I’ve been reading Bowling Alone by Robert Putnam and in it he cites a study that made me dig into the paper. Almost nothing about this seems to exist online except abstracts, so here’s my attempt at a summary.
In 1973, Canadian researchers realized a small village nestled in a valley about 9 hours from Vancouver didn’t have television service. This being a small community in a time before satellites and cable, they were simply a dark spot, blocked on two sides by the northern end of the Rocky Mountains.
Researchers led by Tannis MacBeth Williams dubbed the No-Television town “Notel” in order to protect everyone’s privacy and realized what they were dealing with.
They were interested in what TV viewing would do to the 658 residents once service was fully established in the village in late 1973. Special equipment was going to be brought in just so the village could get a signal.
TV was already the #1 form of leisure in all of North America in 1973. It happened so quickly and everyone was completely blanketed in the glow of television in the U.S. and Canada no one could remember what it was like without TV. Researchers knew this village was the last time anyone would be able to study the effects of TV on a western society.
As researchers embedded themselves into the town, they found TV sets waiting and ready. People wanted TV service and were looking forward to a day with TV.
Not surprisingly, researchers discovered most residents did something else in the interim. Instead of watching TV, they’d read a book, play a game, or any of the quaint things we all think sound nice today but never do.
Starting the Notel survey
Using surveys, watching people, and conducting interviews, researchers started to asses everything from children’s reading comprehension to playground experiences to individual attitudes toward people’s neighbors and adult’s ability to focus and problem-solve.
Then, two years later in 1975 the researchers came back to Notel and wanted to observe people again, ask questions, and conduct the same interviews with the same people.
In the intervening two years, they studied similar towns and villages in Canada with similar population, amenities, values, and culture. But each town had different levels of TV service, from a no service town (“Notel”), one town with a single public channel from the CBC (“Unitel”), and a town with multiple channels including major U.S. networks like ABC and CBS (“Multitel”).
The results were obvious, stark, and stunning:
- 90% of Notel had a TV set within two years.
- The average person in Notel and Unitel watched 22 hours of TV per week (about 3 hours a day). Compared to 27 hours in Multitel.
- It didn’t really matter how many channels people had, they’d just watch whatever was on.
- In 1973, residents of Notel outperformed their TV-watching peers on a battery of thinking tests, puzzles, word games, etc. by about 10-20%. By 1975, all those gains were lost.
- Notel residents took 75% more time solving problems, even when they couldn’t find answers, prior to TV. After TV, they were no better or worse than their peers.
- Acts of physical and verbal violence among children (boys and girls) doubled, to roughly one instance a minute.
- Children became more inclined to stereotypes in their views about gender norms and roles, such as thinking boys should never cry, librarians should be women, doctors are always men, etc.
- Notel students quickly scored much worse on reading comprehension, even worse than Unitel and Multitel students. If a school had that kind of comprehension loss most parents would want everyone fired.
- Scores on creativity were cut by 2/3 in two years.
TV displaces time and creativity
Researchers came to the obvious conclusion we all sorta know today: “TV watching displaced time”. Instead of reading, playing a game, solving a puzzle, cooking, talking, dancing, crafting, practicing a new skill or hobby, fixing something, or really any other kind of productive leisure everyone just watched tV instead.
Reading has become a fascinating study for me because reading is so unnatural to human brains. Reading requires you see black squiggles on a page, interpret them, inherit a mental image in your mind, keep those images in play and empathize with the characters and do so for long periods of time.
TV strips all that away by giving you the visuals, audio, and emotion in front of you without requiring much attention, focus, or concentration.
Not surprisingly, this craters reading time and with less reading comes less practice and with less practice comes less comprehension. It would be hard for anyone to say people today don’t need to read with a straight face, so this is all important stuff.
TV is passive, it’s easier, and you don’t have to think. Sometimes our minds need that, but whereas before our ancestors used to relax their minds by walking around, playing, talking, cooking, or just being in each other’s company as an active participant in the world…today we just plunk down and binge watch stereotypically gay men give stereotypically doughy men haircuts on Netflix.
The experiences we lose to displaced TV time mean a lot to humans. Children who play can draw on their real-world experiences later to solve other real-world problems, like how to fix things.
I imagine if Theodore Roosevelt had been born in 1970 he might never have taken the interest in insects, plants, and animals that helped him become one of the world’s leading naturalists (among other things). Instead of free drawing things he found around him, he’d just look at a screen. Instead of being an actual cowboy, he’d just watch one on TV. How much creativity, thought, and energy are we losing as a society to YouTube today?
The end of boredom
The researchers in the Notel study found TV fills all available time and prevents people from being bored.
If TV had such a noticeable impact on individuals in 1975, heaven help us to think what the Internet is doing in 2022. Hulu and Netflix and YouTube are just TV injected right into our brain stems.
And despite the promise of educational viewing (like Sesame Street), the evidence against television was too overwhelmingly negative for Tannis Williams and her researchers to ignore.
As a society, increased TV viewing soured people’s trust of other people. Fewer adults engaged in civic debates, became detached from their schools and children’s education, sports participation dropped, people became sedentary and, ultimately, fatter and less healthy. All of this portends to a slew of other problems. To say nothing of the misery that comes from loneliness, stress, anxiousness, and depression caused by this media consumption.
Increasingly we treat these problems by prescription, when in reality this is a bit like smoking a cigarette while riding a bike. These things do not cancel each other out.
A constant barrage of sexual images makes everyone of all ages develop a distorted view of themselves and sex. And since TV is supported largely by advertising, people became super-consumers, spending money they don’t have on things they don’t want or care about. And all that extra consumption makes the ecological destruction flywheel spin faster and faster as the credit cards go brrrrr.
We’ve only made it worse by shoving tiny TV screens into all our hands, including our kids’. No amount of boredom is so slight we can’t fix it by reaching for a phone. If we’re talking and I bore you, I’ll look at my phone and you won’t even notice half the time because you’ll reach for your’s, too.
If you set out today to design your life you would be hard pressed to design your leisure time the way you probably do now. “I dunno, I think maybe I’d watch a bunch of videos of horses line dancing or cats meowing the tune to Moulin Rouge or something,” you would not say.
TV is surely not a cause to all our problems, and neither is the Internet. But it sure doesn’t seem like it’s helping. Heavy viewing perpetuates itself so much we redefined the word “binge” to include TV and we’re all okay with that.
Even less surprising is when researchers test people’s ability to stop watching TV, no doubt as they could do today with phones, people get anxious. In one survey response after quitting TV for a week, one woman cited in Bowling Alone said, “My god, it was awful. My husband and I just talked.”