Tyrrell: Your brilliant but shocking book Remotely Controlled has put television in the dock. It brought home to me that the scientific jury is back in and the verdict is that TV is one of the greatest dangers to mental and physical health imaginable. Over a period of 14 years, we have been publishing in this journal material we’ve come by about the harmful effects of television. But, in your book, you have unearthed and pieced together in one place, for the first time, the diverse mass of research that supports that view. What started you on this quest?
Sigman: The catalyst for me was travel. I was always keen on going to cultures that have been sealed off from modern media, particularly Western media – places with few televisions. As a psychologist, I wanted to see what life is like when it isn’t influenced by our culture and, more importantly, when it isn’t influenced by images seen on a television screen. Some of the best cultures in which to do this are military dictatorships. You end up with a guinea-pig population that we don’t have access to here: a control group. I went to Tonga, Timbuktu, Bolivia and other places and saw cultures as they were, either before television had arrived or just as television had arrived but before Western television images took hold, and that is why I was able to see what happens.
American television dominates international TV and even local programme makers soon begin to copy the American style of programming, so rapid changes are evident within a year – for example, in body language. The way people in foreign countries walk is rapidly transformed into a funky shuffle, the kind of shuffle that British boys exhibit on the streets now, with their baseball caps and American-style body language. This is not indigenous or natural. Previously, such changes would occur slowly, through interaction with real people from different countries. Americans, for example, would land on foreign shores with either guns or goods to trade and would influence people that way. British people, or people from Timbuktu, for that matter, would go to Los Angeles and pick up the funky shuffle and breakdancing from seeing real, live Americans doing it, and vice versa. But now flimsy electronic images are creating phenomenal body language changes overnight.
When I spotted this, I was shocked at how quickly it happens. I became suspicious about why television has eluded the type of scrutiny that it should be given, not only as a cultural force but also as a health force. In the various countries I have visited, I asked policemen and teachers and health officials about the arrival of television and what changes they had noticed since. I consistently heard about an increase in aggression and the change in people’s view of their self-worth. I heard how girls started hating their body shape and began dieting almost instantly and using strong chemicals to lighten their skin, because they thought their own skin colour was ugly, or having cosmetic surgery to make themselves look like Westerners. Epidemiological research shows that murder rates have doubled within 15 years of the introduction of TV in every community studied. I am utterly convinced that those studies are correct. In many countries I’ve been to, I was told that TV had caused an explosion in crime rates of all sorts, not just greed and robbery but also gratuitous violence and disrespect.
Tyrrell: In your book, you also describe medical research showing an enormous array of problems that can be attributed to television.
Sigman: Yes. I came across a number of medical studies and I thought to myself, “Why aren’t these findings appearing on the front pages of our newspapers, and why don’t my colleagues in psychology know about this?” Most psychologists are under the impression that television, particularly educational television, is an enormous benefit to children. They have no apprehension of the harmful effects of the medium itself nor of the amount of time children spend watching it, nor that there may be a differential effect according to the age at which children are exposed. This concept seems unknown to educational psychologists I meet, and to psychologists in general – just as it was to me, I should say, before I started to travel and before I had four children and began to see the effects of television on them.
So I thought it would be worthwhile doing a medical research review of disparate areas of medicine and other sciences that are usually unrelated. Scientists nowadays tend to work in specific areas because that is the way the research market has gone. And we often don’t communicate with one another – there are so many publications that it is often difficult to ‘join up all the dots’.
So that’s what I decided to do, and a pattern emerged connecting watching television to a whole range of health and behaviour problems. There are so many that I don’t have time to tell you them all. The problems seem to magnify the more television people watch, irrespective of what kind of television programmes they see. It was this that made me suspicious about television’s power, irrespective of programme content.
Sigman: Well, first of all, your observation that attention is something valuable has been borne out in the financial world. Financial academia now has a field called ‘attention economy’, where access to attention, how much people pay to gain someone’s attention, can be quantified. At Harvard University Business School, it is a formal field. Economists have a great deal of respect for attention and value it highly.
Tyrrell: I wish others did!
Sigman: Most people, including academics, take it for granted. It is not widely realised just how much television damages our attention mechanism, particularly during the formative years. The ability to pay attention is necessary for experiencing life. It is a prerequisite for introspection, as anybody who has tried to meditate knows – it is difficult, for example, to turn inward and pay attention to the rhythm of your breathing for any length of time. Giving attention is a prerequisite to having a relationship; to enjoy sex, you have to turn inward and pay attention to bodily sensations. And for children to learn through reading, or from a teacher, or from their peers, they must, of course, pay attention. Listen- ing attentively is an essential for learning.
I can’t even put into words how important this is. Attention is the lens through which we view life. Before we can talk about anything else, about memories, about emotional reactions, about consciousness, we attend to things. We have to, before we can respond to them, encode them and turn them into memories. So, if our ability to give attention is being compromised by anything, it means the quality and richness of our life and our ability to live well are also compromised.
Tyrrell: And neuroscience is revealing this?
Sigman: Yes, it is. The big concern among some scientists at the moment is that, during a child’s formative years, the ability to give attention is developing. We can now see neurological attention circuits as they grow in a child’s brain. In particular, there is a neurotransmitter called dopamine that responds to novelty. It evolved because, when we see something new, it is important we attend to it. We need to gauge whether it is a threat or not, or whether it is something we should pursue. And that can be just as much pursuing a line of thought as chasing after something tangible, such as food. Television misappropriates that natural biological response: be- cause it provides constant novelty and changing landscapes, it mimics a real changing environ- ment, but a massively condensed one, and pro- duces a novelty response over and over and over again. Probably more novelty responses are fired off by watching a day of television than our caveman ancestors experienced in an entire life!
Tyrrell: This must be putting the developmental attention systems of children under enormous pressure.
Sigman: It is and it seems to corrupt them. This may sound simplistic but the medical and scientific evidence is now compelling; something is going very wrong, particularly during the early developmental years of children.
Tyrrell: Do you mean the steep rise in childhood attention disorders, depression, etc?
Sigman: That’s right. Children’s brains are highly malleable and, in the early years, the degree of plasticity is at its greatest. And it is just at this time that they are being exposed to something that is completely new and unprecedented in our history, something that provides unrivalled ‘rewards’ for paying attention: television! Particularly concerning are the speed of changes on the screen, the amount of novelty and the degree of stimulation. It is not just the speed of editing but the colour changes, noises, sound effects and stereophony – the 3D effects of sound and vision. All this is new. There is even a new field called ‘immersive television’, where psychologists and technicians are developing technologies to make people feel they are physically present in the scene that they are watching.
These technologies are creating brain changes that will have long-lasting effects. Young children’s brains are being exposed to stimuli that our species hasn’t been exposed to before. What I hear in response to this from television producers is, “Hey, we live in a speeded-up society, so children have to adapt”. But, of course, when a child is born, its brain is essentially the same as that of a child born 100, or 2000 years ago. You can’t just say, “Get with it, baby, society has speeded up, so your brain has to adapt!” We have to provide at least a buffer zone of several years for the child’s brain to adapt to and take in the real world first. That way, the brain’s plasticity is protected to some degree before being exposed to too much novelty.
Tyrrell: We know that, if children do not spend a lot of time looking at their mothers, listening and talking and playing with other children, the rate of brain growth, proper development of frontal lobes, language development, empathy, socialisation and so on are all affected. Children who have missed out on these necessary inputs find it harder, as adults, to delay gratification, build good relationships and to develop an independence of mind.
Sigman: Absolutely. I’ve calculated that the average child now has more eye contact with television characters than with their own parents. By the time children in the UK are six years old, they will have spent the equivalent of a full year, 24 hours a day, in front of a television screen.
Tyrrell: That is such a terrifying thought because, although many parents still do ensure that their children interact a lot with adults and other children, an increasing number don’t anymore. It seems to me that the problem for us all is that anything that gives pleasure can become addictive and we are almost all of us addicted to the telly – so this profound change in human behaviour is barely thought about.
Sigman: Yes. If we were talking about passive smoking or exposure to some other danger, it would be the subject of great scrutiny by health authorities and government. There are political reasons why television hasn’t been subject to this kind of analysis but my main concern about television is the nature of the medium. What the industry and public have concerned themselves with is the content of television, and those are valid concerns. The immoral values displayed on television, the ultra-thin female role models, the violence, the obscenity, the devaluing of decent behaviour – all those are important. But, beyond that, what has eluded scrutiny has been the medium itself, because that is really too dangerous for politicians and the industry to face up to. Asking fundamental questions about an activity that, in the Western world, is just about to over- take the amount of time we spend sleeping is just too unsettling for most people. Nevertheless, that is what scientists are doing: questioning the medium itself.
Constantly watching quickly changing images does something to the way our brains function. A major study of 2500 children looked at how much television they were exposed to at the ages of one and three and compared this with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) symptoms by the time they were seven. There was a nine per cent increase in the likelihood of developing ADHD symptoms with every hour of television children watched in a day. What is important to point out is that, although ADHD is the most famous label in attention pathology, there are many different forms of attentional damage. Research using brain scans is now showing that different parts of the brain deal with different sorts of attention, and, as a result, different sorts of brain damage may affect different sorts of attention.
Tyrrell: So we don’t just have a basic orientation response – an electrical signal that fires to alert us to something different happening in our environment?
Sigman: No. I remember that, when I was studying attention, I was dazzled by the fact that the basic categories fell into selective attention, sustained attention, divided attention and so on, and that new categories of attention were continuing to be developed. What scientists are trying to do is to apply labels to something that is so nuanced that it defies labelling in many respects. What that implies for our discussion of television is that the damage it exacts upon children goes far beyond ADHD. It is likely to cause forms of attentional damage that we do not yet have names for, because we don’t even have names for all the different forms of attention. If we were talking about sun tanning and skin cancer, we would be keen to prevent our children from being exposed until we knew more about it. So, in this case, too, our health authorities should say, “Let’s pause for thought. There is nothing to be lost by keeping all children under three away from television, but possibly a lot to be lost if they continue to watch as much as they currently do.”
Tyrrell: It’s strange that there has been no fuss made in this country, yet.
Sigman: In the United States, it has been standard advice from paediatricians and from the American Academy of Pediatrics for some time now: no television at all prior to the age of two and an absolute maximum of an hour a day from 3–11 years old. There is something about the importance of our children being exposed to many hours of television that our society doesn’t want to face up to – as if children could be damaged if they were not exposed to as much television as they enjoy. This is very insidious and I think we should make an enormous fuss about it. We should ask, “What are the motivations of the scientists, politicians and academics who think we should view with caution the idea that children should be protected from television for the first few years?”
Tyrrell: The examples in your book of the BBC putting up ‘experts’ against these scientifically sound findings are very telling. The ‘experts’, when you actually found out who they were, turned out to be people who run media studies courses or are employees of the BBC! They are quoted as if their opinions are on a par with the findings of scientific studies. But this corrupt behaviour isn’t regarded as scandalous in our postmodernist age, where every point of view is trumpeted as equally relevant.
Sigman: Absolutely. Think what an uproar there would be, now that we have found out that junk food in schools is not a good thing, if we had the heads of Burger King, McDonald’s and KFC sitting on an investigation panel looking into the topic. Everyone would laugh and say, “This lacks objectivity! There’s a bias here!” But, with television, strangely, the only people invited to comment about the circus are in the circus! They are either the people who make programmes or are in ‘media studies’, doing research linked to the industry. Moreover, schools are given huge discounts on computers and televisions and an enormous part of the software industry depends upon the education establishment. So psychologists and educationists are being corrupted in just the way that food scientists were, and tobacco scientists were before that, but we don’t quite see it that way yet.
Tyrrell: Most television programme makers today were themselves brought up with television – and, interestingly, they appear to suffer from attention-deficit problems themselves. The writer A A Gill, when reviewing BBC 1’s Bleak House for the Sunday Times, actually made the comment that it was using “attention-deficit camerawork ... a constant fidget. The editing makes it feel as though we are constantly being driven over speed bumps.” And he called this trend “a plague”. There’s no reliance on the content of the story at all, just stimulating attention with ‘in your face’ fast cuts, quick edits, spinning shots, jerkiness and so on. So the story, whatever it is, is made secondary to firing the viewer’s attention response. And this painfully fast, jumpy, incoherent editing is done in documentaries too – I’ve seen it in gardening programmes! They are almost impossible for a normal brain to watch.
It reveals, I think, terrible addiction problems among programme makers and the audiences who can take it. Just as a drug addict has to take more and more of an addictive substance to get an effect, whilst thinking that it’s exciting and ‘real’, so these people need more and more of this kind of television. Clearly, many programme makers are catering for people like themselves: addicts whose attention capacity has been damaged. It is like allowing a drug dealer into every home. If your orientation response is almost constantly being fired, you cannot reflect, you cannot think, you cannot go inward to consider a point and absorb it. TV could damage our brains to such an extent that the human race might never produce philosophers again.
Sigman: I think you are absolutely right. In a real, concrete sense we are pushing biological limits with TV in ways that our biology simply cannot handle. I mention, in Remotely Controlled, a National Opinion Poll survey carried out in 22 countries in 2005: Britain reads the fewest books and watches the most television. And, in many ways, that symbolises what happens when we are exposed to the ‘flavour enhancer’, the monosodium glutamate of the audiovisual world: it spoils our ability to appreciate real ‘food’. If we watch the type of television that we’re being exposed to now, at the level we’re watching it, which is on average at least four hours a day, plus, of course, DVDs and computer screen time—
Tyrrell: —and playing computer games.
Sigman: Yes. This is bound to change our ability to turn inward and pay attention to things that are not virtual but real. We are told by media people that we can do both of these things, that we can watch lots of fast editing and highly stimulating electronic media and, at another time, meditate, read, introspect and reflect. But this is not true. There are biological realities involving dopamine and precise neurological processes that are diametrically opposed to what our brains are being conditioned to do. Just because it is subtle, and involves such things as introspection and reflection, does not mean that biological damage is not being done by TV: damage that will ultimately cause psychological, sociological and further biological damage.
Tyrrell: Ultimately? I think it already has! There are huge increases in behavioural problems, attention disorders, language development problems, anxiety, depression, addiction, and so on, in our schools. We are materially rich but our mental health is worsening, yearly. Television must be one of the biggest causative factors because it is from television that people get their expectations, and expectations are what cause anxiety, depression and so on. When people have worrying expectations, they get depressed.
Tyrrell: Something that surprised me was the research that demonstrated the speed with which people become highly suggestible after switching on TV. We lose our critical faculties within half a minute!
Sigman: I suspect that advertisers know this. In the US, when the American Superbowl, which is the equivalent of the Cup Final over here, is televised, the going rate for advertising is about $5 million for a 58-second advertisement. That doesn’t count the cost of production; that’s just to buy airtime – so you’re talking millions of dollars for a 58-second slot to sell you frozen peas or a particular four-wheel drive car. Advertisers are not stupid. You might not like them, but they’re intelligent. They wouldn’t spend that money unless they knew we routinely absorb information from TV uncritically.
So the question is, why do we absorb material from TV uncritically? Why doesn’t this occur in the same way when we read the same information? The answer is that something else happens neurologically when we see the information presented on TV. It is no accident that, whenever there is a coup d’etat anywhere in the world, the first port of call for the tanks is usually the television station, because people taking over want to make us understand and believe that there has been a takeover.
Tyrrell: Yes, when the military take over a country, the troops don’t rush to take over the local library!
Sigman: The very good reason they pull up in front of television stations is to have access to the best public brainwashing device ever invented. And, given television’s potency, when you look at the vast array of neurophysiological and clinical medical evidence accrued about the effects of the medium of television – its form, not even its content – a picture quickly emerges of a major biological health issue. I’ve joined up the dots and found that there is an enormous health risk, particularly to children, ranging from raised cholesterol levels to attention damage, to obesity to type-2 diabetes and glucose metabolism, and then to declining mental health, as manifested in ADHD, depression and so on.
Tyrrell: So, watching television excessively makes us unhealthy, unhappy and more violent – and this at a time when we are the fourth richest country on Earth?
Sigman: Indeed. We’ve never been so rich. People have never had so much easy credit, freedom and choice in every respect. Historically, in terms of sexual behaviours, consumer products, services, entertainment, travel, we have unprecedented choices now. Yet we’ve never been so miserable; we have the highest suicide rates worldwide since records began. Why? I think that television is the prime suspect because it is hypnotic and changes the way we think and behave by the very way it delivers information. Most of the argument over the last four decades has raged around the content of television programmes, not the form.
Tyrrell: And because TV focuses our attention and thus hypnotises us, we are highly suggestible and easy to influence when we are viewing, and so whatever we see on TV is highly influential. You make a telling point about conflict as the main subject matter of drama, soap operas and TV ‘reality’ programmes. People are hypnotised into believing that relationships are about shouting and screaming, having affairs and lying and deceit, and that this is normal. In pre-TV days you might have seen a Shakespeare play once a year, if you were lucky, but now, every day, we have hours of intense drama in our homes – this falsification of relationships and sentimentality thrust at us over and over again. It has to affect our moral behaviour, stimulate greed, create unrealistic expectations and change our personal behaviour.
Sigman: That is the case. A real problem with television is the sheer volume of negative behaviours which television exposes us to. Over thousands of years, families and societies evolved to think of certain behaviours as somewhat taboo or self-indulgent or selfish or anti- social. And this discipline held communities together. Nowadays, every day on TV, one can see extreme sneering, violent or anti-social behaviour in dramas and documentaries. Infidelity, selfishness, attention seeking and other awful behaviours frequently appear as entertainment and as an integral part of programme making.
Tyrrell: And this spills over into real life and affects our behaviour as surely as any post-hypnotic suggestion would?
Sigman: I think so. The problem is that, when we are exposed to such things for, on average, 28 hours a week – 13 years in an average lifetime – that amount of exposure normalises what would once have been unacceptable. So, unlike seeing an occasional Shakespeare play, now people are exposed frequently to emotional drama in many different contexts. Even short adverts dramatically manipulate our emotions. TV is infinitely more pervasive. Also unlike in plays on a stage, television technology enables you physically to connect with characters on the screen because you can see into their eyes in ways you never would with stage actors. The harmonics of their voices are recorded for TV with just the right kind of microphones and compressors and equalisers, so what is brought to you are biological triggers; the facial twitches, the subtleties and nuances of human faces and voices. When we watch television and see just the flicker of the white of an eye, it profoundly affects our brain function. We are totally involved and emotionally affected by that degree of intimacy with actors’ and actresses’ faces and speech. This was not possible on stage. It is not merely that television is usurping the time children would have spent being socialised by talking and interacting, especially at the dinner table. Television is actively filling this socialisation void with faulty replacements.
Tyrrell: How do you mean?
Sigman: Well, in this country you only have to look at old films and television shows to see the kind of behaviour once projected as ideal. But, since the ‘golden age of television’, Britain continues to go through something of a reckoning with its longstanding class system. One of the ways being used to redress centuries of social inequality is not only to ensure that lower-class behaviour is represented on television but actively to elevate it to being more desirable than behaviour associated with being educated and middle class. In the United States, the analogy is a collective white guilt over slavery, which allows and leads to active promotion of violent gangster rap ‘gold chains and no brains’ culture on television and in other media. In the same way that Britain has tried to make up for the perceived wrongs of an upstairs–downstairs society, this is naïve, middle-class America’s distorted way of supposedly giving black people a voice and representing their culture.
Shame is no longer attached to all sorts of behaviours that were once frowned on – for instance, liaisons outside marriage. I feel that this has not been brought about by the advent of the pill and abortion on demand, which every- body points to, but by the constant normalising of exceptional sexual behaviours on television. This isn’t a moral point of view. It is simply an objective and empirical look at how TV changes behaviours. The same has happened with the way that young people speak to older people and to one another, the number of stabbings, the number of shootings and the body language of young people walking down the street. A vast array of behaviours has changed because of what people have been exposed to on television, and it is not taken seriously enough.
If we relegate ourselves to being automatons, influenced by adrenaline-worshipping TV pro-gramme producers and changing software, it reduces our dignity as human beings.
Tyrrell: How many years have you been look- ing at this particular subject?
Sigman: Professionally, for about 15 years. But it was about 18 months ago, when I saw the article about the study of 2500 children and the link between TV and ADHD, that I knew this book had to be written. Then I found articles on rats, dopamine and attention deficit disorder and on how speeding up editing may significantly affect dopamine production. A picture emerged and I realised why it hadn’t been described to the public before. It is because these are very technical studies that come from different areas of science and the picture isn’t as simple, for example, as “cigarette smoking causes lung cancer”. Why TV is a health hazard doesn’t reduce to a single sound bite. I thought, if I could distil what happens to a child’s brain by connecting these various areas of science from the bottom up, from the dopamine production all the way up to the child’s inability to pay attention in the classroom at the age of seven, this might make certain people sit up. Teachers have been remarkable. I have been getting many emails from teachers saying, “I always suspected this and your book makes me believe my suspicions were right”.
Tyrrell: The reason I asked how long you’ve been involved in this area is to find out if your work has given you a feel for where the world might be going in this respect, or if anything can be done about it. It can never be just a question of saying, “This is wrong”. People are unlikely to say, “Oh, you’re absolutely right. Let’s make better television programmes; let’s consider drama from a more responsible point of view.” So, what sort of feel for the future do you have?
Sigman: I think the reality is, as with many things, such as food, ecology and the like, that you’re going to find certain sections of society wake up to television’s enormous influence as a health issue and make changes, but that the bulk of the population probably won’t. This seems to be the way our species has evolved. I do think a considerable influential minority are able to think about it. I’ve had a sense of it already, where parents and teachers are concerned about their children’s welfare, just as they are about nutrition or exposure to strong sunlight. Those will be the parents who make changes because they’ve been given information on which to make a decision.
Take America, a country of extremes if ever there was one. While a vast proportion of the population is obese in ways that you cannot imagine here, there are nevertheless other sections of the population who are phenomenally fit in ways that you may also not see here. These are the people who, if given a frame of reference for measuring the amount of screen-watching time that is safe, irrespective of what they watch, will act on this information. They will start to think about the amount of time they spend looking at real people’s eyes, hearing real people’s voices and seeing events on a real street as opposed to a virtual one. This is no different from, for example, drinking alcohol and thinking about how many units of alcohol they have per week.
Tyrrell: Yes. And, clearly, many parents do manage to do this and their children benefit from restricted exposure.
Sigman: Yes, but, to be frank, I don’t think that the subject matter that people watch is going to change much.
Tyrrell: But surely it is changing, in the sense that it is getting more extreme. In Ancient Rome, entertainment degenerated. It began with drama, rhetoric and poetry reading and ended up with debauchery and the Roman games where people were tortured and killed for entertainment. Television started off very gently in the 1950s, and now it is extreme in all manners of ways, in what it depicts, in the violence it shows and so forth.
Sigman: And that will only get worse. The marketplace will dictate what we see. The capitalists’ interest is to make the most saleable programmes. Television has to make a profit and the production companies do that by selling programmes abroad. It is easier to sell programmes that are immune to cultural differences. Violence travels well. You don’t need to have a transcript to understand that someone is being shot or strangled. The same with sex or ritual humiliation in ‘reality’ shows. So television programme makers will continue to make increasingly violent, dumbed-down programmes. There are also practical reasons why you can’t control TV and electronic media. We have DVDs. We have the internet, and the ability to stop information from crossing borders has all but gone now. But even if we could do something, there is no willingness among most sections of society to do so. Human nature doesn’t desire it. As with adding more monosodium glutamate or flavour enhancers to food, or novelty in general, humans develop cravings. We easily habituate to a certain level of violence and we need more and more extremes thereafter, in order for our orientation response to fire. So I see the content of television becoming more extreme, as has been the case with Cheddar cheese. We desire a more mature Cheddar, apparently, than we did 20 years ago, and the same is going to happen with television.
Tyrrell: That seems a pretty hopeless position.
Sigman: No. My hope is that, aside from what we see on the screen, there will be a greater understanding of how much time we should be watching it at all. That’s what I want to change. So we may be watching things that are worse for us, but we watch less, because we are aware of the mental and physical health risks and how TV conditions our brains and takes away our volition.
I hope there will be a big change in the years to come in how much young children are exposed to television images. A lot of people, even if they might be couch potatoes themselves, will be concerned about their children’s wellbeing and will prevent them from seeing as much, or any, television. That is the area in which I think we will see the greatest improvement, and that I am most positive about.
Dr Aric Sigman is an American psychologist, who lives in England with his wife and four children. He is an associate fellow of the British Psychological Society, a member of the Institute of Biology and has conducted research on a range of subjects, from the use of psychosurgery to the effects of hypnosis on the brain and autonomic nervous system. He has worked on health education campaigns with the Department of Health and has written and presented scientific documentaries for BBC 1, Channel 4 and Radio 4.
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