Jul 24, 2008

Lifestyle - A drug named television

Television viewing has become the Indian drug of choice. As the drug suppliers, offering more and more channels and inane programmes to fill them, celebrate the mass addiction, cautionary voices warning of the dangers tend to be lost in the self-congratulatory cacophony of the pushers and users. Over the last two decades, studies from many parts of the world have established the harmful consequences of television viewing. They find little mention in our popular discourse although their validity is no less than of studies which link smoking to serious health problems. I am not even talking of the psychological impact of the content of television programmes. For instance, the relation between violence shown on television and the increase of actual violence is now clear cut. Only someone who is ignorant of facts can continue to doubt that television increases the propensity to violence. What one refers to as the harmful consequences of this recreational drug relates not to what is shown on television but to the mere fact of television consumption. For instance, we read alarming reports of obesity among middle-class Indian children and youth. Studies from other parts of the world have conclusively linked the increase in obesity to rise in television viewing. Take the example of China. In 1997, when less than 8 per cent of Chinese children watched TV for more than two hours, there was no relation between television consumption and body weight. Less than three years later, with a striking increase in television sales and in hours of viewing, there was a clear relationship between television consumption and obesity. In absolute numbers, there are more obese children in China today than in the United States. We are not far behind, if we haven't already caught up with the leaders in this particular race. The mechanisms that establish the relationship between television viewing and obesity are well known. A couch potato by definition expends very little energy. In fact, the energy used in watching television is less than in any other human activity. Even doing nothing uses up more calories than watching television. Unless, of course, one is continuously surfing channels, an activity highly recommended for those who are unable to rid themselves of the addiction. The second mechanism that links television to obesity is the change in eating habits. The role model effect on children of actors endorsing high calorie products, like colas by Aamir Khan and Akshay Kumar, or potato chips by Saif Ali Khan, and chocolates by Amitabh Bachchan, cannot be underestimated. But even without these role models, an increased consumption of sweets, salted snacks and artificially sweetened drinks, the bhajias and chiwadas, and less intake of vegetables and fruits by children and young people is significantly related to the amount spent in front of the television. Moreover, children in whose homes television is on at meal times eat more than those where the set is switched off. If a government watchdog for the media is at all needed, then television should perhaps be shifted from the purview of the information and broadcasting ministry to the health ministry, even at the risk of taking our chances with Anbumani Ramadoss. We Indians, who traditionally tend to equate being overweight with being "healthy", may not be unduly alarmed by the studies linking obesity to TV consumption. But with our deep commitment to the education of our children and our obsession with their academic achievement, we will perhaps sit up and take particular notice of some other studies. These explode the myth that all the information that television spews out will make a child grow up as a more aware, thinking adult. Long-term studies in other countries demonstrate that television viewing is negatively related to academic achievement. Television consumption of a child between five and 15 years of age influences the academic level he or she is likely to achieve as a 26-year-old adult. This finding, too, should not surprise us. Television is not like ancient Greek or Indian theatre where the engagement of the public was intense and profound. Thinking about good and evil were the most important tasks of Greek theatre and its dramas were thought of as an aid to introspection. Television is more akin to the circus of the Romans. More than 90 per cent of television programming is entertainment. It is a culture of spectacle, where the viewer is a passive participant. At the height of the Roman Empire, Italian psychologist Luigi Zoja tells us, when there were 200 holidays in the year, the populace spent whole days at the Colosseum, watching spectacles that stimulated emotions but were intended to diminish thought. The equivalent of the Roman Colosseum of yore in contemporary India is the TV set in each household; the Roman gladiators have been replaced by IPL cricket warriors. I confess to watching all IPL matches that were not affected by the frequent power breakdowns in my Goa village. I put on three pounds of weight. I luckily no longer aspire to any academic achievement.

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