When I tell people how bad TV watching is, I often am told about how many good TV shows there are. It’s true. But that makes the problem worse. There is a lot of good material being aired, but that doesn’t make TV watching good for you. Watching the boob tube is a very inefficient way of learning, is mind numbing, and is a drain on your energy. And that’s true regardless of what you watch. Television is inefficient. I’ve been watching, while stairclimbing, a BBC series on wine. It’s very enjoyable and seems instructive. But since I make notes directly after watching each program, I get to see just how informative it really is. It’s amazing.
A half-hour segment might — might — give me three bits of useful information. It doesn’t feel that cheap when I’m watching it, but that’s because so much of what I’m viewing — the interesting scenic shots, the gripping little conversations — is illustrative but not instructive. I haven’t seen studies on watching TV as compared to reading, but I’ll bet you can learn four to 10 times more in a half-hour of reading than you can watching television. An article that appeared in a recent issue of Scientific American (“Television Addiction”) corroborated this point.
In one of the studies reported on, TV watchers showed less mental stimulation (as measured by alpha brain-wave production) during viewing than during reading. Worse, although TV watchers felt relaxed while watching, that feeling ended when the set was turned off, but “the feelings of passivity and lower alertness continued.” It turns out that the TV habit is much closer to drug and alcohol addiction than it is to reading or playing chess or fishing.
Like taking drugs, using television as a tranquilizer becomes more habit-forming the more you do it — and, at the same time, it becomes less satisfying. Television is unsatisfying — more so if you watch a lot of it. When asked about how much they liked television, those who watch more than the national average (four hours a day — can you believe that!) were much less happy with it than those who watched less than two hours a day.
More important to our point — viewers who watch a lot of television reported “feeling significantly more anxious and less happy” than light viewers in unstructured situations, such as doing nothing, daydreaming, or waiting in line. Heavy viewers are also more easily bored and distracted and have poorer attention control. For reasons I won’t go into here (it’s all about flickering images), being hooked on the computer is just as bad.