The Truth about Television

May 9, 2009

24 min read


What they don't want you to know about television and videos.

Abridged from the "Television" chapter in "To Kindle a Soul."

During their wanderings, ancient Jewry happened upon some of the most abominable practices of the pagan world, including child-sacrifice. The contrast between the world's wanton violence and promiscuity on the one hand, and the Torah's pristine standards and sensitivities on the other, must have been astounding. For those who had seen the dark side of polytheism and yet knew of a brighter truth, nothing could have been as repulsive as cultures of idol worship. One would think there was little danger of Jewry being drawn into pagan rituals.

God did not feel the same confidence. He saw a vulnerability through which even those who knew both paganism's horrors and Torah's wholesomeness could succumb: If Jewry would bring idols into their own homes, even for aesthetic enjoyment or academic study, they could corrupt Jewish sensibilities. "Do not bring an abomination into your house since you will become accursed like it," He warned His chosen people. "You should utterly detest [an idol] and utterly abhor it, for it is an objectively cursed thing."1 Ancient Israel needed a commandment to detest the detestable, abhor the abhorrent, and keep it far from their homes, the Torah teaches, because once even the most crass influence passes within, it grows gradually less offensive and more acceptable.

Traditional Jews long understood that the home is not just a dorm and restaurant: It is the center of the child's world, and it is the heart of the family. As such, it demands protection. Heart infections kill. Influences that are only offensive on the streets can be deadly in the den.

The Television Question

Following in their ancestors' footsteps, traditional Jews guard their hearts, carefully sifting through their generation's popular culture before allowing it through the front door. Their first question has always been, "How will this affect my children?"

In March 1975, four leading, traditional Jewish scholars issued an advisory warning about television to traditional Jewish communities.2 Their paper was rooted entirely in Talmudic sources and contained no references to the scientific literature. Nonetheless, it cited what secular scholars would term psychological and developmental dangers. It suggested that these dangers were related to both content and medium, and it recommended that parents not expose their children to television. At the time, the warning must have seemed provincial at best to those unfamiliar with the uncanny insight of traditional Jewish wisdom.

In 1975, television research in secular, academic circles was just beginning. The entire scientific literature consisted of only about 300 research papers and a summary report issued jointly by the United States Surgeon General and the National Institute of Mental Health.3 The summary report weakly raised the possibility of an association between television watching and aggression, but concluded, "a great deal of research remains to be done before we can have confidence in these conclusions."

By 1980, investigators had produced 2,500 studies on the effects of watching television, and the Talmudic scholars' early warning was beginning to look less provincial and more prophetic. In 1982, the National Institute of Mental Health and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services contracted the leading television researchers – professors from Harvard, Stanford, the University of North Carolina, the University of Pennsylvania, and Yale – to summarize scientific opinion about television's safety. Their highly critical two-volume statement4 failed to gain much attention outside of academic circles, but it shook the world of research-psychologists and inspired a flood of further studies about the dangers of television. Thousands of subsequent investigations confirmed the early findings, and today a rich literature documents the negative outcomes of exposing children to television.


Most discussions focus on the deleterious effects of television content (as opposed to medium), so let us begin our review there.


In 1993, one out of three high school seniors, one out of four tenth-graders, and one out of seven eighth-graders got drunk at least once every two weeks.5 Where are so many children learning to abuse alcohol?

The 1982 report of the Surgeon General revealed that alcohol is the most consumed beverage on prime time television shows. Television characters drink alcohol twice as often as they drink tea or coffee, 14 times as frequently as soft drinks, and 15 times more often than water.6 Eighty percent of prime-time programs showed or mentioned alcohol consumption, and in half of these instances it was heavy alcohol consumption – five or more drinks.7 In 1990, there were 8.1 drinking references or portrayals per hour on prime- time.8 Of deep concern to the Surgeon General, "The drinkers are not the villains or the bit players; they are good, steady, likable characters," and portrayals are entirely devoid of "indications of possible risks."9 When we consider that, in addition to alcohol consumption portrayed during programs, the average U.S. citizen also sees 100,000 television advertisements for alcoholic beverages before age twenty-one,10 it seems reasonable to suspect that TV exposure might affect our children's drinking habits.

New Zealand researchers in fact discovered a direct correlation between frequency of television viewing among 13 to 15 year olds and quantity of alcohol consumed at age 18. The more TV young teens watched, the more alcohol they drank three to five years later.11 Researchers from the University of Rochester School of Medicine in New York replicated the New Zealand findings with a random sampling of 14 to 16-year-old U.S. teens.12 A follow-up study concluded that it was the TV watching that produced the alcohol consumption (and not the alcohol consumption that encouraged TV watching).13

A team at Stanford University recently succeeded in quantifying television's effect on teenage drinking. Studying over 1,500 ninth-grade public high school students in San Jose, California, the Stanford researchers discovered that "one extra hour of television viewing per day was associated with an average 9% increase in the risk of starting to drink over the next eighteen months; [and] similarly, one extra hour of music video [MTV] viewing per day was associated with an average 31% increase in the risk of starting to drink over the next eighteen months."14 These probabilities remained even after controlling for the effects of age, sex, ethnicity, and other media use. The Stanford team concluded:

The findings of this study have important health and public policy implications… The large magnitudes of the these associations between hours of television viewing and music video viewing and the subsequent onset of drinking demand that attempts to prevent adolescent alcohol abuse should address the adverse influences of alcohol use in the media.15

Each year, students spend $5.5 billion on alcohol – more than they spend on soft-drinks, tea, milk, juice, coffee, and books combined.16 Alcohol is implicated in more than 40% of all academic problems and 28% of all dropouts.17 Alcohol was found to be a factor in 60% of women who were diagnosed with certain infectious diseases.18 On a typical weekend in America, an average of one teenager dies every two hours in a car crash involving alcohol.19 Children who drink recreationally are 7.5 times more likely to use any illicit drug and 50 times more likely to use cocaine than children who abstain from alcohol.20 In light of these statistics, we must consider whether we want our children to absorb TV's messages about alcohol consumption or whether there is something more productive they could do with their time.


The earliest content-based TV research focused on violence. Between 1952 and 1992 the average number of violent acts per hour ranged from 6.2 to 32.21

An average American child watches 12,000 acts of violence every year.

In the early 1990a, MTV averaged 22 violent acts per hour, half of which involved major physical assaults, assaults with weapons, and threats accompanied by weapons.22 In 1993, the most violent prime-time shows exhibited as many as 60 acts of violence per hour.23 That year the average child living in the United States watched 10,000 murders, assaults, and other violent acts on television,24 and by 1997 that number had climbed to 12,00025 and was still rising.

Initially psychologists wondered whether exposure to so much media violence would affect behavior. Three early studies suggested an answer.

First, Dr. Brandon Centerwall, professor of epidemiology at the University of Washington, Seattle, led a group of researchers in an electrifying cross-cultural investigation. The University of Washington project took advantage of the fact that television was introduced to North America almost thirty years before it arrived in South Africa. Dr. Centerwall and his colleagues compared white homicide rates before and after television's arrival in the United States and Canada with white homicide rates in South Africa during the same period.

Centerwall predicted that he would find a 10 to 15-year lag between television's arrival and spikes in U.S., Canadian, and South African murder rates:

Given that homicide is an adult activity, if television exerts its behavior-modifying effects primarily upon children, the initial "television-generation" would have had to age 10 to 15 years before they would have been old enough to affect the homicide rate.26

And so he discovered. Initially all three countries had nearly identical rates. However, the University of Washington team found that ten to fifteen years after television arrived in the United States and Canada, white homicide rates in both countries suddenly jumped by 92% and 93%, respectively. In contrast, in South Africa, where television had yet to arrive, rates remained consistently low throughout this period. A follow-up study conducted after television's arrival in South Africa found that white homicide rates there followed the North American pattern, jumping 130% fourteen years after television's introduction.27

The University of Washington group also analyzed when television was introduced into various United States census regions and homicide rates within those regions. They found a precise correlation between when television arrived in each U.S. census region and when its homicide rate spiked.28 For example, television was introduced to the West South Central census region six years after it was introduced to the Middle Atlantic region, and West South Central homicide rates did not begin to ascend until 1964 – exactly six years after the 1958 Middle Atlantic spike began. After successfully testing their theory against eleven falsifiable hypotheses, the University of Washington researchers concluded:

The timing of the acquisition of television predicts the timing of the subsequent increase in rates of violence… A doubling of the homicide rate after everyone is exposed to television implies that the relative risk of homicide after (prolonged) exposure to television, compared with no exposure, is approximately 2:1.29

Writing for the Journal of the American Medical Association, Centerwall stressed:

The epidemiological evidence indicates that if, hypothetically, television technology had never been developed, there would today be 10,000 fewer homicides each year in the United States, 70,000 fewer rapes, and 700,000 fewer injurious assaults.30

The second experiment to gain widespread attention in research circles was conducted by Dr. Tannis MacBeth Williams, professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia. Until the summer of 1973, television broadcasters had been unable to reach a certain Canadian town (which Williams dubbed "Notel"), but they expected to resolve these signal reception difficulties within a year. Williams' team got word that Notel was about to receive television and quickly identified two other Canadian towns with demographic profiles identical to Notel but which already possessed television. Researchers then began a two-year study of randomly selected first- and second-grade students in all three towns, focusing on rates of objectively measured noxious physical aggression (e.g., hitting, shoving, and biting).

In the two years after television's arrival in Notel, Williams' team watched while rates of physical aggression among Notel's students shot up 160%. Over the same period, rates of aggression in the two control towns remained unchanged. Six groups of university investigators verified that the only significant difference between Notel and the control communities was the introduction of television.31

The third early study to grab researchers' attention was conducted by Drs. Leonard Eron and Rowell Huesmann, professors of psychology at the University of Illinois. They followed a large random sampling for 22 years, from third grade through adulthood, tracking violent behavior and a range of other habits and environmental stimuli. Eron and Huesmann discovered that the amount of television children watched at eight years old was the single most powerful predictor of violent behavior at age thirty – more than poverty, grades, a single-parent home, or even exposure to real violence.32 Professor Eron told a Newsweek reporter:

Of course, not every youngster is affected. Not everyone who gets lung cancer smoked cigarettes, and not everyone who smokes cigarettes gets lung cancer. But nobody outside the tobacco industry denies that smoking causes lung cancer. The size of the [television watching–aggressive behavior] correlation is the same.33

Exposure to television was the greatest determinant of aggressive behavior.

A follow-up investigation by the University of Illinois team studied more than a thousand children in Australia, Finland, Israel, the Netherlands, and Poland over a three-year period. This international sampling produced identical results: Exposure to television was the greatest determinant of aggressive behavior.34

These early studies stimulated an avalanche of recent research: Investigators compared the playground behavior of ordinary groups of elementary school children with experimental groups who had been shown typically violent television shows before recess.35 Before and after exposure to prime-time and children's programming, investigators monitored the behavior of children living in circumstances so violent that one would expect the effects of media to be overshadowed.36 Researchers ranked preschoolers for aggressiveness and then interviewed the children's parents to dtermine the frequency of the children's television viewing.37 There have been retrospective surveys, longitudinal studies, and meta-analyses. Tens of thousands of infants, children, teens and young adults have been studies in every continent for their reactions to television, and the results have all produced the same conclusion.38

To date, more than a thousand investigations have documented a causal link between television viewing and violent behavior, and no study has contradicted this hypothesis.39 Looking back over decades of television research, the leader of the University of Illinois team, Professor Huesmann, observed, "At this time, it should be difficult to find any researcher who does not believe that a significant positive relation exists between viewing television violence and subsequent aggressive behavior under most conditions."40

Ten years after their first report, the United States Surgeon General and National Institute of Mental Health issued an update clearly stating that the latest evidence "seems overwhelming that [watching] televised violence and [acting with] aggression are positively correlated in children."41 The Surgeon General's 2001 report cited statistical links between television watching and violent behavior similar in strength to the evidence linking smoking and lung cancer.42 Dr. Jeffrey McIntyre, legislative and federal affairs officer for the American Psychological Association, echoed these sentiments in an interview with the New York Times: "The evidence is overwhelming. To argue against it is like arguing against gravity."43

The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry conducted its own battery of investigation and concurred that television watching produces aggressive children.44 The American Medical Association's House of Delegates surveyed the burgeoning evidence and declared: "TV violence threatens the health and welfare of young Americans."45 An American Medical Association "special communication" proclaimed: "Children's exposure to television and television violence should become part of the public health agenda, along with safety seats, bicycle helmets, immunizations, and good nutrition."46 In an editorial entitled "Exposure to Television Poses a Public Health Concern," the Annals of Epidemiology declared, "Public health's mandate of prevention, originally used to combat infectious disease, must now be called forth to address mass media content."47 As Professor Eron observed, "The scientific debate is over."48 Television makes children violent.


Why do broadcasters continue to offer alcohol-related and violent programming, given the overwhelming data testifying to the damage done by such fare? Our question stems from a fundamental misunderstanding of television's clientele. As a writer for the Journal of the American Medical Association observed:

Cable aside, the television industry is not in the business of selling programs to audiences. It is in the business of selling audiences to advertisers. Issues of "quality" and "social responsibility" are entirely peripheral to the issue of maximizing audience size within a competitive market.49

Television does not exist to entertain us; it exists to sell to us. Colman McCarthy, professor at Georgetown University and the University of Maryland, explains, "It is a commercial arrangement, with the TV set a salesman permanently assigned to one house, and often two or three salesmen working different rooms."50 Dr. John Condry, professor of human development and family studies at Cornell University, writes, "The task of those who program television is to capture the public's attention and to hold it long enough to advertise a product."51

While this amazes some parents, it is a reality that everyone in the television industry thoroughly understands. Doug Herzog, while serving as president of Fox Entertainment, thus justified the level of alcohol, sex, and violence on his network, saying, "This is all happening because society is evolving and changing, but the bottom line is people seem to be buying it."52 Gene DeWitt, chairman of one of the leading firms selling television advertising time, similarly admitted, "There's no point in moralizing whether this is a good or bad thing. Television is a business whose purpose is gathering audience."53

Indeed, children see one hour of commercials for every five hours of programs they watch on commercial television.54 This means that during calendar year 1997, when the average U.S. child watched television 25 hours a week,55 he spent 260 full hours (or the equivalent of 6.5 weeks of 40-hour-per-week shifts) just watching commercials.

This is significant when we consider that the most essential product of the advertising industry is hunger. That is, commercials are intended to create a feeling of lack in the viewer, a deep ache that can only be assuaged by purchasing the product. As Dr. Neil Postman, chairman of the Department of Communication Arts at New York University, points out, "What the advertiser needs to know is not what is right about the product but what is wrong about the buyer."56 So we hand our children over to Madison Avenue to be told, hundreds of hours a year, how hungry, bored, ugly, and unpopular they are and will continue to be until they spend (or persuade their parents to spend) a few more dollars. And then we wonder why our children feel so hungry, bored, ugly, and unpopular, and why they are so needy.

Planting the Right Seeds

Nicholas Johnson, a former commissioner of the U.S. Federal Communications Commission, once said, "All television is educational. The question is, what does it teach?"57 Violence educates. So does alcohol. So do commercials. These are seeds that television plants.

And these are only a sampling of the values and perspectives that pass directly from TV to child. Television plants other seeds too. For example, researchers at Syracuse University and State University of New York discovered that television programs almost never advocate reading books and lend the impression that one can get all the knowledge one needs from watching TV. They theorize this might be responsible for the finding that "young people who view greater amounts of television are more likely to have a decidedly low opinion of book reading as an activity."58 If we do not approve of television's portrayals of alcohol and violence; if we think book reading is important; if our life goals include more altruistic principles, like kindness, integrity, commitment, faithfulness, and the like; or if the television plants other seeds incompatible with our basic values, then shouldn't we be concerned about every minute our children spend sitting before a television absorbing its perspectives? If the programmers and advertisers are not properly educating our children, then do we really want to turn our children over to their care? If television exposes our children to influences we disapprove of, why should we bring it into our homes?


Most popular discussions of television's downside focus entirely on television's deleterious content, and in doing so they miss at least half the problem. Perhaps the medium itself, regardless of content, does damage.

Achievement and Intelligence Japanese researchers conducted some of the earliest research on the relationship between television and impaired academic achievement. In 1962, they published findings that reading skills declined among Japanese fifth to seventh graders as soon as their family acquired a television set.59

The more television children watched, the worse they performed in all academic areas.

Two years later, the United States Department of Health, Education, and Welfare conducted the first large-scale American study. The survey, covering 650,000 students in 4,000 U.S. schools, included a handful of questions about television viewing patterns. Government officials were surprised to discover that the more television students watched, the lower their achievement scores.60 Unfortunately, these results were largely ignored by the media, and the findings were not widely known and soon forgotten.

Almost 15 years passed before research on television and impaired achievement attracted any serious attention again, but then interest in television's cognitive effects suddenly burgeoned. Statewide assessment programs conducted in Rhode Island (1975-76), Connecticut (1978-79), and Pennsylvania (1978–79) surveyed thousands of children and came up with remarkably similar results: The more television children watched, the worse they performed in all academic areas.61

Also in 1979, University of New Orleans investigators extended research down to five and six year olds. Studying first-grade classrooms in the New Orleans metropolitan area, they also discovered that "first graders who watched a lot of television in their preschool years earned lower grades than those who watched less."62 They further demonstrated that the number of hours children watched television was the single best predictor of low grades – a better predictor than parents' low educational achievement, insufficient time spent in school, insufficient time spent with family, and a host of other negative factors.63

One year later, Drs. Larry Gross and Michael Morgan, professors at the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg School of Communications, made headlines when they found that television did not just impair academic achievement, it retarded intelligence. They discovered that the more television tenth graders watched, the lower they scored on IQ tests. The inverse relationship between IQ and television watching held even after the researchers controlled for socio-economic status, sex, and family size.64 The drop in IQ scores was large and consistent, and it could not be attributed to television attracting an abundance of children from lower socio-economic groups or crowded families. "It is extremely unlikely that the association between viewing and [low] IQ scores is spurious," they concluded.65

Although data trickled in throughout the late 1970s, the dam finally burst in 1980 when the California State Board of Education became interested in the television question and decided to launch a thorough investigation. That spring it distributed a comprehensive questionnaire to more than half a million sixth and twelfth graders, evaluating writing, reading, and arithmetic skills, work habits, family profiles, and television viewing patterns. The astonishing results caught the attention not only of research psychologists, but also (for the first time since television research began) the popular press. The New York Times reported:

A California survey indicates that the more a student watches television, the worse he does in school. Wilson Riles, California schools superintendent, said Thursday that no matter how much homework the students did, how intelligent they were, or how much money their parents earned, the relationship between television and test scores was practically identical. Based on the survey, Mr. Riles concluded that, for educational purposes, television "is not an asset and it ought to be turned off."66

The survey was repeated the following year, and statisticians and psychologists performed even more detailed analyses of the data. Their reports shocked parents and educators alike. Students from households with no television set in the living room earned an average reading score of 74% correct, versus 69% correct for students who had TV sets in the living room.67 Children from upper socio-economic strata were even more negatively affected than those from the middle class or lower class.68 Even one hour of television viewing a day reduced achievement scores, and every additional hour of viewing made things worse.69 It made no difference whether parents discussed the programs afterward with their children,70 whether children chose their own programs or parents chose for them,71 or what sort of programming children watched.72 Across the board, even small amounts of television viewing hurt academic achievement.

Five Paths to Cognitive Damage

In the wake of the California surveys, researchers began to ask why exposure to the stimulating and potentially enlightening content of television should retard achievement and IQ. Even more confusing, studies revealed that television reduced educational aspirations. These studies demonstrated that, even though TV programs portrayed an overabundance of doctors, lawyers, and other professionals, the more television children watched, the less time they wanted to spend in school. The effect was especially pronounced among adolescents who, as they watched television, lowered not only their educational aspirations but also their professional hopes. The more TV a child watched, the lower status the job he eventually wanted to pursue.73 Something about the medium seemed to undermine whatever positive content television offered. Five explanations emerged.

First, Harvard investigators confirmed that television ate up time children would otherwise have used to study or read for pleasure. They found, for instance, that children from homes with no television were 11% more likely to do homework on weekdays and 23% more likely to do homework on Sundays.74 Professor George Comstock of Syracuse University, arguably the leading scholar in the study of television, wrote in 1999, "Learning to read is often hard work for a child, whereas television viewing is comparatively undemanding. Children are certainly tempted to watch television instead of mastering reading, and those who succumb will be permanently impaired scholastically."75

In a spontaneous experiment in 1982, a New Jersey elementary school announced a "No TV Week." According to the New York Times report of the event, "Students in every class started spending more time reading books and talking to their friends and families."76 Two years later the entire city of Farmington, Connecticut voluntarily gave up TV for one month. When Wall Street Journal reporters interviewed Farmington residents, both adults and children most often mentioned reading as the activity they used to fill the newly available hours.77 Children who do not practice reading find themselves "impaired scholastically," they do not enjoy school, and, recognizing how much preparatory schooling the elite professions demand, they scale down their aspirations.

A second way that the medium itself depresses achievement and IQ (and perhaps thus aspiration) is by making children sleepy. Not only do children stay up past their bedtimes watching television, a team at Brown University found that children's sleep onset time was prolonged when they watched television anytime during the previous day or evening, producing shortened sleep duration and daytime sleepiness. The researchers suggested that at bedtime children conjure forth "excessively violent and/or stimulating" television scenes viewed in the last 24 to 48 hours. Thus, even children who went to bed on time were less alert if they had watched television the previous day.78

Marie Winn, a Wall Street Journal columnist, discovered another way television makes young children overtired. She writes:

Today parents do not "work" to keep the nap. Instead, with relief in sight second only to the relief they feel when their child is asleep at night, parents work on their young children to encourage them to watch television for reliable periods of time, a far easier job than working on a child to have a nap.79

Third, television's quick cuts alleviate the need to concentrate. George Comstock explains, "The pacing of much television suppresses impulse control and the ability to attend to the slower pace of

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