December 28, 2009

Television 2: We have the technology

television-movie-4988 In Television 1, I pointed out that television is as much a part of our world as refrigerators or kitchen sinks with running water.  There are people who live without these, but they aren’t us.  And our kids probably won’t be them any time soon. Unlike common kitchen appliances, however, television, I believe, is a drug.

Dr. Wolffe's First Television Postulate:
Television is a drug.

Mostly for political and economic reasons, it has taken decades to get tobacco regulated as a drug.  Though used by Native Americans for ritual purposes long before Europeans arrived, it only became clear in the mid 20th century that this was more than a harmless pastime, like quilting or decorative embroidery.  These are gently pleasurable, help some people relax, and don’t hurt anybody else.  It's pretty tough picturing somebody holding up a convenience store in the middle of the night because they they finished their last skein of Pansy Purple #102 and they're feeling so desperate that they are willing to degrade themselves for the next fix.  It will be no surprise what the differences are, and I don't feel it's necessary to cite the references for tobacco use. So as you read the following list, try to think of it referring to someone in your family who:  smokes, gambles, exercises, shops, talks on the telephone, emails, texts, eats, diets, trades stocks, checks stock prices, reads news headlines, or collects something to such an extent that it has a negative impact on their health, appearance, close relationships, job, or life.

It’s addictive.
By addictive I mean that users can't stop whenever they want.  They do it automatically, on a very regular basis.  They feel bad and crave it when they don't use it.  They aren't the only ones who suffer--those close to them can see not-so-subtle changes in their mood, behavior, sleep patterns, and social interactions.  Many adults go to sleep with the TV on.  When it's off, they have a hard time falling asleep.  (It's not because it makes them sleepy--I'll write more of this after the new year in posts about bedtime.)

It can be harmful, even when used as designed.
There is a relationship between the level of harm and the amount you do.  Many people drink alcohol and don't have a problem with it.  Some people do have problems with it.  While there is research on the possible differences in brain chemistry or genetics between alcoholics and non-alcoholics, suffice it to say that some people find it very hard to keep to safe limits.  Ongoing recent research has examined problem gambling using some of the same methods.  There's some reason to suspect that people who can't stop eating the stuff they know is killing them, that exercise or diet or even shop to a level of self-harm have some fundamental neurochemical imbalance that compels them to do what they do.  Though there is much public hand-wringing about the harm caused by television, the research purporting television causing direct harm is deeply flawed.  But the epidemiology appears pretty clear.  Kids who watch more TV have fewer friends.  They do less physical activity.  They are fatter.  They eat more snack food.

Does the TV-watching cause these problems or do kids with these problems choose to watch TV?  I've thought a lot about this question, and I think for some kids it goes one way and for some it goes the other.  So, back to problem drinking:  for some, taking a couple of drinks impairs judgment and interferes with sound decision-making; for others, poor judgment and decision-making skills make them think that they don't have a problem with drinking.  So maybe the kids who have weak social skills or have never had fun by physical activity sit in front of the TV, they find there's something they can do just as well as the popular kids--maybe better.  There's something they can master and be authoritative about when with their peers (maybe Twilight or maybe it was Star Trek for you).  They can be completely open and unreserved with this nonjudgmental entity for which they are just as good a companion as their more successful siblings.  For them, it transports them to a safe and exciting world.  It also interrupts the stream of negative messages about failure, self image, popularity, and status that this child hears from others and from themselves.  It turns this endless loop off.  How, exactly it does this isn't entirely clear.  But the fact that it can suggests the converse question.  If a kid who doesn't have these weaknesses sits in front of the television for the 4 to 6 hours a day many kids watch TV, how might they be affected?  How ever many hours they watch, they aren't riding their bicycles or playing basketball in the driveway while they do it.  They are raiding the kitchen for snacks.  Even if they have a friend sitting next to them, they aren't practicing the subtle skills of social interactivity that make for popular playmates.  It changes what they do and how they act.  So either way, it's a drug.

It affects your body (including your brain).
Why does it calm the angry, tranquilize the oppositional, and make the rest of us into emotionally-blank drones who can't take our eyes away?  How, exactly, is that different from entertainment?  One difference, perhaps for some people (and children) more than others, is that the more you watch, the more you need to watch.  Television becomes part of your life.  When you travel, why do you turn on the television as soon as you go into the hotel room?  Do you let it play all night?  Why do we have to eat while watching (true for movies, too)?  I suspect that the hedonic sensation of eating reinforces the rise in calming and reassuring-type neurotransmitters that accompanies American Idol.  The research really isn't there yet to support fully the way I believe it works, but I think it's just around the corner.  It's very difficult for most people to stop the way they eat and lose the weight they know they need to lose.  No, it's not weak character or lack of 'willpower' (whatever that is).  Eating is so primal that the feedback we get from doing it causes deep and fundamental reactions in the parts of our brain that are invisible and uncontrolled by our intellect.  I think television pushes equally fundamental buttons.  Just like a drug.

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Please let me know what you think. Do you know a child or situation like this?