Monday, February 18, 2008

Television Kills

HOW TV IS (quite literally) KILLING US
(First published in the London Daily Mail, October 2005)
by Dr Aric Sigman

The studio audience is chanting as the two women - a wife and a
mistress - square up to each other over an errant husband. 'Bitch or
whore? Bitch or whore? Bitch or whore?' the crowd shouts. Then, in a
new expression of on-air hostility, the two rivals strip naked and
scream obscenities before lunging at each other like two 16-stone
animals, trading punches. The rhapsodic chanting reaches a crescendo.
It has been another good day for the Jerry Springer television show.
Thousands of miles away from that Chicago TV studio, in the seaside
town of Hastings in England, I remembered that episode as I stood in
Queen's Arcade at the entrance to the attic where John Logie Baird, the
inventor of the world's first 'seeing by wireless machine,' conducted
his early experiments.
Struggling for years to convince a sceptical world that his creation
was significant, it was here Baird wrote in his draft autobiography
that what drove him on was the sense that 'he was doing something
He never finished the book nor lived to see what his invention of
television would become.
What, I wondered, would Baird make of TV now? What would he think of
Jerry Springer's jeering mob? What would he make of television becoming
more popular than shopping or going to the pub, church or library
Or that more people would vote in a TV contest (Pop Idol) than for the
Prime Minister and his entire party at the last election?
More pertinently, would he ever believe that his remarkable invention
would come to represent one of the greatest dangers to the health of
Britain and its social wellbeing at the dawn of the 21st century?
I've recently compiled a report on the serious risks associated with
watching the amount of television we do. I've analysed a wide range of
scientific studies from government agencies across the world, from the
Chinese Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, to The Royal College
of Psychiatrists, The American Medical Association, National Academy
of Sciences, and Harvard and Stanford medical schools.
I've spent months poring over articles in journals ranging from The
Lancet and New England Journal of Medicine to Nature and Journal of
The picture I formed was profoundly disturbing and amounts to what I
believe to be the greatest health scandal of our time. I learned that
viewing even moderate amounts of television:

May damage brain cell development and function.

Is the only adult pastime from the ages of 20 to 60
positively linked to developing Alzheimer's disease.

Is a direct cause of obesity - a bigger factor even than
eating junk food or taking too little exercise.

Significantly increases the risk of Type 2 diabetes.

May biologically trigger premature puberty.

Leads to a significantly elevated risk of sleep problems in
adulthood, causing hormone changes which in turn increase body fat
production and appetite, damages the immune system and may lead to a
greater vulnerability to cancer.

Is a major independent cause of clinical depression (of which
Britain has the highest rate in Europe).

These are not wild suppositions: they are based on hard, clinical
evidence that has lain buried in academic journals. For example, scientists at the University of Washington studied 2,500
children and found a strong link between early television exposure and
attention problems by age seven which was 'consistent with a diagnosis
of ADHD'.
For every hour of television a child watches a day, they noted a nine
per cent increase in attentional damage.
Equally shocking was the report in the medical journal Pediatrics which
studied the metabolic rates of 31 children while undertaking a variety
of activities and found that when they watched TV, the children burned
the equivalent of 211 calories fewer per day than if they did
absolutely nothing.
The authors concluded that 'television viewing has a fairly profound
lowering effect of metabolic rate', with all of the health risks that
More subtle, but no less pernicious, were the results I found when I
traveled the world to research how remote cultures have been affected
by the recent arrival of television. By studying these societies, I
was, in effect, going back in time to see how our own society might
have been shaped by television.
In Bhutan - the last country on earth to introduce TV - I was
appalled to discover that since the arrival of 46 cable channels, the
country was experiencing its first serious crime wave. Greed, avarice
and selfishness had replaced traditional values of peace and respect.
Bhutanese academics had con-ducted a study which showed how television
was to blame for increasing crime, corruption and dramatically changing
attitudes to relationships.
They were particularly appalled to discover that more than a third of
parents now preferred to watch television than talk to their own
I found similar problems when I traveled to Vava'u in Tonga, where I
interviewed Police Chief Inspector Ashley Fua. He told me that since
the arrival of American TV shows and DVDs on his island, crime among
young men had soared.
The problem, he told me, was that until now, there had been no need for
juvenile courts, jails or a criminal justice system. The police were
suddenly having to cope with a crime wave for which they were not
Of course, no one is suggesting that all of Britain's social problems
are ascribed to our love of television. But at the very least, these
findings should give us pause to question whether the sheer amount of
television we consume is a force for ill.
Consider the facts. By the age of 75, most of us will have spent more
than twelve-and-a-half years of 24-hour days watching television. It
has become the industrialised world's main activity, taking up more of
our time than any other single activity except work and sleep.
Children now spend more time watching a television screen than they
spend in school. At this very moment, the average six-year-old will
have already watched television for nearly one full year of their
When other screen-based viewing, such as computer games, is included,
the figure is far higher. Children aged 11 to 15 now spend 53 hours a
week watching TV and computers - an increase of 40 per cent in a
The health implications for our children are particularly worrying with
the finding that television viewing among children under three seems to
damage their future learning abilities - permanently.
Scientists report 'deleterious effects' on mathematical ability,
reading recognition and comprehension in later childhood.
It's not simply that watching so much television means that children
are not undertaking more stimulating play activities, it is suspected
that the audiovisual output from TV is actually damaging the child's
rapidly developing brain.
The statistics bear this out. Children who have televisions in their
bedrooms at ages eight and nine score worst in school achievement
tests. And a 26-year study, tracking children from birth, has just
concluded 'television viewing in childhood and adolescence is
associated with poor educational achievement by 26 years of age.
[And] may have long-lasting, adverse consequences for educational
achievement and subsequent socio-economic status and wellbeing'.
The doctors found a direct correlation between the amount of television
children watch and the degree of educational damage they suffer.
Significant long-term damage occurs even at so-called 'modest levels'
of viewing - between one and two hours a day.
Confronted with such evidence, I would argue that reducing our screen
time must now be a health priority.
However, because television isn't an intoxicant or a visibly dangerous
activity, it has eluded the warnings that have befallen other health
Of course, life isn't always about following the safest course of
action. Whether it's sunbathing, drinking alcohol, smoking or eating
junk food, we enjoy lots of things that are, after a certain point, bad
for us or for the rest of society.
That's precisely why governments have recognised the need for concepts
such as recommended units of alcohol, sun-cream SPP factors, safe
cholesterol levels and stark health warnings on cigarette packets.
And yet when it comes to the dramatic and dangerous effects that
watching too much television can have on our health and social
wellbeing, the Government has turned a blind eye.
This issue has gone unheard during the political party conference
season. In its latest White Paper, proposing radical measures to
improve the health of the nation, the Government whitewashes the role
of television into oblivion.
In fact, far from addressing this issue, ministers support building
more giant outdoor television screens as permanent forms of
architecture in city centres.
Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott recently stated these 'Big
screens... could become social hubs for city centres just like village
greens of the past'.
And Culture Secretary Tessa Jowell believes the public must 'learn to
watch TV in order to increase 'media literacy', which she believes
'will become as important a skill as maths or science ... a nation of
active and informed consumers'.
Paced with such blinkered optimism, it is unlikely that the Government
has the political will to issue warnings about TV overload.
Ultimately, people will have to decide for themselves how much and what
type of television they and their children watch - but they must now
be made aware that there is a dark side to John Logic Baird's 'seeing
by wireless' machine.
At present, that awareness is being hindered by nothing short of a
motivated negligence on the part of academics, politicians and media
with financial links to television - all reminiscent of how the
tobacco industry managed for years to claim that smoking was an
enjoy-able activity that had no proven ill effect on the nation's
Even those who advise a 'better-safe-than-sorry' approach are
predictably referred to as alarmist or over-reacting, while official
health watchdogs dispense platitudes such as 'moderation is the key' or
'parents need to strike a balance'.
We need to start asking what 'moderation' and 'balance' actually mean
when they apply to our children's health.
The next time you are told the harmful effects of watching television
apply only to those who spend 'excessive' amounts of time in front of
the box, remember that 'excessive' often means only two hours a day -
far below the national average.
But perhaps the biggest obstacle in the way of facing up to the
dangerous long-term effects of television is the simple fact that we
enjoy watching it.
We are deaf to the warnings because we do not want to hear them. We are too busy watching EastEnders, Midsomer Murders, Countdown or even - heaven help us - Jerry Springer to care.
It was Aldous Huxley who warned us of a world where man's almost
infinite appetite for distractions is used to control him by, in
effect, inflicting pleasure. Huxley feared that what we love will ruin
us. Today, our growing dependency on television means that at the dawn of the 21st century, Huxley's nightmare is becoming a reality.

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