A review of:
Living Outside the Box: TV-Free Families Share Their Secrets
by Barbara Brock
Published by Eastern Washington University Press, 2007
The statistics about television-watching in America should concern everyone:
- The TV is on for 6 hours and 47 minutes a day in the average house.
- The average person watches more than 4 hours of TV a day. (That adds up to 9 years of a 65-year-old’s life).
- 66% of people watch TV while eating dinner.
- 70% of daycares use TV to occupy kids during a typical day.
What does this mean for America’s kids? The average child spends 1500 hours a year watching TV, as compared to 900 hours in school, and sees on that flickering screen:
- 8,000 murders by the end of elementary school.
- 200,000 acts of violence by the age of 18.
- 20,000 thirty-second commercials a year.
It’s hard to imagine that all this TV isn’t having detrimental effects on Americans, especially children. And sure enough, anecdotal evidence suggests that too much TV contributes to all kinds of behavioral problems at home and in school. Kids have attention problems. They fight with each other over TV programs. They beg for brand-name products. They grapple with weight issues and obesity. They don’t play outside in nature. They don’t read.
When we turn on the tube, do we turn off life?
In Living Outside the Box, Barbara Brock mentions the personal and cultural ills TV undoubtedly contributes to, but it’s not her focus. Instead she asks us to ponder what we miss out on when we’re sitting and mindlessly observing so much of our lives away. After all we could be reading, writing, painting, crafting, traveling, cooking, baking, hanging out with friends, playing instruments, singing, gardening, exploring, running, walking, or just playing. We could actually be living.
A very small minority of Americans (less than 1%) lives TV-free. Brock sent 500 of them surveys to find out about them. Who are these rebels? Well, they vary widely, but the striking thing is, most don’t miss TV at all. More surprising, their kids don’t seem to miss it. Brock’s research makes you wonder – are kids more addicted to the television, or are their parents? Even if you can’t seem to drag your kids away from the tube, you might be surprised at their reactions if you shut it off altogether. Of kids who pledged to ditch TV for three months, many reported it as the best time in their lives.
TV night: Relaxing or stressful?
Brock makes a lot of cogent points, but one most registers with me: she points out how watching TV, even in small amounts, structures our time. For instance, you don’t want to miss a favorite program so you rush home from a night out, or you race through dinner, or you hurry through a phone call with a friend. You always have one eye on the clock.
Sure enough, we have a TV night in our house, and it’s always more stressful than other nights. We rush around to get everything done before the shows come on. Usually our evenings just sort of unfold. We turn on music, we talk, we play with the baby, we clean, we play games together, or we read. We glance at the clock occasionally, but it doesn’t dominate our nights. I feel better on these TV-free nights. I sleep better. But I’m not sure it’s the TV that makes me feel stressed, or just watching the clock.
The computer counts too.
I was surprised that by Brock’s definition, my family is already TV-free. Brock considers anything under six hours a week TV-free, and we watch about two to four hours. But every time I wanted to feel smug about my TV-free ways, Brock slipped in a mention of computer time. Oh yeah, that. I know aimless Googling and Facebooking doesn’t make me happy, but I find myself clicking away at the mouse a little too often.
Searching for balance.
Living Outside the Box is a fast and easy-to-read book. It will undoubtedly make you ponder how entrenched TV is in our lives and what kind of impact it’s collectively having on our society. Could Brock’s arguments convince a die-hard TV addict to change her ways? I doubt it. And if you lean toward the TV-free life already (which I suspect most people who read the book do) you may feel a tad hopeless reflecting on how entrenched television is in most people’s lives – a little like a teetotaler stuck in a tavern. After all, it doesn’t matter if you’re hellbent on knowing all your neighbors better than the cast of Survivor unless your neighbors feel the same way. However, if you’re thinking about ditching the TV, and concerned that it might turn your kids into social deviants, Brock’s research might ease your mind.
I picked up Living Outside the Box because my baby’s getting to the age where the television sucks him in. When he gazes at it and his eyes start to glaze over, my instinct is to shut it off – for good. It’s not that I think TV will destroy him or make him into a zombie. After all, I watched my share of I Love Lucy marathons as a kid. I just want his childhood to be full of music, books, friends, and nature. I want his time to be unstructured and unhurried. I want him to be satisfied with all of the comforts and joy we have in our lives, not to be constantly told he needs more toys, cereal, clothes, or candy to feel good. Most of all, I want him to have a real life, not a childhood spent observing fictional kids on television living.
But I’m just not convinced we should put the TV out with the garbage. One of those four hours of TV we usually watch each week is The Bill Moyer’s Journal on PBS, and every time I start thinking of TV as evil, I see Moyer’s lopsided grin. That show, and a few others – like Curb Your Enthusiasm, Six Feet Under, and Freaks and Geeks – have added something to my life. They’ve make me think, or laugh so hard I can’t breathe, or see the world a little bit differently. They’ve made me happy. I know the real answer is to only invite in the television programs that stimulate my family. But what a challenge that is – especially with kids.
Celebrate TV Turn Off Week – April 20-26, 2009
Brock did inspire me to give up all of my screen-time for TV Turn-Off Week – (gulp) even my precious Internet. That means I won’t be blogging next week … but I’ll be doing lots of living, which will contribute to future blogs. On Sunday we’re putting in a new vegetable garden and adopting a flock of hip, urban, backyard chicks. I’ll be journaling those endeavors for the blog. And I’ll have lots of time to research for future blogs using my favorite sources – good, old-fashioned books.
What do you think?
I’d love to hear how TV fits into your life. Do you have TV-free or TV-addicted kids? Have you struck some kind of balance? Are you participating in TV Turn-Off Week? Why or why not?