Though there are now many other technological devices vying for our time and attention, the oldest form of entertainment is the humble TV. Invented in it 1926, TV has grown to the extent that 78% of the world’s households own at least one set (2009 figures). In the UK it is normal for our homes to sport a satellite disc and to have a cinema-sized television taking up most of the wall-space in the living room.
With the average TV screen expanding in size, the number of channels has also grown, offering a wide range of entertainment at the touch of a button. At the risk of sounding like a Luddite, however, the quality of that entertainment seems to decrease year on year until we’re now served up reality TV mush with a side order of mind-numbing soap operas. Even the documentaries and history programmes are offered up as action thrillers, complete with tense music and information in bite-sized nuggets, presumably because our addled brains wouldn’t be able to digest it any other way. I say this as someone who hasn’t lived with a TV for a long time – about a decade – and whenever I watch it now I feel a complex mix of irritation, disappointment and boredom. My parents didn’t get a TV until we were partway through our childhoods, and even then screen-time was strictly limited. Did I feel sorry for myself? Certainly! I remember going to the newsagents before school so I could skim the TV Times to see what was happening in the soaps, just so I could chat to my peers. As soon as I left home, I made up for lost time by watching TV until it was coming out my ears, all the unrealistic dramas and daytime chat shows – I was a total goggle-eyes. And yet, despite this, I’m still not keen for my son to have a TV. As an adult and a parent myself, I can see that my parents wanted us to enjoy the finer things in life – the outdoors, playing, creating, exploring, reading, being together – before they introduced that great stealer-of-time, the TV.
Because that’s what TV seems to be. You sit down to watch an episode of something and before you know it several hours have elapsed and you’re still sitting there promising yourself you’ll turn it off in a minute. Getting rid of the TV frees up lots and lots of lovely time. I only have one child so far so perhaps I’ll be eating my words by the time another comes along. I can see that there are times in my friends’ families, bigger than mine, when TV is a useful distraction if you need to get something done. But I also see my son’s reaction when he comes across TV – that glazed expression, standing right up to the screen, oblivious to anything happening around him. I recognise it because it was exactly the way I was at his age. And there’s no shortage of research to indicate that TV has an impact on our children: on their health; their wellbeing; their ability to learn; and their creativity to name but a few.
So here’s a round up of ten ways in which your family’s life might be improved by getting rid of the box:
1. More free time
There’s no doubt about it, TV nibbles into your evening with a greedy appetite. Get rid of it and you’ll find that suddenly there’s time to make and enjoy that meal, have a long conversation with your partner, read that book you’ve been meaning to, even get an early night. The average UK child watches an average of more than two and a half hours of television a day – imagine how much better spent that time could be. Although it takes some adjusting to TV-free life, once you’ve got rid of the set it won’t be long before you end up wondering how you ever found time to watch it!
2. Kids make their own entertainment
Without TV dictating their experiences, children are free to discover what interests them. Initially, if your child/ren are used to watching TV, they may struggle to make the adjustment and become listless and disinterested at the times they’d usually be ‘plugged in’. Take it slowly, perhaps gradually limiting TV time until you can eradicate it completely. Then offer lots of other options: boxes of craft things, dressing up clothes, books, toys and games. Step back from suggesting your child/ren do this or that with their time though – the time they spent watching TV may transform into chill-out or down time, where they simply sit and daydream or nap. That’s okay too.
3. Freedom from marketing aimed at kids
Anyone who has watched the film Corporation will know about what companies call ‘pester power’ – the way children nag at their parents about the latest must-have item until they cave in and buy it. And how do these kids know about the latest gadget or junk food? By strategic advertising, pitched at kids and shown in the ad breaks between children’s favourite shows. Seeing the big CEOs of these multinationals talk about how they infiltrate your child’s mind makes for some pretty disturbing viewing and if you were toying with getting rid of the TV but weren’t sure, watch Corporation – it’ll make up your mind! Over time, your child/ren will be less swayed by advertising and you may notice a difference in their choices comes birthdays/Christmases as they make independent decisions about what they like based on personal preference rather than being told what they should have. You may even notice that they are less materialistic generally.
4. Freedom from ‘aspirational’ marketing
It’s not just kids who can be swayed by advertising. Everyone can get swept up by glamorous adverts telling us just how we should look, how we should feel and what we should own. Marketing gets cleverer by the day, so that often we don’t even realise we’re being sold something until we find ourselves in a shop looking at the product and recalling feelings of wellbeing – that’s the power of advertising! Once you step out of this vicious cycle of purchasing to be someone else, you are free to celebrate yourself as you are – right now: not when you’ve bought that face cream or put a down payment on that car or sofa. Telly drip-feeds us all kinds of images and ideas like this, and however savvy we feel we are, if you’re having a crappy day, seeing beautiful people cavort around in perfect lives for our entertainment can feel demoralising. So turn off the set and set yourself free.
5. Outdoor time
One of the reasons people cite for increased child obesity is less time outdoors. This is attributed to a range of factors – less safe streets, parental fears, a lack of green spaces – and it is difficult to isolate one particular factor. But it goes without saying that our children are being raised in a dramatically different social and cultural environment to the one we were, with screen time taking up a huge amount of their time. Sitting in front of the TV actually uses less calories than sitting quietly doing nothing – metabolic rates go slower than when we are at rest. At the University of Michigan, researchers looked into whether diet, physical activity, sedentary behaviour or television viewing predicted body mass index (BMI) among 3- to 7-year-old children. They discovered that physical activity and TV viewing are most associated with being overweight, with TV watching a bigger factor than diet. Turning off that TV and getting encouraging your child to play outside has a knock-on effect on their long-term health, as the problems increased as children aged.
6. Less jitteriness
Twenty years of research has shown that children who have the TV on in the background at home have trouble paying attention to voices when there is also background noise, causing problems with learning at school. The visual stimulation and fast pace of most TV shows also impacts a child’s attention span, with children who regularly watch TV struggling to keep up in a classroom setting, experiencing boredom and lack of motivation. Because a lot of TV features violence, research shows that TV-watching kids see aggression and violence as a normal way to resolve a situation – even the heroes in favourite kids’ shows use violence to teach the baddies a lesson. Adults, too, are susceptible to the flickering screen and may find their sleep and relaxation is impacted as a result. Watching a particularly gory, violent or fast-paced TV show raises the heart rate and increases the secretion of adrenalin, leaving us feeling restless and tense. Switch off and enjoy a sense of quiet and serenity.
7. Ability to concentrate
An American study reported that the effects of regularly watching TV as a child was still affecting educational achievement aged 26, with children less likely to finish school or go on to get a degree (this was even after controlling for other confounding factors). Evidence from the Archives Of Disease in Childhood says children’s obsession with TV, computers and screen games is causing developmental damage as well as long-term physical harm. The critical time for brain growth is the first three years of life, when babies and small children need to interact with their parents, eye to eye, and not with a screen. Removing the set from your family’s lives will help your children study and learn better. You’ll likely find that you have more energy to devote to learning, working and relaxing too, without the mind-numbing effects of TV.
8. Better sleep
According to a recent Spanish study, children aged 11 to 13 slept significantly less when they frequently watched television before going to bed. The study also showed that the more television children watch, the less total sleep they’re getting – a nine-year-old who watched five hours of television a day, for example, slept an average one hour less a night than a nine-year-old who watched television for less than an hour and a half a day. After watching a couple of hours of TV before bed, adults too often find that their mind is whirring with images and information. Experts advise avoiding any screen time for at least an hour before bed to give the mind time to unwind. Have a cup of chamomile tea and curl up on the sofa with a good book or a journal instead; your body and mind will thank you for it.
9. Healthier habits
Getting rid of the box promotes better health generally but after time, you’ll discover you have more physical and mental energy to devote to the things you want to do. Although junk food advertising has been banned during kids’ TV in the UK, many cartoons inadvertently promote an unhealthy lifestyle by having, for instance, characters forsake green vegetables as ‘gross’, or characters who study hard or exercise portrayed as ‘geeks’. Keeping an eye on all these subliminal messages our kids are absorbing is impossible for busy parents, but many have been shocked by what their kids come out with after an afternoon of TV. Studies show that we all eat more than we think we do when we’re glued to the telly and TV snacks – scoffed down with little or no awareness – are usually full of fats, sugars and salt. Because we actually burn fewer calories watching TV than we do, say, looking out a window, pounds are piling on while we’re catching up on shows. Within a few months of going TV-free, you might decide of an evening to go out for a walk or run, or do some stretches or meditation.
10. Enhanced creativity through reading, playing etc.
Aside from obesity and ill health, research shows that children who regularly watch TV, especially under the age of 3, have poorer pre-reading skills at the age of 5. Switching on the box means that a child isn’t engaging with others, reading or playing. A TV-free life may seem like a challenge to many kids who enjoy their favourite shows, and there may be a bit of a battle as you wean them off regular viewing, but numerous studies report that children who don’t rely on TV for their entertainment have a stronger creative streak. The time they are not watching TV, they are building a whole range of skills through play and make believe. As for you, you’ll suddenly discover you have an extra hour or two in the evening to take up that craft activity; to sketch, write, knit, cook, crochet, paint etc. to your heart’s content. It can sometimes feel that by the end of a long day all you want to do is lie down on the sofa with a big glass of wine and catch up on some mindless TV, and the idea of engaging in some activity is the absolute last thing on your agenda…but the box is actually sapping your energy further while a meditative craft like drawing or painting leaves you feeling calm and rejuvenated (the activity of your brain during these pursuits reflects this). At the very least, you get the warm glow of satisfaction of having achieved something rather than let another evening slip away from you.
For further reading on enjoying a TV-free life:
Remotely Controlled: How TV is damaging our lives by Aric Seigman
The Plug-in Drug by Marie Winn
Toxic Childhood: How the modern world is damaging our children and what we can do about it by Sue Palmer