HOW TV IS (quite literally) KILLING US

by Dr Aric Sigman

Daily Mail Oct 1, 2005

The studio audience is chanting as the tow 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, East Sussex, 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 W9rld 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 worthwhile'.

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 combined?

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 Neuroscience.

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 entails.

More subtle, but no less pernicious, were the results I found when I travelled 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 con­ducted 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 children.

I found similar problems when I travelled 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 prepared.

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 lives.

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 decade.

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 issues.

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 enjoy­able activity that had no proven ill effect on the nation's health.

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 in danger of becoming a reality.

• Dr Aric Sigman is an Associate Fellow of the British Psychological Society, Member of the Institute of Biology and author of Remotely Controlled: How Television Is Damaging Our Lives And What We