Do You Mind? – A Reflection on a Recent Study on the Effects of Television on the Mind

08052015A recent article by Mark Pattison of Catholic News Service summarizes a recent study that shows how too much television is detrimental to the life of the mind. Common sense has known this for years (after all, it is called the “boob tube”). But we moderns love our empirical data, and now the results are coming in from studies conducted over the past several decades.

But it is more than the content of television that is the problem. Being sedentary (typical during television viewing) is also a problem. A sedentary lifestyle is bad for the body in general, and since the brain is part of the body, it is negatively affected as well. I would also argue that the medium of television itself has a deleterious effect on our ability to think and especially on our concentration.

Here are a few excerpts from the CNS article:

[A]study, whose preliminary results were issued in July, suggests that the more TV you watch, the more likely you are to get Alzheimer’s disease. …

The study—which for 25 years has tracked 3,247 people whose ages at the start ranged from 18 to 30—investigated the association between sedentary lifestyles, cognitive performance, and the risk of developing dementia. …

The researchers’ conclusion: “Long-term patterns of low physical activity and high television viewing in early adulthood were associated with worse midlife executive function and processing speed (two cognitive function tests). These risk behaviors may be critical targets for prevention of cognitive aging. … This is something you can do something about,” Yaffe said. Her prescription: change your lifestyle and thus lower your risk. In other words, stop watching so much of the tube.

Notice that the problem isn’t just Alzheimer’s disease, but “worse midlife executive function and processing speed.” In other words, too much TV rots your brain.

Some years ago it was popular to say regarding television, “It’s not the medium, it’s the message.” And the point of this expression was to say that TV could be used for good purposes. Fair enough. But I would argue that to some degree it is also the medium of TV itself that causes harm.

That flickering blue light, combined with almost complete passivity on the part of the viewer, can harm the life of the mind. I would argue that this occurs in the following ways:

  1. Reduced attention span – The constant flickering of the picture is bad enough, but the “seven second rule” seals the deal. The “seven second rule” refers to the idea that the content of the picture must change at least every seven seconds in order to keep the viewer’s attention. Thus, even when you are watching an interview, something about the picture is supposed to change at least every seven seconds. Maybe it’s the angle of the picture that changes, or perhaps the focus of the camera shifts to a different person; maybe there’s a cutaway shot, or the appearance of some sort of pop-up box. But constant change and movement is the norm for TV and cinematography.

This, of course, is not real life. When there is a steady diet of flickering light, and a diversion of some sort every seven seconds, one’s attention span is reduced. Navigating real life, staying focused in real conversations, and performing tasks that require focus all become more challenging. I think a lot of the ADHD that is “diagnosed” today actually goes back to a steady diet of TV and rapid-pace video games.

  1. Passivity of the viewer – At least with reading, one has to use the imagination and engage in some sort of discipline. Reading also helps one learn how to spell and how to write well. Even with radio, the imagination is still engaged and one is not necessarily glued to a stationary box in the room. Television, however, encourages complete passivity. I cannot tell you a thing I am supposed to do after I turn it on except to let my jaw hang open and my eyes grow glassy.

I will grant that TV can do a good job of bringing sight, sound, and learning together. I can learn a lot much more quickly by watching an episode of “How it’s Made” on the Science Channel than if I were to try to read about the procedures. Still, I would argue that too much of this sort of learning can be harmful. Such learning can be a thousand miles wide but only two inches deep. More often, TV is a lousy medium when it comes to provoking further or deeper thought. Learning how it’s made is great, but TV would not have me ponder why it’s made or what it means. There’s no time for that; it’s off to commercials and then on to the next show. And so we know less and less about more and more.

  1. Frequent channel flipping – When we are bored, or when a commercial comes on, there’s no need to worry, just flip the channel. But again, this is poor preparation for life, which does not admit of such simple and selfish decisions. Thus, in a variation on the attention span problem, we grow impatient quickly when life does not please us for even a few moments. But in real life flipping the channel is not possible, so we tune out in other ways or even become resentful at something longer than a sound bite.
  2. A big time-waster – Many people who watch TV in the evening get drawn into watching more and more of it. Before they realize it, they’ve been sitting in front of the tube for nearly two hours. People often fail to get enough sleep because of television. Many others do not stay in touch with family or attend to other duties because television watching consumes so much of their time. People often ask me how I am able to write so much. Well, one reason is that I don’t watch much TV. Having the time to write is obviously essential. I also read a lot. Reading helps you to write because you’re learning from others who write. But TV can kill the clock for better things like reading, writing, conversing, and the like.

The study goes on to state two other problems associated with watching too much television, both of which are pretty much common sense:

DissociationPrevious research has shown that people who watch a lot of TV tend to grow disassociated from the reality happening outside their front door.

Fear and avoidanceAnd TV watchers who focus their viewing on the news tend to not want to associate with the world outside their door because they’ve acquired the sense that the world—as shown by the if-it-bleeds-it-leads mentality of TV news directors everywhere—is not a safe place.

I stopped watching the 24/7 news channels some time ago for this reason. I got tired of the “Breaking News!” mentality. They were always trying to create an urgency around things that were not that urgent. I also became convinced that I was being “played.” News agencies and the entities that feed them have gotten very sophisticated at “selling” news and generating issues. I realize that being informed is important, but I have grown far more careful about whom I permit to inform me. These days I look to less sensational ways of collecting and discerning the news.

OK, I usually write on matters of the spiritual life, Scripture, Church teaching, and culture as it relates to the life of faith. Perhaps this post is a slight diversion from my usual fare. But it does involve the life of the mind. And the mind is our most precious gift. We do well to attend to the life of the mind, for the grace of faith builds on nature. Treat your mind well: turn off the tube and read a book!

Oh, and read my blog, too!