Tune Out and Turn On!
Another Thursday night gone, I sighed, as I collapsed into bed. My husband Keith came in, wanting to talk, but I brushed him off to be alone with my melancholy thoughts. Frustrated, Keith huffed out of the room.
How insensitive! I thought. Just like last Thursday, and the Thursday before that…
And that’s when it hit me. We had this same routine every Thursday night not because Keith was insensitive, but because I was depressed. And the culprit was easy to find: ER. I loved that show, but boy did it wreak havoc with my emotions!
A few weeks later I started a new chapter in my life. For a past soap and Oprah-holic, it was a radical departure. I stopped watching television. I started playing with my kids, finding new hobbies, making new friends, and nurturing my marriage. In so doing, I discovered my life and my family, perhaps for the first time.
April 21-27 has been designated TV Turnoff Week, when around the country families will turn off the television, pull out the Monopoly games and the roller blades, and enjoy being with each other. If you’ve had the nagging feeling that the TV is on in your house far more than it needs to be, here’s your chance to experience what it would be like to live without it. And if you do, here’s what you’re likely to find:
TV Steals Our Time
I learned long ago that gravity is heaviest on the couch that’s right in front of the TV. Once you start watching, it’s so hard to get up. Neilsen Media Research reports that the average American watches four hours of television of day. That equals five full days a month, two months a year, and nine solid years by the time you reach 65.
Janice feels like her husband is well on his way to that nine years. When Tom comes home from work, he immediately flicks on the TV, yet never manages to flick it back off. For Janice, who always dreamed of a television-free home, Tom’s viewing habits came as a shock. They went from dating before the wedding to hardly talking afterwards. "He doesn’t even want to eat dinner together," she reports. "He’ll take his food and eat it in front of the television. I know he loves me, but we have no time to build our relationship." In the early days of their marriage, Janice tried to convince him to tune out, but these discussions usually progressed to fights. She’s now realized she can’t change him, but she longs for the intimacy she believes they are missing.
It’s an intimacy Brenda and her husband Jack have only recently found. For this couple, watching TV allowed them to spend the entire night together without ever having to discuss anything touchy. It was the perfect tool for avoidance. As their marriage deteriorated, Brenda and Jack realized they needed to make a radical break to save their marriage. Though they recoiled at the thought of losing their security blanket, their initial dread soon turned to joy as they discovered the richness their newfound friendship could bring. Instead of watching other people have relationships, they finally have one themselves.
TV Invades our Minds
Watching television certainly hinders our efforts to build relationships, but its effects don’t stop there. It can even start to affect our attitudes. While ER woke me up to the effects television was having on my mood, the final straw came one night when my husband and I were watching Friends. Here was a show about people our age who were substituting sex for commitment and ruining their lives in the process. Yet instead of being shocked or saddened, we were laughing! Slowly, insidiously, the world’s values were affecting ours. Something had to change.
The words of Philippians 4 kept running through my mind: whatever is pure, whatever is lovely…think about such things. The Christian life is a battle for the mind—and when the TV was on, it was one I was all too often losing. Advertisers spend $40 billion a year because they believe they can make influence our buying decisions. If TV can make us buy a certain brand of toothpaste, can’t it also loosen our convictions about sin?
Perhaps nowhere is TV’s influence as dangerous as it is in the area of sexual fantasy. When pictures get into our head, they’re extraordinarily difficult to extricate. Men, who tend to be visually stimulated, fall particularly prey to this problem. Image after image shows women with perfect bodies, often in various states of undress. Instead of "delighting in the wife of your youth", as Solomon exhorts us, a man may wish his wife better resembled Pamela Lee Anderson!
TV Affects our Expectations
Not only can TV affect our fantasy life, it can also affect our expectations about our spouses. In 1999, The National Fatherhood Initiative announced that "few fathers are to be found on prime time television and those that are, usually are portrayed as incompetent or detached." The typical TV father resembles Homer Simpson, a jolly buffoon who may mean well, but who constantly requires his wife and kids to bail him out of scrapes. Watching the way fathers are depicted on TV can make us more inclined to look for the negative in our own husbands.
Other shows highlight our husbands’ inadequacies by going to the opposite extreme: men on soap operas constantly bring flowers and chocolates while they hang on to their beloved’s every word. Brenda found that she often lived vicariously through these soap opera women, wishing her own husband would be that romantic. When she gave up TV, though, she discovered to her surprise that things Jack did stopped bothering her. She stopped waiting for him to live up to an impossible ideal, and enjoyed him for who he was.
TV’s depiction of women can be equally harmful to our relationships. Women on TV rarely concern themselves with the mundane things that take up so much of our time, like cleaning, laundry or errands. Instead, TV women are energetic and competent, juggling everything without getting a hair out of place. None of this tires them out, either, for at night they tend to be eager sexual partners, regardless of the state of the relationship. Men watching this are liable to find their own wives inexplicably unaffectionate and petty in comparison.
It’s these unrealistic expectations that worry Denise MacDonald, a Marriage and Family Therapist from Ontario. "If you get your information about relationships from TV, you’re going to think there’s something inadequate about yours," she says. Since such subjects are rarely discussed honestly among friends, the only window many of us have into how "everyone else" handles relationship and sexual issues is TV. What a disappointment when our spouses don’t live up to this elusive "norm".
Television Steals our Kids
Our marriages, though, are not the only things television jeopardizes; our children’s values hang just as much in the balance. When the television is left on, it’s easy for children to see things inadvertently that we would never dream of exposing them to otherwise. As kids grow older, the content they’re exposed to is even scarier. Many shows, like Dawson's Creek or Buffy the Vampire Slayer, treat teen sex as normal, giving the impression that "everyone is doing it", even though more than 50% of teenagers are now virgins upon graduation. Despite how influential TV has the potential to be in our kids’ lives, though, most of us have no idea what our kids are actually watching. Today, 56% of children over 8 have televisions in their rooms, and 95% watch television without us. If we want our kids to be less influenced by television, we’ll have to set some rules. But more importantly, we’ll have to set an example.
Reducing our TV time is a worthwhile endeavor in so many ways, but it’s certainly not easy to do. Tonight at Brenda and Jack’s house, though, the TV will be off, while the family plays a game, goes for a walk, or just talks. Janice just prays for such a transformation in her own home. For some families, that transformation can begin by taking the small step of turning off for just one week. As 8-year-old Drew Henderson found, "I didn’t really like TV Turnoff Week, except I did notice that my grades went up and I was in a good mood all week." We, too, might be pleasantly surprised by the changes we’d find if we switched off, looked around us, and started enjoying our families again.