About Connections: Love it or hate it, history is a map. Those who hate history think it irrelevant; many who love history think it escapism. In truth, history is the clearest map to how we got here: America in the 21st century.
Television is ubiquitous. There are TVs in the bedroom, bathroom and the family SUV. You cannot get away from them. Formerly quiet neighborhood restaurants now have at least four flat screens — one on every wall — and now there are gas pump TVs. Time to ask: What effect is TV having on us emotionally and intellectually?
Early studies focused on content. Scrr studies asked: What effect does watching certain content have on behavior? For example, does watching violent acts encourage violent behavior; does watching sexual content encourage promiscuity?
An emerging theory was that violent content was harming our youth, and we had to control what they were watching. At that time, I testified in front of a Senate Committee on television, and I took a different approach. I suggested that content mattered less than the act of watching itself. I took the position that the act of sustained watching changes the person. I called the condition the Spectator Syndrome.
A spectator is not able to affect the outcome nor is a spectator responsible for the outcome. That in turn decreases empathy, desensitizes and disconnects the person from what he observes. Based upon the ever-increasing disconnection from what we see and hear, from the consequences of what we observe, I predicted an increase in school violence not because youth observed violence on TV, but because the violence they observed didn’t matter; it was without consequence.
Simulated reality — TV shows, movies and computer games — are brighter and better organized than real life. The result of whatever they are watching is nonexistent. They came, they saw, they turned it off and walked away. Reality and real consequences are de-emphasized while the experience is brighter and better.
When watching TV, the report of what happened is clearer and more authoritative than observation. For example: On a street in New York City, a number of us witnessed robbery at gun point and the robber escaping on foot. No one called the police or chased the criminal or even looked afraid. Instead, bystanders took out their phones or turned to a TV in a nearby store window. I asked what they were doing and those that responded said, “Trying to find out what happened.”
More recently, researchers have focused less on content and more on the act of being watchers. Studies have found that excessive TV watching — excessive watching of any size screen — changes us.
Reports say that we eat more while watching TV. One reason is that television watching shuts down the critical faculty in the brain: TV on, brain off; Internet on, brain off. While watching TV, diners don’t calculate the cost or the consequence of the amount they are eating and drinking. TVs are good for the food business even as they are bad for diners’ health.
Multiple studies show that the more TV people watch, the more they weigh. People eat more and are less active while watching TV, but there is another variable: Since the brain turns off as you watch, you are burning fewer calories because, evidently, thinking burns calories.
University of Vermont researchers set up a six-week study with 36 subjects. They ranged from overweight to obese and watched an average of five hours of TV daily. Twenty subjects cut their TV viewing. Without decreasing intake or increasing exercise, researchers found those 20 subjects burned 120 more calories per day than the other 16.
The average American watches more than four hours of television per day, more than any other single activity except sleeping. It seems prudent to ask what other effects TV viewing has on the individual.
Back in the day, when radio was ubiquitous and TV was a shiny new toy, there was payola. It was the original pay-to-play and it meant pay-to-play literally. Record companies paid DJs to play their songs. Why? The answer is adaptation.
“Who put the bomp in the bomp bah bomp bah bomp/Who put the ram in the rama lama ding dong?” may not grab you as a love song for the ages. In fact, your first response may be dismissive. Hear it often enough, however, and you “grow” to like it. DJs played it often enough and it became a major hit. It is called adaptation.
In a dictionary of psychological terms, adaptation is defined as “the modification of a sense organ to the force or even standard of stimulation.” That is, the more you hear it, the more you like it. In turn, that is because the more you hear it, the more familiar it becomes and the more familiar it becomes, the more you accept it as a standard, something you like — no kidding. Think about it: The first time you heard (fill in the blank), you were shocked or simply unimpressed. The 10th time you heard it, you accepted it as normal an because it was familiar — you even liked it.
Think about shows you watch weekly or the news you watch daily. The anchors and actors become familiar and — no kidding — we think we know them and even count them as friends or, if not friends, as people in our lives. Is it really a surprise that a reality TV star is our president? Is it a surprise that, while he seems ill-equipped to do the job, he appears brilliant at TV promotion and presence? While he intends to be a shock-jock and the disrupter-in-chief, the more he does it, the more “normal” his behavior seems to us. As it becomes familiar, it seems less shocking and less disruptive. It is more commonplace or, as Ronald Reagan said, “There he goes again.”
Think of adaptation another way: You come out of a darkened interior and blink in the sunlight; perhaps your eyes water. Then, after a few minutes, your eyes adapt and the impact of the stimulant (sunlight) decreases.The phenomenon also happened to us socially and emotionally as well as physically.
TV is ubiquitous. We accept it as part of the landscape and seek it out to keep us company. The telephone has become a body part and the computer is a necessary appliance. Apparently, connected is the only way to be. It is time to calculate the consequences and wonder how it is changing us — time to accept that, perhaps, the content is changing us as well as the constant exposure.