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Junk food for the mind

india Updated: Jan 22, 2012 02:09 IST
Sumana Ramanan
Sumana Ramanan
Hindustan Times
Highlight Story

The very success of No TV Day (see letters from readers above) indicates that our society considers not watching TV - let alone not owning one - a radical move. We consider it so outlandish and something that seems to deplete so much of our willpower that it generates enthusiasm only as long as it is restricted to a day.

Perhaps that's too cynical a view. Perhaps such an occasion can serve as an example, a starting point for something more permanent - by showing us that we can live without TV, that we can live very well without it, that it actually does not take a whole lot of willpower to live without it, that it forces us to ask ourselves what exactly we want to do with our free time and drives us toward what we truly value, because I suspect that some of us end up watching TV by default.

But why bother making the effort? Is watching TV really all that bad? The last time I railed against TV-watching, in this very space around a year ago, I cited various studies that indicated it was unequivocally harmful ('When every day is a no TV day…'; January 23, 2011). Since then, more ominous studies have emerged.

One study, which the mainstream media picked up in August, was particularly startling. Carried out by researchers at the University of Queensland in Australia and published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, the study showed that every hour of TV a person watched after the age of 25 could shorten his or her lifespan by 22 minutes, The Guardian reported. Long hours of watching TV was "in the same ballpark as smoking and obesity", the London-based newspaper quoted one of the researchers, Dr Lennert Veerman, as saying.

Not surprisingly, watching TV can be even more harmful to children. For example, one recent study conducted by researchers at Ohio State University in the US and published in the prestigious Human Communication Research journal, concluded that watching TV could lead "to less interaction between parents and children, with a detrimental impact on literacy and language skills", the Science Daily (www.sciencedaily.com) reported in September. The researchers observed 73 mother-child pairs in which the mothers were in their early thirties, had a bachelor's degree and half of them worked, while the children were between 16 months and six years of age.

Part of the problem lies in the act itself because it is sedentary, but much of the harm comes from poor programming. Deborah Linebarger, a psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania and an expert on the effects of TV programming on children, therefore urges parents to take a nuanced view.

"Think of their [children's] media use as you would the kinds of foods they eat," Linebarger told Discovery News in an interview (news.discovery.com). "Help them develop good, 'nutritious' habits."

Yet this turns out to be hugely difficult because most programmes come with advertisements, which are equivalent to the worst sort of junk food. So what are we left with?

Very little, I suspect. But I may not be the best judge. I don't own a TV. Have fun on Saturday.

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