In the corner of the living room is a television. There is another one in the master  bedroom, a small one in the kitchen and one in each of the children’s bedrooms. This is probably typical of many family houses in Britain.  The television has taken over and yet, one might argue, it constitutes one of our most serious public health hazards.    


That’s a bit strong, you might think.  Surely, television is one of the wonders of the age.  At the touch of a button, it keeps us informed what is happening throughout the world twenty four hours a day.  It provides a rich choice of drama and entertainment without ever leaving our armchair. It allows us to watch major sporting events whenever and wherever they are taking place.  It provides information and commentary on every conceivable topic. It instructs us how to cook, how to decorate our homes, how to create the most interesting and productive gardens. 


Ownership of television sets did not really start to escalate in Britain until the 1960s. Since then, there has been a progressive increase in emotional illness and those physical conditions that have no obvious medical physical explanation.  The same association is seen throughout the world.  For example,  disordered eating was almost unknown in Fiji before the introduction of western television.  Within a few years, dieting and self induced vomiting had become commonplace among young Fijian women.  The same association was observed in  Czechoslovakia and the Republic of Georgia.  And tellingly, the close knit Amish community, that forbids the use of television in their houses, has been spared the depression epidemic. But association does not constitute proof.  It is not possible to isolate ownership of television sets from other fundamental changes in society, such as the decline in ‘community’, the increase in social isolation and rise in single parent families.        


Anxiety, depression and bodily illnesses that have no obvious physical cause are due, at least in part to difficult life situations and traumatic events that people cannot resolve.  The resultant tensions remain in the body where they tighten the muscles, raises the blood pressure, alters the activity of the immune system, increase sensitivity, wrench the gut out of kilter and generally exhaust and demoralize us.  The reason these illnesses have been getting more common are, I believe, the result of a combination of culture shock caused by changing social attitudes towards entitlement and narcissism and a decline in community and social interaction. This has created new social dilemmas, which are increasingly difficult to resolve without lasting shame and guilt. (See ‘Shameful acts, guilty secrets and enduring sickness; a moral for our times’ – August 7th, 2008).  


Television is also the most pervasive influence on how we feel and react to situations.   In a society where there is an erosion of the authority of our institutions and a decline in social interaction, it is television that directs attitudes and sets standards of social behaviour.  Soap operas, the most popular television programmes, are scripted to deal with modern dilemmas.  They encourage us  to seek fun rather than act responsibly,  to confront rather than negotiate, to protest rather than understand, to demand our rights rather find ways of living together,  and to fret about minor issues rather than view things in perspective.  Such programmes reinforce  the distorted perceptions of a narcissistic society,  in which image and self actuation take priority over community values.         


News programmes bring the dramatic intensity of disasters anywhere in the world right into our living rooms.  There is rarely any good news.   Television journalists are not paid to inform, instruct and reassure,  but to excite and arouse us.  So while distant events like the invasion of Georgia by Russian troops may not generate a deep personal grief reaction, they stir up the topsoil of insecurity,  which cannot but fail to make the lonely and vulnerable feel anxious and unwell. Vicarious exposure to emotional trauma upsets us, but does not allow us to engage with it, resolve our emotions,  learn from it and grow.

Quiz shows,  reality programmes  and advertisements seduce us into believing  we can all be famous and live in a fantasy land of happiness and comfort.  But fame and affluence are ephemeral; they can be easily snatched away,  leaving us with nothing.   With such an unreliable world, how can we build up a healthy sense of confidence and trust?   


But surely, we don’t have to be affected by what we see on television.   That’s true,  but television is a hypnotic medium.  Audiences peak in the early evening when we have finished the days work, eaten an evening meal, perhaps had a drink or two and are settled in an armchair.   This relaxed but focused state of mind is highly receptive to evocative images.   They influence the way we feel and think,  directing our attitudes, conditioning our beliefs,  creating aspirations,  destroying reputations,  determining fashion and setting trends.   It is not the rhetoric of our politicians that convinces us to vote in a particular way,  but the way the television commentators  interpret what they say.   It is not the quality of a new product that makes us buy it,  it is advertiser’s skill in persuading us that we need it.  And it is not always our physical symptoms that make us go to the doctor, but the fears of what the documentaries on health tell us it might be. Every day, we hear of some new threat to our health, creating another worry that we cannot resolve.     


We resolve our tensions by thinking, reflecting and talking to other people.  Television induces passive involvement rather than resolution, it erodes time and space for reflection and it has facilitated a loss of community. Beamed into our homes 24 hours a day, television occupies the time we might communicate productively with others.  People go out much less than they used to.


So if television does not actually cause illness, it makes it more likely by  encouraging the behaviour that creates complex moral dilemmas while reducing opportunities for resolution. 


Finally and perhaps most important, television is watched more by children than their parents.  In Britain children watch at least 3 hours television every day and many teenagers spend more time alone in front of their television and play station than with family and friends. This is not so much a training for life as an escape into fantasy.  Deprived of normal social interaction, such children may grow up unable to deal with the complex emotional dilemmas of modern life without becoming ill.