Life Unplugged: Why I live without a TV

“Really, you don't have a TV? You don't watch TV out of principle?

by Wilfred Clifton - 29 November 2015

Life unplugged - why I live without a TV - illustration

The young phone salesman trying to sell me a cable subscription could barely believe his ears. His initial shock soon gave way to curiosity, and instead of trying to sell me a ticket to daily technicolor bliss, we ended up talking for almost half an hour about the downsides of TV. Finally, he had to hang up when the boss at the call center started giving him ugly looks.

So how did I end up with a lifestyle that in one respect is radically different from that of the majority of the population?

I was privileged to grow up in a household without TV, and it wasn’t until I was twelve years old that my parents bought a TV set. As a young adult, I discovered that I had become disillusioned with television and what it represented. I found programming on TV to be shallow, even annoying. At first I merely stopped watching what I thought of as trivial programming; series, movies, and sports. I did, however, continue to watch news and documentaries for some time. This continued until it dawned on me that the difference between “serious” programming and entertainment was less than I initially believed. TV news and documentaries also use the theatrical tricks of the trade that we see elsewhere in TV entertainment. Even newscasts use dramatic footage combined with music to set the mood; they rely on flashy animation and a sensational style of reporting designed to grab our attention. I realized that the newspapers I read were less biased and sensational, which meant that “keeping up with the news” was a poor reason to continue watching TV.

Finally, I decided to go cold turkey, to quit watching television altogether, and I’ve never had regrets. I found that giving up TV was both easy and hard at the same time. On the one hand, I had made up my mind, and once I discovered that living without TV was something of a relief, I had no inclination to go back to my old habits. On the other hand, I soon discovered that watching television is a central pastime of most people. It has a prominent place in many social contexts and often people expect you to join them in front of the TV box.

Not only do people assume that other people are as fond of television as they are, but once they find out that TV isn’t a part of your life, they’ll often call you out in order to learn all about the whys and wherefores.

At least, that’s what happened to me. A friend of mine challenged me about why I didn’t watch TV. After discussing this with him, I found that I had rather vague ideas about why I had rejected television in its entirety. At that point, I had picked up some bullet points from articles I had read in the past, but I felt the need to get more information about the topic. I decided to borrow a couple of books from the library, and I started with Jerry Mander’s passionate classic, Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television. The second book I read was a scholarly report about the immediate psychological effects that watching television has on us, largely based on a groundbreaking study conducted by the authors themselves. In addition to the book, titled Television and the Quality of Life: How Viewing Shapes Everyday Experience, the authors wrote an influential article published in Scientific American, which is how I first learned about their work.

While doing my research, I learned that there is a link between watching TV and a range of negative effects, the diversity of which is truly astonishing.

Why TV isn’t good for us

Perhaps you already knew that the link between media violence and aggression is now uncontroversial among media researchers. You might also be aware of the association between heavy TV consumption and obesity. But did you know that kids who watch too much television as toddlers score lower in reading comprehension when they are older?1 Or that a longitudinal study demonstrated that there is an association between watching a significant amount of TV as a child and dropping out of school, even when you adjust for social factors and intelligence?2 Did you know that there is a link between excessive screen time and depression, and that this link is seen in adults as well as in children?34. As a side note, these are strong reasons why parents shouldn’t use the TV set to pacify their children.

Reading this literature proved to be the beginning of a journey that has induced me to read countless books, articles, and scientific studies about the subject. I became convinced that watching TV has a detrimental effect on our society at large, as well as on our individual lives. It’s been well over a decade since I quit watching TV, and I can testify to the fact that there is no substantial reason to keep TV as a part of our lives.

Reclaiming our lives

Although people who choose to live without TV are still a minority, surprisingly many of those whom I’ve spoken to about this seem to have an intuitive understanding of the issues at hand. After learning that I don’t watch TV, people have given me comments such as “it certainly seems as if you’ve removed a lot of noise from your life”, and “what you’re saying about TV is true”. From their own experiences, people know that television is strangely mesmerizing, even addictive. Many also detest the light-hearted populism that seems to be the norm in mainstream programming.

While a completely TV-free lifestyle without a doubt is regarded as a radical choice by many people, a large proportion agrees with the idea that TV has many negative effects on us as individuals, as well as on society at large. In response, some people try to limit their viewing to a few preselected programs. While it certainly is commendable that people realize that unlimited television is harmful, many find that their viewing tends to slip out of control given the addictive properties of the medium.

However, few dare to unplug the drug for good and free themselves from the influence of the house altar. Watching TV is more than a pastime; sitting down together in front of the box has become an ingrained social ritual. Many people secretly fear being alienated from friends and family if they go TV-free. However, few will have regrets once they experience what a no-TV life has to offer, and their fears of unpleasant confrontations are in most cases overblown. With the exception of elderly people, most have grown up with a TV in their homes and are ignorant of what it’s really like to live without TV as a part of their daily lives. Some of us have lived without television for many years, and if our choice was a disadvantage, it seems that we would have discovered it by now. Instead, I tend to think that being TV-free is a privilege in our media-saturated society; it is a choice that hands down feels liberating and empowering.

Unplugging the TV set means you have more time for all the things you complain about never getting around to doing. Depending on which studies you consult, the average adult watches between 3-5 hours a day, and kids and the elderly watch somewhat more. By removing TV from their lives, people have discovered that they have more time for things that undoubtedly are more rewarding than the passive entertainment television has to offer.

We’ve got nothing to lose

The extra time you earn by not having a TV can be used to learn a musical instrument or take a language course. When TV doesn’t occupy the best part of the evening, you have time to take up hobbies such as painting, woodworking or computer programming. Or, if you need to unwind and relax, you can snuggle into your couch with a blanket, a hot cup of tea and a good book. Perhaps you get to experience that elusive quality time with persons who mean a lot to you. Elderly people who have experienced life before TV often lament how people no longer pay random visits to friends and family. It’s not far-fetched to claim that the introduction of TV into virtually every household is an important reason why we’ve become less inclined to pay unannounced visits to family and friends. Television has thus contributed to a society in which many find themselves socially deprived; they are filling this gap with the familiar faces of movie stars and celebrities.

Unplugging is more than a mere lifestyle choice; it is essentially a way of reclaiming something that has been stolen from us. True, getting rid of our televisions is no magic pill for all of our problems, but there is no doubt in my mind that going TV-free is something that benefits us in the long run.