t measure up to those seamless, virtual lives of ease, luxury and eternal youth.
A lot of what television purports to offer – in terms of relaxation and entertainment, it fails to deliver. Heavy TV viewers, according to a study in the Journal of Economic Psychology, take less satisfaction in life and have greater anxiety. While much medical research focuses on the physical dimensions of watching television (such as lethargy and overeating), the greatest toll may be on our mental health.
My own decision to avoid TV is in part a self-protective one. Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh observes that we nourish ourselves not just with food but with sensory impressions. Many of those offered up on TV are, in his words, “highly toxic.” Television floods our psyches with images of tragedies over which we have no control. A typical American child, by the age of 18, will view 200,000 acts of violence on television.
This distorted and catastrophic worldview can lead, Robert Putnam argues in Bowling Alone, to social disconnection and powerlessness, causing us to disengage from civic life. TV can deflate our sense of hope and meaning, draining our motivation to work for the greater good.
In a stressful, fast-paced society, we all need means of unwinding and recharging. That is the undeniable allure of TV. But both Brock and Krcmar discovered that those who opt out of television find more enriching activities that better meet those needs – from exercise and conversation to service work and hobbies.
Once immersed in more active recreational pursuits, few people could imagine returning to an hour a day of TV, much less the American average of four-plus hours. Even the children interviewed in the studies considered television a waste of time. A few teens felt left out occasionally from peer chatter about programs, but most young people took great satisfaction in the activities like sports, art, music or reading that filled the time TV would have consumed.
Given the prevalence of computers in schools and homes, few TV-free kids live without some daily screen time. Many families – including my own – occasionally view movies or sports games on a household computer, scheduled on our own time and enjoyed ad-free. But screen time is deliberate and bounded, not the background hum of our homes.
Like other TV-free families, we have found no downsides to this choice. In fact, we savor the peace that prevails in the absence of that garrulous and gauche houseguest.