Growing up, I was oblivious to my television addiction. After school, I would speed through my homework as fast as is humanly possible — then heave a sigh of relief and embrace the ability to plant my bottoms on the couch next to my sister for the rest of the night, delicious pantry snacks in hand. We laughed, we cried, we re-organized our movie collection — it was great bonding time.
I happen to come from a long line of TV fanatics, and as such, there were always multiple televisions on around the house to feed my addiction. Even on the nights when I had to stay up late doing homework (the trauma of it), it was impossible to keep my mind off the latest wrench in the Survivor plot when I could hear the rest of the family shrieking at the screen in the next room.
I never questioned passing the time this way, because the majority of families I knew lived the exact same lifestyle. Social lives revolved around "hanging out" and watching TV after school together, or if we were in a more "active" mode, making a trip to a movie theater. That was just how things worked: easier for our parents, and easier for us.
Then, slowly, the disenchantment began. I remember learning that our brain activity while watching TV is less active than when we are asleep — and feeling revolted. I may know the nuances of Jim Carrey's face better than I know my own, but that didn't mean I wasn't intelligent or well-read. In fact, I usually held a book or pad of paper while I watched TV, which I thought exempted me from the couch potato category. I was multitasking!
Once I learned that television watching simply ate up my time, leaving me to arise from the stupor of the glowing lights literally dumber than when I had sat down, I could practically feel the brain cells in my head keeling over in a sharp, painful death caused by one too many episodes of Friends. I prayed that the activities which prevented me from staring too directly at the TV (homework, eating, drawing) had saved my brain from total collapse. Instead of viewing my household's weeknights as infused with jovial entertainment, I imagined that we were merely sending our brains to sleep at 5 pm. Hence, the beginning of my life as a TV nazi. "Wanna turn this off? I mean, I know you're tired, but how often do we TALK?", I would say to no one in particular. Then, eyeing with scorn whatever show happened to be on, I would embark on a five-minute lecture of the foolishness of the characters and unrealistic, immoral nature of the plot.
My family looked at me as if I were a pod person.
The truth is, no matter how turned off I am now by TV (literally and figuratively), as with many addictions, every day without it feels a little bit emptier. Which is why I'm writing this article. I know many parents who plop their children down in front of the TV for several hours a night before the kids are old enough to express any desire to do otherwise — possibly sacrificing them over to a life of all-consuming media worship.
I can recall some of the movies I watched from toddlerhood with perfect clarity, but remember virtually nothing else from that time. Insert an old favorite into the VCR, and I get the sensation of rediscovering a long-lost friend. Hum just two notes from a theme song to any show that's been on in the last 20 years, and chances are I can name it. I even remember the day we had The Disney Channel installed, before it was included with basic cable. Media — TV, movies, even radio — has a powerful influence on how we view society, which increases the more we expose ourselves to it; today, more than ever, this is a devastating concept.
In case you figured I might be writing this from a couch potato rehab center, I can tell you that I am just fine. The headline that should have been printed when I was 18 might have read, "RECOVERED TV ADDICT GETS INTO COLLEGE OF HER DREAMS AND MOVES TO MANHATTAN — TO DORM WITHOUT TELEVISION!" I am very grateful that the hustling lifestyle of New York has increased my aversion to cooping myself up for any length of time. And yet whenever I get back to my apartment at night and look out my window into the sea of other well-lit residences, I wonder: Has that person been sitting there since 4pm? And then I want to scream out of my bedroom window, quoting the musical Avenue Q (I suppose Broadway is a good replacement for television): "There's life outside your apartment!"
Sure, sluggish tendencies still sometimes overtake me, products of my television-worshipping childhood: I have to watch carefully the time I spend on the computer, playing around on sites like YouTube which are practically the same as television. I often have a terrible time concentrating, even when I want to be at my most studious; I am convinced this is due to the over-stimulation of media which is getting more advanced by the minute. And when I entered the academic world at Columbia University, I definitely felt less articulate than many of the passionate intellectuals I came in contact with, students who had been pursuing more enriching and mind-expanding goals while I was frying my brain neurons for some 14,000 hours.
With that, I'm encouraging you, reader, to minimize the hours you spend at the mercy of your remote control; and for young children, I'd certainly endorse none at all. After all, is entertainment and a few quiet hours on the couch worth a neurological disaster, dulled senses and academic disinterest? Would you like to be the one at Thanksgiving sitting at the kids' table because the only issues you can intelligibly talk about are the features of MTV's Monday night lineup?
I doubt it.
Jessica Willis is originally from San Francisco. Currently a dual-degree student at Columbia University and the Jewish Theological Seminary, she resides in Morningside Heights where she spends an unfortunate amount of time studying. Her only complaint regarding New York is the winter season, and the brown muck on the sidewalk which was once snow.