Is television harmful to us?

(written by lawrence krubner, however indented passages are often quotes). You can contact lawrence at:, or follow me on Twitter.

Are children spending too much time on their phones? One response I hear is “The same concerns were raised about television, but we all grew up watching television, and we turned out just fine.”

But is that true? Did we turn out just fine? Let’s say the children born around 1960 were the first children to ever be raised with television, this cohort went on to become:

1.) the first generation in USA history to see lower real male wages than previous generations

2.) the first generation in USA history to see declines in life span, especially for the poor

3.) a generation that endured the most shocking concentration of wealth that the USA has ever known

4.) a generation that has seen the middle class shrink

5.) the divorce rate rose from 15% to 50% before subsiding to 40%, but it only subsided because less and less people were getting married

6.) a generation which elected multiple political leaders who put in place a global economic system which enabled the conditions of The Great Recession

7.) thanks to working longer and longer hours, both men and women but especially women, from 1970 to 2000, family income in the USA peaked in 1999. After that, even longer hours could not offset the decline in hourly wages

My point is, there is a flaw in the reasoning of anyone who says “The same concerns were raised about television, but we all grew up watching television, and we turned out just fine.” There is some interesting evidence that things have gotten worse for Americans who grew up watching television. Could television be a contributing factor to the decline of USA living standards? Who knows? The point is that a reference to television is hardly and open-and-shut case that cell phones are safe for our society.

I recall a study in 2003 that asked people (in the USA) to find Iraq on a map. This was just after the start of the war in Iraq. People who got most of their information in printed form had an easy time finding Iraq on a map. People who got their information mostly from television struggled to find Iraq on a map.

There is a wealth of data that suggests the public was better informed about world events during the heyday of the newspapers. This isn’t to say that newspapers are perfect, only that they are less imperfect than television. Newspapers might have biases, but they still seem more effective at communicating information than television.

I recall an article where someone pointed out that ancient Athens, at its peak, only had 100,000 people, yet they produced incredible plays and sculpture and temples that we still admire. There is probably no suburb of 100,000 that produces even a fraction of the culture that Athens produced. That suggests that there are modern forces that impede people. We tend to think of modern technology as empowering people, but what if some of these technologies actually distract people, or limit them in some way? What if it’s best to think of television as a kind of drug, not as dangerous as opium, yet still able to sap some of people’s energy?

Assume, for a moment, that television did real damage to people. What will we say of the generation raised with cell phones?

I was partly thinking about this, which I just linked to in the previous blog post:

When I was in high school, there was one girl in my class whose
parents didn’t let her watch television. Today, I very rarely watch
any television at all, and I bet if that girl’s parents explained to me
now their reasons for making that decision way back then, I’d agree
with a lot of them. But at the time, I and every single one of my
classmates thought this was total madness. Way, way worse than the
kid whose family didn’t have a microwave oven because his mother
thought they were bad for you. The girl who never watched television
didn’t seem to think that this restriction on her life was all that
bad, but I’m sure everybody else felt terribly sorry for her, and was
sure she didn’t understand what she was missing. When you’re thirteen,
and you’ve spent just about every day in your entire life using and
enjoying a particular piece of technology, and every other thirteen
year old kid you know has done the same, then there’s just no amount
of rational argument any adult can present which will convince you
that that technology is actually bad. It’s just not how young minds
work. I think about how much time today’s young kids spend
entertaining themselves watching YouTube videos on tablets, and I
realise that it won’t be long at all until the world is full of young
adults for whom all the companies and devices and services that I think
are ruining the internet will be associated with happy childhood
memories. There’s nothing I can say or do which will stop this. When
the minds of the young are lost, what hope can there be for the future?

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