RURAL ROUTES/Margot Ford McMillen

Time for TV Detox

Great news on the voluntary simplicity front. The current economic troubles have made it stylish indeed to save money. These job losses are no fun, but from the Wall Street Journal to the New York Times — OK, it’s just a few blocks between them, but really important blocks, in terms of American culture—the media are covering the lifestyles of the not-rich and not-famous. Green homes, electric cars, solar collectors, local foods, home-made birthday parties are all out of the closet.

In our community, Jill and Bill, two professionals with good university jobs, are famous for their sustainable living choices. They live in a decidedly small but well-insulated home of less than 900 square feet. They walk to work, grow a garden, ride bikes to do errands and leave their cars at home most of the time.

When I asked Bill what advice he had for beginners on the small-footprint track, I expected him to talk about changing light bulbs, setting green goals, and carrying lunch to work.

But he didn’t hesitate. “Get rid of the TV set,” he said.

They got rid of their TV set years ago. This puts them in a clear minority of Americans. 50% of homes have 3 TVs or more. Some studies have linked problems like obesity, attention deficit, and even excessive electricity use, with the burgeoning number of TV sets.

If you’re wondering what non-watchers do with their time, “It’s not like you just stare at the wall,” says Bill. It wasn’t long before Bill and Jill’s habits adapted to the no-TV lifestyle—taking a walk after supper, working in the garden, talking with a neighbor, solving Sudoku puzzles, playing card games, reading a book.

Losing the TV is like losing a relentless critic, one who is always ready to comment on your own life and find it wanting. Some TV messages are clear: Car dealers ask you to buy new cars. Food makers insist that their foods are better than yours. Viagra ads have an obvious agenda: You’re a loser in her eyes if you don’t buy some. And those Sunday morning insurance and bank ads on the pundit shows, with their ominous music behind the images of laughing retirees and cheery children, make us worry that something bad’s about to happen to our savings, or already has, and we’d better get a new financial advisor right away.

So we always find the mute button when the ads come on, but there are other images and messages less obvious and more insidious. Those are the images of the TV personalities and settings in the programs. The city guys in their well-appointed high rises and the suburbanites with their new cars. That’s living!

One can argue that consumerism is good for our economy, and I guess that’s true, but the rampant consumerism of the last 20 years has mostly led to high credit card debt and tricksters in the financial industry. We need to advocate for a new economy, based on needs and durability, rather than the throwaways of the past.

And the TV images stick in your mind, even keep you up. In a study in Osaka, Japan, TV watchers and computer users with more than three hours of screen time per evening reported that they lost sleep. The researchers said that there was only 12 minutes difference in actual sleep between the two groups, but the media may make you think you’re tired, or increase your need for sleep, or make you sleep less deeply.

Back in 1994, an organization called Adbusters started TV Turn-Off Week, and the name is self-explanatory. This year, the week is from April 20-26 and a number of organizations have gotten on board to promote it. A new group, Center for Screen Time Awareness, has recruited sponsors such as Barnes and Noble bookstores, an obvious match, and keeps track of turn-off activities all over the globe.

One of their campaigns asks us to write letters to airports requesting screen-free zones. It turns out that some venues, like airports, can make money by playing TV shows to their captive audiences. But CSTA argues that flying is stressful enough without CNN blasting about problems all over the world. After they get the airports under control, they’ll go after hospital waiting rooms and doctor offices and all the other places where noisy screens catch our attention.

Adbusters has taken another step in their campaign. It’s become easier to be TV-free since 1994, after all. We can access TV shows on laptops and hand helds. So Adbusters challenges: “Take your TV, your DVD player, your video iPod, your XBOX 360, your laptop, your PSP, and say goodbye to them all for seven days. . . You’ll be shocked at just how difficult - yet also how life-changing - a week spent unplugged can really be.”

They call it “Mental Detox Week,” and it’s pretty hard core. At our house, we’ve managed not to buy into most of the things on the list, and we’ve celebrated TV turn-off weeks before, but the laptop would be hard to discard, especially during one of the last weeks at school. I’m not sure that even Bill and Jill can do it.

Margot Ford McMillen farms and teaches English at a college in Fulton, Mo. Email:

From The Progressive Populist, April 15, 2009

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