A nation of vidiots

By Jeffrey D. Sachs
October 28, 2011

By Jeffrey D. Sachs
The opinions expressed are his own.

The past half-century has been the age of electronic mass media. Television has reshaped society in every corner of the world. Now an explosion of new media devices is joining the TV set: DVDs, computers, game boxes, smart phones, and more. A growing body of evidence suggests that this media proliferation has countless ill effects.

The United States led the world into the television age, and the implications can be seen most directly in America’s long love affair with what Harlan Ellison memorably called “the glass teat.” In 1950, fewer than 8% of American households owned a TV; by 1960, 90% had one. That level of penetration took decades longer to achieve elsewhere, and the poorest countries are still not there.

True to form, Americans became the greatest TV watchers, which is probably still true today, even though the data are somewhat sketchy and incomplete. The best evidence suggests that Americans watch more than five hours per day of television on average – a staggering amount, given that several hours more are spent in front of other video-streaming devices. Other countries log far fewer viewing hours. In Scandinavia, for example, time spent watching TV is roughly half the US average.

The consequences for American society are profound, troubling, and a warning to the world – though it probably comes far too late to be heeded. First, heavy TV viewing brings little pleasure. Many surveys show that it is almost like an addiction, with a short-term benefit leading to long-term unhappiness and remorse. Such viewers say that they would prefer to watch less than they do.

Moreover, heavy TV viewing has contributed to social fragmentation. Time that used to be spent together in the community is now spent alone in front of the screen. Robert Putnam, the leading scholar of America’s declining sense of community, has found that TV viewing is the central explanation of the decline of “social capital,” the trust that binds communities together. Americans simply trust each other less than they did a generation ago. Of course, many other factors are at work, but television-driven social atomization should not be understated.

Certainly, heavy TV viewing is bad for one’s physical and mental health. Americans lead the world in obesity, with roughly two-thirds of the US population now overweight. Again, many factors underlie this, including a diet of cheap, unhealthy fried foods, but the sedentary time spent in front of the TV is an important influence as well.

At the same time, what happens mentally is as important as what happens physically. Television and related media have been the greatest purveyors and conveyors of corporate and political propaganda in society.

America’s TV ownership is almost entirely in private hands, and owners make much of their money through relentless advertising. Effective advertising campaigns, appealing to unconscious urges – typically related to food, sex, and status – create cravings for products and purchases that have little real value for consumers or society.

The same, of course, has happened to politics. American politicians are now brand names, packaged like breakfast cereal. Anybody – and any idea – can be sold with a bright ribbon and a catchy jingle.

All roads to power in America lead through TV, and all access to TV depends on big money. This simple logic has put American politics in the hands of the rich as never before.

Even war can be rolled out as a new product. The Bush administration promoted the premises of the Iraq war – Saddam Hussein’s non-existent weapons of mass destruction –in the familiar colorful, fast-paced, and graphics-heavy style of television advertising. Then the war itself began with the so-called “shock and awe” bombing of Baghdad – a made-for-TV live spectacle aimed at ensuring high ratings for the US-led invasion.

Many neuroscientists believe that the mental-health effects of TV viewing might run even deeper than addiction, consumerism, loss of social trust, and political propaganda. Perhaps TV is rewiring heavy viewers’ brains and impairing their cognitive capacities. The American Academy of Pediatrics recently warned that TV viewing by young children is dangerous for their brain development, and called on parents to keep children under two away from the TV and similar media.

A recent survey in the US by the organization Common Sense Media reveals a paradox, but one that is perfectly understandable. Children in poor American households today not only watch more TV than children in wealthy households, but are also more likely to have a television in their room. When a commodity’s consumption falls as income rises, economists call it an “inferior” good.

To be sure, the mass media can be useful as a provider of information, education, entertainment, and even political awareness. But too much of it is confronting us with dangers that we need to avoid.

At the very least, we can minimize those dangers. Successful approaches around the world include limits on TV advertising, especially to young children; non-commercial, publicly-owned TV networks like the BBC; and free (but limited) TV time for political campaigns.

Of course, the best defense is our own self-control. We can all leave the TV off more hours per day and spend that time reading, talking with each other, and rebuilding the bases of personal health and social trust.

This piece comes from Project Syndicate.

32 comments

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Kudos for the Harlan Ellison reference!

I’m not sure the Pentagon’s Shock & Awe operation was solely aimed at high ratings — but it’s an interesting premise…

Posted by EPB | Report as abusive

The article makes many good points and goes far astray when the author drags in his personal–and irrelevant–politics. JFK showed us aerial photos of Russian missiles in Cuba as a prelude to sending the Navy to intercept Soviet ships. So what. That and the CIA photos of suspected WMD have nothing that I can see to do with the dumbing down of American culture via an addiction to video so consuming that it has made American culture largely vicarious in nature. propaganda.

Posted by abb68 | Report as abusive

[...] D. Sachs in Reuters. Share this:TwitterFacebookMoreEmailLinkedInDig gPrintRedditStumbleUponLike this:LikeBe the first to [...]

I agree with the writer, and many of these ills have been talked about since the inception of TV. TV and videos are most hazards to the young ones. For adults too much TV is a waste, but for the young ones too much TV is a destruction. Self control is good. Parental control is good. And state control is important. Of course in a totally open society everything goes, then everyone pays for it and its consequences.

Posted by OmarMinyawi | Report as abusive

Professor Sachs should devise some sort of “shock therapy” for capitalist economies to break the hold of corporatist media.

He did such a wonderful job advising the east bloc to throw out the baby with the socialist bathwater, perhaps he can work his magic with people like Obama, Cameron, Sarkozy, Merkel and most importantly, Berlusconi.

Posted by upstater | Report as abusive

Counterpoints:

“Time that used to be spent together in the community is now spent alone in front of the screen.” Before TV, people spent free time reading. So did reading also contribute to social fragmentation?

“America’s TV ownership is almost entirely in private hands, and owners make much of their money through relentless advertising.” For the past century, most media has been privately owned and advertiser supported. This includes newspapers, magazines, radio, etc. So this is really nothing new.

“TV viewing by young children is dangerous for their brain development.” I’m 60 and I grew up watching TV. If TV hurt our brains, it also produced a prolific generation that achieved historic levels of innovation and advancements in science and technology.

Consider “limits on TV advertising, especially to young children.” My exposure to grossly misleading ads for toys in the anything-goes 1950s helped me and my generation develop a healthy skepticism about advertising.

Posted by 2contango | Report as abusive

We choose not to have a television. Our first daughter turned two years old recently. She’s not seen more than 10 hours of TV in her life, and that was all though our computer -
* A few carefully selected cartoons with nice stories, rhymes and music;
* The documentary series, “Planet Earth”; by David Attenborough.

She’s doing quite well. She loves to play in the park, makes friends easily, can hold full conversations in two languages (English and Russian), can count to ten, and can name any letter in the Latin alphabet and most in the Cyrillic. She knows several songs by memory, and plays imaginatively and creatively with her toys.

When people hear that we don’t have a television, they sometimes think we must be very poor; but in fact we feel richer for it.

Posted by matthewslyman | Report as abusive

It’s a difficult issue.

You can do what’s easy, and let your children watch mindless TV. Or you can do what’s right, but then you run the risk of being as insufferable as matthewslyman.

Posted by Sideshow_Osama | Report as abusive

The biggest problem with the expansion of media types and content is the difficulty central authority has controlling the content and opinions expressed. This was not much of a problem with television, a medium more viewed by the poor than the middle class.

A lack of thinking and of intelligent conversation is a more likely cause of the rampant foolishness seen in the USA these days. But then there has always been a shortage.

Posted by txgadfly | Report as abusive

First of all, I do not watch TV at all, although I do spend on average an hour or so on the internet watching sites like this one, BBC news, etc. Maybe I’ll quite the habit in the near future to further simplify my life style. Although I do like knowing what’s going on in the world, what I see has no or very little effect on my “simple” life. In no way does my TV abstinence give me feelings of intellectual or moral superiority.

I think that excessive time spent watching TV is a highly individual thing and in cases where it is an escape from reality or a great waste of time, it’s more s symptom than a cause. Further, if the good professor were able to take everyone’s television away, would it really result in a better world? I think not. Watching TV is a relatively innocent pastime and would probably be replaced not by intellectual pursuits, but by hanging around in bars and on street corners, etc..

Posted by gAnton | Report as abusive

Thank you for the great article.
Also I find that the development of the world-wide-web is following the same route television programming took – the factual / intellectual content is fading out and is replenished with the ‘lowest-denominator-rating-traps’, which amplifies the damaging effects to the brain excessive TV / web consumption has.

Posted by veisa | Report as abusive

I don’t watch TV on daily basis since i went to college…
But it is truth … if you stay away some time… it is another world when you try to watch again…
Reality show is something unbearable… i never managed to endure one “Big Brother” day to the end… cheap and boring…
But what i had noticed is other shows too are getting more appealing to ridiculous (series, movies, interviews)… less interesting, less inteligent, less critical, more cheap, more superficial, more like a cheap cake assembly line … even and specialy the news…
Sometimes you see a girl accused of murder elsewere getting weeks of attention… meanwhile a whole country starving to death gets none… cheap news coverage…
Private TV or public TV does not matter… pvt interest controls pvt TV and the gov… so public TV only transmits ridiculous content…
Sometimes you see a giant moral discussion about to allow or not some “innapropriate word” on TV, or should this commercial be allowed 19:30 instead after 20:00?… Cheap moral discussions over cheap moral lessons… small potatoes… if that is the control of the media content… they are missing completely the point.
The same with politics… the Republican debate… cmon! what is that… a cheap talk show?… the entrance, the little individual “performance”…
And after that the news media discussing about some guy addiction to smoking, or obesity influence over his poll results…pfff
In the world of internet and fast communication… when i talk with people, i get the impression of mass disconnection with the reality… lack of information… a bigger gap than when there was just TV…
We have now a googol of good information, but a google-plex times of futility…

Posted by VonHell | Report as abusive

I agree entirely with these ideas, although I find myself watching more television than I used to, mostly documentaries and news programs and a movie now and then. My suggestion is to ban all political advertising on television and the internet. That would take the money out of the process, and force the candidates to spend more time on the issues and less on sound bites. It might even allow for more real information about the candidates actions, which give a much truer picture of them than their words. It is still a question in my mind whether or not for all of its wonders technology will be the savior or the destroyer of society. For what I can see currently we are in danger of becoming Borgs, incapable of functioning without being ‘hooked in’.

Posted by lhathaway | Report as abusive

When our first two children were born, we were too poor to afford monthly cable fee, and lived in Los Angeles where there was no t.v. reception without cable. The first two grew through their preschool years without television, but lots of books from the local library. They are now in college; both became avid readers, straight A students, and scored high on their SATs thanks to years of reading. I honestly believe their achievements are due to no t.v. during their childhood. We have a third child born when times were better and there was a t.v. in the house. He is not an avid reader, and is lagging the other two in scholastic achievement. T.V. really is an opiate that dulls the mind!

Posted by baldeagle1015 | Report as abusive

This looks to me like the old chicken and the egg question. In my view, Americans aren’t stupid and ignorant because they watch too much TV. The reality is that Americans watch too much TV because they’re stupid and ignorant. Not to mention lazy, unimaginative, shallow, and brainwashed from birth by jingoism

Posted by FirstAdvisor | Report as abusive

A frightening article that suggests that some over-paid civil servant should decide what’s best for us all, mandate who can advertise, and create more networks like PBS in America or the BBC in the UK.

If you don’t like watching TV, don’t watch it.

What you see on TV is what the advertisers want you to see.

Duh!

Posted by moosemiester | Report as abusive

All these comments of people rushing to justify their TV viewing or otherwise to damn it – it seems desperate and pathetic. Every ‘result’ of watching ‘too much’ TV the author is forced, by common sense and I imagine much to his own chagrin, to include the real sources of these problems, such as people eating too much or ignoring socialization.

TV is no more dangerous or useful than any other medium of communication, including debates at a coffee house, a book, or the internet. All can be perfectly worthless and ultimately damaging to a person. There are plenty of worthless books and pointless discussions among ideological neophytes in public, of course all of the worthless pornography that makes up the vast majority of the money made from the internet.

Yet the author is picking on TV, when he should be picking on worthless entertainment in general, basically insulting all of us for being too stupid to realize all of this entertainment is making us even more stupid (and fat, apparently).

All of these mediums can provide windows into learning subjects that would otherwise never have been explored – TV in particular is a medium that can show us things no other medium is capable of (save the internet) in moving pictures that can excite the minds of young people in ways books or socializing could never hope to accomplish.

Why not pick on alcohol next? Ignoring all other drugs? The author can complain about all of its ill effects, and completely ignore the enormous amount of social greasing it does to further his apparent love of the community getting to know eachother?

“a short-term benefit leading to long-term unhappiness and remorse”

I couldn’t have done a better job of describing this article myself.

Posted by terrestri | Report as abusive

Grrr, those damn kids with the punk hairdos and fast cars, stay off my lawn! This article reads like an old coot, Andy Rooney-esque rant for the first 90%, then the author qualifies everything he just complained about at the end. Try taking a few seconds more to consider where you’re going with the played out “I’m angry that things are different than they used to be” bit and if you really aren’t gonna take that idea anywhere it hasn’t been a million times before, than don’t even bother.

Electronic mass media has opened the human consciousness to realms of creativity and exploration that previous generations of people could hardly dream of.

Posted by Shamrock21 | Report as abusive

The constructivists opinions expressed are his own.

Posted by migueedu | Report as abusive

I believe without a doubt that while television was a window into a world that I would otherwise have never seen, I was totally incapable of differentiating reflections of reality from myopic ideologies. It was a large component of the many variables of growing up in the 70′ and 80′s that contributed to me having a distorted perception of reality.

It might be difficult for a young person today to comprehend the consequences or even concept of “too much tv”; maybe the idea of “too much NON-REALITY” would be easier to digest since more media diversions would fall into that description.

Impressionable young people (of which I was one) may not realize that 99% of what they’re looking at is highly exaggerated and unreal. For me, all this created a set of expectations (of self AND others) that was impossible to obtain and unreasonable to expect. I know that I am not alone. 12-step meetings are full of people struggling with this reality disconnect.

Posted by JCnTN | Report as abusive

Hey Professor,

Tell us something we do know…. The thesis the TV is bad have been used by so many graduates to write PhD.’s at governments expense that you should be ashamed to milk this cow any more.
I wish Reuters will pay me for writing such crap!

Posted by 74LS08 | Report as abusive

Neuro scientists are showing that God/Mother Nature/evolution has endowed us with highly biased brains … “emotional” responses easily dominate cognitive responses … it takes work to “think” cognitively and so many avoid thinking … (it’s like walking through molasses … doing math problems in your head etc.) … Media/Advertisers/Political Commentators take advantage of this by appealing to our primitive emotions… dumbing down the Nation’s collective thoughts and ideas.
Without a voluntary change, there is little hope. The “defectors” are winning and the “cooperators” are loosing for now. (“Prisoner’s Dilemma”)

Posted by Al100 | Report as abusive

One major problem with TV and the media in general is attention span. I have seen a good number of children and adults who have a 5 – 10 minute attention span. This comes from the fact TV programing is broken into program slots with commercials spaced every 5 – 10 minutes or so. People have also become accustomed to being entertained every waking moment. In order to get the attention of school children the subject matter has to be “entertaining” and the broken into the same “programing slots”. I have learned to keep my conversations simple, very simple, and not becoming “uppity” by using long sentences and big words. I can become very acidic when I start to rant about the media. I need to get away from this.

Posted by yeomanwarder | Report as abusive

This is the stupidest thing that I have ever heard of…

If you are an adult then if you choose to watch ‘jersey shore all day long and it’s like’ then you are probably a dumbass to start with (unless you have drinks and have turned viewing this TV junk-food into a drinking game).
TV hasn’t ‘made’ you dumb; you are just ‘dumb’ to start with more than likely (BTW: reading ‘people’ &/or ‘star’ magazine will also make you dumb!).

Likewise if you watch the history channel or the BBC or its equivalent, then perhaps you could learn something that possibly you could pass along to your children so they wont become ‘dumb’ too.

I also agree with other commentators here — someone actually got paid to write this dribble?! Unbelievable.

Posted by greghudd | Report as abusive

I almost didn’t read this piece, but I’m awfully glad I did. For a long time now I’ve wondered about just how far off the ideal healthy approach toward living we are. Of course, it’s impossible to truly define what that might be, but intuitively I feel that we are way off track. If there was a way that the ideal healthy approach toward living could be defined, it would look nothing like the typical American lifestyle.

There is so much that we typically incorporate into our lives that is intellectually, physically, emotionally, and/or spiritually deleterious, yet so much a part of our American culture (of course, not just in America) that we don’t question the possibility of long-term adverse effects.

To make matters worse, so much of what we are engaged in or ingesting, in one way or another, throughout our day has gotten its role in our lives by virtue of the fact that it’s making someone else money, as opposed to being something positive in our lives. The idea that it’s a good thing for us to have, ingest or do has been sold to us so that someone else can make a lot of money. And if there was a way one could figure out the ideal way to live, they would most likely be ostracized, have difficulty finding work, friends, and a mate. That’s how far off track I believe we are. Heck, sometimes just being nice can be challenging in today’s world. People will try to take advantage of you, view you as weak or lacking ambition, or simply uncool.

It’s a serious problem and I’m afraid the only answer is to learn to become truly free thinkers, as much as possible, and attempt to make decisions about our daily lives based on what is best for us and our loved ones as opposed to what some advertisement, politician, or co-worker is telling us we should do. Just because everyone else is doing something doesn’t mean it’s a good idea, and probably means the opposite.

One of the most interesting and useful college courses I took was a course on persuasion. This included everything from persuasion as it’s employed in personal relationships, to commercial advertising and politics. I would argue that such a course should be required for all students, and long before college. It was basically a course in assisting us in developing free thinking and how to recognize when someone is trying to sell us on a product or an idea. The idea is to learn to peel off the bs and make your decisions on the most elemental factors involved. This is something sorely lacking in our society, and sorely needed. To realize just how important this concept is, consider that the rise of Hitler and Nazism would have been impossible had Germans been better equipped to recognize and resist propaganda as a nation of free thinkers.

Thanks for a great, thought-provoking piece, Prof. Sachs. I couldn’t agree with you more.

Posted by doggydaddy | Report as abusive

Although Mr. Sachs positions on other subjects like economics do seem doubtful to me, I fully agree with him on this subject. TV is a large scale experiment with the population of this planet. Born during the rise of TV, I sometimes feel a certain detachedness from reality may have been caused by early TV consumption (although not that much at all, maybe 30′ a day as a child). The TV heroes who never get hurt (like Bud Spencer) made (and sometimes even today make) me feel invulnerable.

Together with the other large scale experiment – the automobile for everybody – TV is influencing everybody and changing the world. In some cases it might be to the better by breaking up conservative and opressive traditions, but in most cases it is to the worse. With the internet and future virtual spaces, I believe TV (and maybe the automobile) will loose its grip on us, but it will be replaced by the next global scale experiment.

Posted by dingodoggie | Report as abusive

[...] Great Debate: A nation of vidiots [...]

To the “Hey Professor, Tell us something we do know” arrogant person, the fact is that most (to me it seems like 99%) of Americans reslly do not know any of this and are completely zombied out by the corporate Orwellian mind-numbing nonsense coming out of the “glass teat”. If you are that smart, my hat is off to you. Perhaps you should read things like PhD dissertations and Nobel Prize research papers to challenge your superior mind. Meanwhile, the rest of us will struggle to free ourselves from Big Brother.

Posted by possibilianP | Report as abusive

I think it was broadcast television pioneer Fred W. Friendly who stated that “television makes so much money doing its worst that it can’t afford to do its best.” It seems to me, the minds that developed TV never envisioned it would come to this. Of course, there is nothing good or bad, but thinking makes it so (Shakespeare), but television advertisers have long since known how to influence any thinking on the part of its target audience.

While there is much to consider in Professor Sachs’ editorial, I think painting television and video media in general as harmful is as sweeping a generalization as asserting that pharmaceuticals are harmful because many people choose to abuse drugs. Just as with any potentially addictive substance, there must be controls placed on content and accessibility (just as for drugs and alcohol), both by the media itself and by the government agencies responsible for oversight. Media corporations never do this voluntarily, left to their own devices, there is far too much money and political influence at stake. A case of “Fox” guarding the hen house, pardon the pun.

I would propose a corporate tax on content “which serves little or no socially or educationally redeeming value” — infomercials come immediately to mind — as well as a ban on certain forms of marketing and programming (e.g. ads aimed directly at children and the very young). PBS has done a reasonable job with programming in the United States for many decades, and now is the time for commercial media to adopt and adapt, before it is too late. Maybe it already is.

Posted by hault-Denger | Report as abusive

Sachs childish performance on CNN’s Sunday with Fareed, exposed the decline of merican academics who take sallaries as academics but in real life are cheap advocates for a utopian agenda sponsored by a convicted and disreputable rogue like the manipulating Soros. Ferguson held his ground and proved that a polite and forceful man from Scotland can stand for ideas and values as opposed to the Socialist porridge spewed by a rude and childish tenured brat from Columbia Univeristy, the hotbed of American Reds.

Posted by redwood509 | Report as abusive

I don’t watch TV anymore. I didn’t bother to go digital and am too far from metro stations to get very good reception. It costs too much to get cable and the stiff was junk most of the time.

I tend to agree with the author and don’t miss TV much. The computer is an interactive TV. But it hurts my concentration. I could spend over 12 hours a day doing my mostly manual job. Before I had the computer I would put cable shows on for background noise. Radio reception always wandered. It could have easily been a radio because I wouldn’t actually watch the program – usually movies and comedies. I would have to hear a movie several times before I ever really understood what it was about.

But I live on a very small income and it costs money to just take the car out and go downtown and there really isn’t much social interaction to be found by doing that.

I have no immediate relatives in the area. And I am nearly a senior myself. So many of the older generation is gone now. I seldom see or talk to the neighbors, don’t get out much and am becoming like my widower father who sits in front of the TV all day because he needs something to remind him what a human voice sounds like. He lives 300 miles away and I send him links to my comments.

The country is built for social isolation. In fact it depends on it, or community activities tend to become volatile. When I first moved to this neighborhood I got involved in local politics and the government of the small district I lived in and also with other local events. Although there would normally not have been much to do with a neighborhood of 300 house and about 1500 residents of all ages, it became an aggravating, very dishonest, enormously time consuming and frustrating experience. It is daunting to have to talk to numerous residents and it was also a fright to realize that one becomes an object of admiration and or scorn depending on the situation. It ended up in a violent argument with a fellow commissioner.

I tell myself never to get involved with any group that does not have a clear understanding of the laws that are supposed to govern their conduct – never volunteer for unpaid positions (it ac carried a small stipend that could be eaten up with travel expenses etc.), especially if they confer any legal responsibility, and don’t volunteer for positions that cost you more to participate in them than if you just contributed the funds and stayed home.

But that leaves the TV that I now use to play old movies on VHS. I make my own homemade cable channel. It’s better sometimes than listening to tinitis sounds in my
ears. If I had my way and could afford it, I would live in a city where one can at least see people and explore cultural and educational opportunities in person without needing to drive at least 100 miles to the nearest city that hosts a few.

But it is a shame and some kind of crime that affluence now brings social contact. It sued to be the social norm that affluence brought the ability to be separate from the life of the street. Now one needs money to be able to get there at all? It is a bitter irony.

Posted by paintcan | Report as abusive

I’d suggest this exercise for skeptics. Go to an apartment or condo block with large windows in the evening. Sit and watch. The absence of sound and discernible images reduce the experience of watching TV to it’s essence. That essence is a hypnotic rhythmic flashing of light. In some of the apartments you can see people, zombie like staring at the idiot box, entranced. It becomes crystal clear what TV really is.

Posted by DiatribesRus | Report as abusive

It is easy to blame the TV, but the real culprit is the screen itself – the screen I’m staring at right now, the screen that almost everyone carries around in their pocket these days. A window to another world, a made-up world of words and ideas cut off from local context, a vehicle for mass thought manipulation. Fortunately, unlike the telescreens in 1984, our devices can be turned off, as long as we find a more powerful attractant offline.

Posted by Nullcorp | Report as abusive

Secularization of church and state via TV is ruining America folks and fast! Poor morals/ethics are behind most of our social & financial problems and you can blame those that promote moral relativity (if it feels good do it, no rights/wrongs, etc)-hollyweird in particular! Dump your cable and find joy,peace & love at your local Christian church-it’ll chaange your life for the better in a hurry! Yes, we’re broken too, but there’s room for one more! ONLY GOD! Technology is over rated and the God of the Bible is underated! Ok, let’s hear from the dark side-sock it to me!

Posted by DrJJJJ | Report as abusive