Bowling Alone



Technology and Mass Media

[18] Most of the time, energy, and creativity of the electronic media, however, is devoted not to news, but to entertainment. Watching the news is not harmful to your civic health. What about television entertainment? Here we must begin with the most fundamental fact about the impact of television on Americans: Nothing else in the twentieth century so rapidly and profoundly affected our leisure.

[19] In 1950 barely 10 percent of American homes had television sets, but by 1959, 90 percent did, probably the fastest diffusion of a technological innovation ever recorded. (The spread of Internet access will rival TV's record but probably not surpass it.) The reverberations from this lightening bolt continued unabated for decades, as per capita viewing hours grew 17-20 percent during the 1960s, by an additional 7-8 percent during the 1970s, and by another 7-8 percent from the early 1980s to the late 1990s....By 1995 viewing per TV household was more than 50 percent higher than it had been in the 1950s.

[20] Most studies estimate that the average American now watches roughly four hours per day, very nearly the highest viewership anywhere in the world. Time researches John Robinson and Geoffrey Godbey, using the more conservative time diary technique for determining how people allocate their time, offer an estimate closer to three hours per day but conclude that as a primary activity, television absorbed almost 40 percent of the average American's free time in 1995, an increase of roughly one-third since 1965. Between 1965 and 1995 we gained an average of six hours a week in added leisure time, and we spent almost all six of those additional hours watching TV. In short, as Robinson and Godbey conclude, "Television is the 800-pound gorilla of leisure time."

[22] The single most important consequence of the television revolution has been to bring us home. As early as 1982, a survey by Scripps-Howard reported that eight of the ten most popular leisure activities were typically based at home. Amid all the declining graphs for social and community involvement traced in the DDB Needham Life Style surveys from 1975 to 1999, one line stands out: The number of Americans who reported a preference for "spending a quiet evening at home" rose steadily. Not surprisingly, those who said so were heavily dependent on televised entertainment. While early enthusiasts for this new medium spoke eagerly of television as an "electronic hearth" that would foster family togetherness, the experience of the last half century is cautionary.

[23] Social critic James Howard Kuntsler's polemic is not far off target:

[24] The American house has been TV-centered for three generations. It is the focus of family life, and the life of the house correspondingly turns inward, away from whatever occurs beyond its four walls. (TV rooms are called "family rooms" in builders' lingo. A friend who is an architect explained to me: "People don't want to admit that what the family does together is watch TV.") At the same time, the television is the family's chief connection with the outside world. The physical envelope of the house itself no longer connects their lives to the outside in any active way; rather, it seals them off from it. The outside world has become an abstraction filtered through television, just as the weather is an abstraction filtered through air conditioning.

[25] Time diaries show that husbands and wives spend three or four times as much time watching television together as they spend talking to each other, and six to seven times as much as they spend in community activities outside the home. Moreover, as the number of TV sets per household multiplies, even watching together becomes rarer. More and more of our television viewing is done entirely alone. At least half of all Americans usually watch by themselves, one study suggests, while according to another, one-third of all television viewing is done alone. Among children aged 8-18 the figures are even more startling: less than 5 percent of their TV-watching is done with their parents, and more than one-third is done entirely alone.

[26] Television viewing has steadily become a more habitual, less intentional part of our lives. Four times between 1979 and 1993 the Roper polling organization posed a revealing pair of questions to Americans:

[27] When you turn the television on, do you usually turn it own first and then look for something to watch, or do you usually turn it on only if you know there's a certain program you want to see?

[28] Some people like to have a TV set on, sort of in the background, even when they're not actually watching it. Do you find you frequently will just have the set on even though you're not really watching it, or [do you either watch it or turn it off]?

[29] Selective viewers (that is, those who turn on the television only to see a specific program and turn it off when they're not watching) are significantly more involved in community life than habitual viewers (those who turn the TV on without regard to what's on and leave it on in the background), even controlling for education and other demographic factors. For example, selective viewers are 23 percent more active in grassroots organizations and 33 percent more likely to attend public meetings than other demographically matched Americans.

[32] Habitual viewing is not the only way in which generations differ in their television-viewing customs. Another is channel surfing. Figure 58, drawn from a 1996 Yankelovich Monitor survey, shows that when they are actually watching TV, younger generations (including boomers, compared with their elders) are more likely to surf from program to program, "grazing" or "multitasking" rather than simply following a single narrative. Other scholars have found that compared with teenagers in the 1950s, young people in the 1990s have fewer, weaker, and more fluid friendships. Although I know no systematic evidence that supports this hunch, I suspect that the link between channel surfing and social surfing is more than metaphorical.

[51] So far we have discovered that television watching and especially dependence upon television for entertainment are closely correlated with civic disengagement. Correlation, however, does not prove causation. An altnerative explanation is this: People who are social isolates to begin with gravitate toward the tube as the line of leisurely least resistance. Without true experimental evidence -- in which randomly selected individuals are exposed (or not exposed) to television over long periods of time -- we cannot be sure that television itself is the cause of disengagement. (Since the putative effects of TV presumably build up over years, a few minutes' viewing in a university lab is unlikely to replicate the deeper effects that we're talking about here.)

[53] Strikingly direct evidence about the causal direction comes from a range of intriguing studies of communities conducted just before and just after television was introduced. The most remarkable of these studies emerged from three isolated communities in northern Canada in the 1970s. Owing only to poor reception, residents of one (given the pseudonym Notel by the researchers) were without television as the study began. The "treatment" whose effects were observed was the introduction of a single channel to Notel residents -- the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC). Life in Notel was compared with that of two other communities, Unitel and Multitel. Though it was very similar to Notel in other respects, during the two years of the study TV reception in Unitel went from CBC only to CBC plus the three American commercial networks. Multitel was similar in all relevant respects to the other two towns, although removed somewhat geographically. Residents of Multitel could receive all four channels throughout the span of the research.

[54] Canadian researcher Tannis MacBeth Williams and her colleagues explained why this triad of towns consisted of a true experiment:

[55] Except for anachronistically lacking television reception in 1973, [Notel] was typical. It was accessible by road, had daily bus service in two directions, and its ethnic mix was not unusual. The town just happened to be located in a valley in such a way that the transmitter meant to serve the area did not provide television reception for most residents.

[56] Significant also is the fact that this study was conducted before the widespread availability of VCRs and satellite dishes. In other words, there will likely never be another example like this of an essentially TV-free community in an industrialized nation. The results clearly showed that the introduction of television deflated Notel residents' participation in community activities. As the researchers report succinctly,

[57] Before Notel had television, residents in the longitudinal sample attended a greater variety of club and other meetings than did residents of both Unitel and Multitel, who did not differ. There was a significant decline in Notel following the introduction of television, but no change in either Unitel or Multitel.

[58] The researchers also asked whether television affected only those who were peripherally involved in community activities or also the active leaders. Their conclusion:

[59] Television apparently affects participation in community activities for individuals who are central to those activities, not just those who are more peripherally involved. Residents are more likely to be centrally involved in their community's activities in the absence than in the presence of television.

[60] This study strongly suggests that television is not merely a concomitant of lower community involvement, but actually a cause of it. A major effect of television's arrival was the reduction in participation in social, recreational, and community activities among people of all ages. Television privatizes leisure time.

[71] If TV steals time, it also seems to encourage lethargy and passivity. Time researchers Robert Kubey and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi used an ingenious method to track our use of time and its effects on our psychic well-being. They persuaded subjects to carry beepers with them around the clock for a week, and when the beepers were randomly triggered, the subjects wrote down what they were doing and how they felt. Television viewing, Kubey and Csikszentmihalyi found, is a relaxing, low-concentration activity. Viewers feel passive and less alert after watching. On heavy-viewing evenings, people are also likely to engage in other low-energy, even slothful activities, whereas on light-viewing evenings, the same people spent more time outside the home in activities like sports and club meetings. Heavy viewing is associated with lots of free time, loneliness, and emotional difficulties. TV is apparently especially attractive for people who feel unhappy, particularly when there is nothing else to do.

[72] TV itself is probably not the primary cause of these negative feelings, but it does not help much, either, except as a momentary escape. As Kubey and Csikszentmihalyi summarize their findings,

[73] Heavy viewers spend more time with TV, but find it is less rewarding....Although...feeling badly in unstructured and solitary time leads to the use of television,...heavy viewing and the rapid montage of much contemporary television may also help reinforce an intolerance in the heavy viewers for daily moments that are not similarly chocked full of sight and sound....It seems likely that heavy viewing helps perpetuate itself. Some television viewers grow dependent on the ordered stimuli of television or similar entertainments and become increasingly incapable of filling leisure time without external aids.

[74] Kubey and Csikszentmihalyi report that these psychological concomitants of television watching are common in many cultures. British social psychologist Michael Argyle found that TV induces an emotional state best described as "relaxed, drowsy, and passive." British researchers Sue Bowden and Avner Offer report:

[75] Television is the cheapest and least demanding way of averting boredom. Studies of television find that of all household activities, television requires the lowest level of concentration, alertness, challenge, and skill....activation rates while viewing are very low, and viewing is experienced as a relaxing release of tension. Metabolic rates appear to plunge while children are watching TV, helping them to gain weight.

[76] As Kubey and Csikszentmihalyi conclude, television is surely habit-forming and may be mildly addictive. In experimental studies viewers generally demand a major bribe to give it up, even though viewers consistently report that television viewing is less satisfying than other leisure activities and even than work. In 1977 the Detroit Free Press was able to find only 5 out of 120 families willing to give up television for a month in return for $500. People who did give up TV reportedly experience boredom, anxiety, irritation, and depression. One woman observed, "It was terrible. We did nothing -- my husband and I talked."

[77] As with other addictions, conclude Bowden and Offer, [78] viewers are prone to habituation, desensitization, and satiation...A researcher reported in 1989 that "virtually everyone in the television industry ardently believes that the audience attention span is growing shorter, and that to hold the audience, television editing must be even faster paced and present more and more exciting visual material."...As consumers become accustomed to the new forms of stimulation, they require and even stronger dose.

[81] Like other addictive or compulsive behaviors, television seems to be a surprisingly unsatisfying experience. Both time diaries and the "beeper" studies find that for the average viewer television is about as enjoyable as housework and cooking, ranking well below all other leisure activities and indeed below work itself. TV's dominance in our lives reflects not its sublime pleasures, but its minimal costs. Time researchers John Robinson and Geoffrey Godbey conclude:

[82] Much of television's attraction is that it is ubiquitous and undemanding....As an activity, television viewing requires no advance planning, costs next to nothing, requires no physical effort, seldom shocks or surprises, and can be done in the comfort of one's own home.

[83] Another reason that television viewing is so negatively linked to social connectedness may be that it provides a kind of pseudopersonal connection to others. Anyone who has encountered a television personality face-to-face knows the powerful feeling that you already know this person. The daily cheer of morning anchors or the weekly drama of well-loved characters reassures us that we may know these people, care about them, are involved in their lives -- and no doubt they reciprocate those feelings (or so we subconsciously feel).

[84] Communications theorist Joshua Meyrowitz notes that the electronic media allow social ties to be divorced from physical encounters. "Electronic media creates ties and associations that compete with those formed through live interaction in specific locations. Live encounters are certainly more 'special' and provide stronger and deeper relationships, but their relative number is decreasing." Political communications specialist Roderick Hart argues that television as a medium creates a false sense of companionship, making people feel intimate, informed, clever, busy, and important. The result is a kind of "remote-control politics," in which we as viewers feel engaged with our community without the effort of actually being engaged. Like junk food, TV, especially TV entertainment, satisfies cravings without real nourishment.

[85] By making us aware of every social and personal problem imaginable, television also makes us less likely to do anything about it. "When the problems of all others become relatively equal in their seeming urgency," Meyrowitz notes, "it is not surprising that many people turn to take care of 'number one.'" In a similar vein, political scientist Shanto Iyengar has shown experimentally that prevailing television coverage of problems such as poverty leads viewers to attribute those problems to individual rather than societal failings and thus to shirk our own responsibility for helping to solve them. Political scientist Allan McBride showed in a careful content analysis of the most popular TV programs that "television programs erode social and political capital by concentrating on characters and stories that portray a way of life that weakens group attachments and social/political commitment." Television purveys a disarmingly direct and personal view of world events in a setting dominated by entertainment values. Television privileges personalities over issues and communities of interest over communities of place. In sum, television viewing may be so strongly linked to civic disengagement because of the psychological impact of the medium itself.

[86] Perhaps, too, the message -- in other words, the specific programmatic content -- is also responsible for TV's apparent anticivic effects. The DDB Needham Life Style survey allows us to explore this possibility because, in addition to questions about social connectedness and civic involvement, the surveys elicit information about which specific programs the respondents "watch because you really like it." While causality is impossible to extract from such evidence, we can construct a rough-and-ready ranking of which programs attract and/or create the most civic and least civic audiences.

[87] At the top of the pro-civic hierarchy (controlling, as always, for standard demographic characteristics, such as age and social class) are news programs and educational television. In the late 1990s the audiences for programs like the network news and public affairs presentations, NewsHour and other PBS shows, were generally more engaged in community life than other Americans, in part because these audiences tended to avoid other TV fare. At the other end of the scale fell action dramas (exemplified in an earlier era by The Dukes of Hazzard and Miami Vice), soap operas (such as Dallas and Melrose Place), and so-called reality TV (such as America's Most Wanted and A Current Affair).

[88] One way of gauging the impact of different types of programming on civic engagement (as distinct from simply the amount of time spent before the tube) is to compare the effects of increasing doses of news programs and of daytime TV, controlling not only for education, income, sex, age, race, employment and marital status, and the like, but also for the total time spent watching TV. As figure 69 shows, the more time spent watching news, the more active one is in the community, whereas the more time spent watching soap operas, game shows, and talk shows, the less active one is in the community. In other words, even among people who spend the same number of hours watching TV, what they watch is closely correlated with how active they are in community life.

[89] The clear distinction between the NewsHour audience and the Jerry Springer Show audience underscores the fact that not all television is anti-social. Experimental research has shown that pro-social programming can have pro-social effects, such as encouraging altruism. Moreover, television (especially, but not only, public affairs programming) can sometimes reinforce a wider sense of community by communicating a common experience to the entire nation, such as happened in the Kennedy assassination, the Challenger explosion, and the Oklahoma City bombing. These were shared national experiences only because only because television brought the same painful images into our homes. Television at its civic best can be a gathering place, a powerful force for bridging social differences, nurturing solidarity, and communicating essential civic information.

[90] To this list of shared experiences, however, we must add the deaths of Diana and JFK Jr. and the O.J. trial, all of which purveyed more melodrama than civic enlightenment. The bonds nurtured by these common experiences are psychologically compelling, as virtually all of us can testify. But they are generally not sociologically compelling, in the sense of leading to action. Each episode is captivating, but few lead to enduring changes in the way we behave or connect. Child psychologists speak of a fairly primitive stage of social development called "parallel play" -- two kids in a sandbox, each playing with a toy but not really interacting with each other. In healthy development children outgrow parallel play. But the public spectacles of television leave us at that arrested stage of development, rarely moving beyond parallel attentiveness to the same external stimulus.

[91] Television "in the wild," so to speak, is represented mostly by programs that are empirically linked to civic disengagement. Those program types that are most closely associated with civic isolation constitute a massive and growing share of television programming. "Target marketing" and the advent of five-hundred-channel cable TV portend a further fragmentation of audiences along the lines of social, economic, and personal interest. According to Nielsen Media Research, the number of channels received by the average household soared from nineteen in 1985 to forty-nine in 1997 and continues to rise. The ability of television to create a single national "water-cooler" culture has shrunk, as fewer and fewer of us watch common programs. In the early 1950s two-thirds of all Americans tuned in and watched the top-rated programs (I Love Lucy); in the early 1970s the top-rated program (All in the Family) drew about half of the national TV audience; by the mid-1990s the audience share of ER and Seinfeld was barely one-third. This trend toward market segmentation provides choice and presumably thus enhances consumer satisfaction, but it also undercuts TV's once vaunted role in bringing us together.

[92] Another probable effect of television (not just programming, but also the associated advertising) is its encouragement of materialist values. For example, according to media researcher George Gerbner and his colleagues, heavy viewing adolescents "were more likely to want high status jobs that would give them a chance to earn a lot of money but also wanted to have their jobs relatively easy with long vacation time to do other things." As we shall see in more detail in the next chapter, materialism among college freshmen has risen notably during the era of maximum television exposure, and while in college, students who watch more television become even more materialistic, compared with their fellow students who watch less TV or none at all.

[93] In sum, the rise of electronic communications and entertainment is one of the most powerful social trends of the twentieth century. In important respects this revolution has lightened our souls and enlightened our minds, but it has also rendered our leisure more private and passive. More and more of our time and money are spent on goods and services consumed individually, rather than those consumed collectively. Americans' leisure time can increasingly be measured -- as do strategic marketers --in terms of "eyeballs," since watching things (especially electronic screens) occupies more and more of our time, while doing things (especially with other people) occupies less and less. This emphasis on visual entertainment seems to be especially common among the generations who have been reared in the last several decades. Watching TV, videos, and computer windows onto cyberspace is ever more common. Sharing communal activities is ever less so.

[94] The apotheosis of these trends can be found, most improbably, at the Holiday Bowling Lanes in New London, Connecticut. Mounted above each lane is a giant television screen displaying the evening's TV fare. Even on a full night of league play team members are no longer in lively conversation with one another about the day's events, public or private. Instead each stares silently at the screen while awaiting his or her turn. Even while bowling together, they are watching alone.

[95] The effects of these new technologies on Americans' worldview are most marked among the younger generations. Social critic Sven Birkerts emphasizes the historical rupture that the introduction of television signaled:

[96] There is a ledge, a threshold, a point after which everything is different. I would draw the line, imprecisely, somewhere in the 1950s. That was when television worked its way into the fabric of American life, when we grew accustomed to the idea of parallel realities -- the one that we lived in, the other that we stepped into whenever we wanted a break from our living. People born after the mid-1950s are the carriers of the new; they make up the forces that will push us out of our already-fading rural/small-town/urban understanding of social understanding. The momentum of change has already made those designations all but meaningless.

[97] Americans at the end of the twentieth century were watching more TV, watching it more habitually, more pervasively, and more often alone, and watching more programs that were associated specifically with civic disengagement (entertainment, as distinct from news). The onset of these trends coincided exactly with the national decline in social connectedness, and the trends were most marked among the younger generations that are (as we shall see in more detail in the next chapter) distinctly disengaged. Moreover, it is precisely those Americans most marked by this dependence on televised entertainment who were most likely to have dropped out of civic and social life -- who spent less time with friends, were less involved in community organizations, and were less likely to participate in public affairs.

[98] The evidence is powerful and circumstantial, though because it does not derive from randomized experiments, it cannot be fully conclusive about the causal effects of television and other forms of electronic entertainment. Heavy users of these new forms of entertainment are certainly isolated, passive, and detached from their communities, but we cannot be entirely certain that they would be more sociable in the absence of television. At the very least, television and its electronic cousins are willing accomplices in the civic mystery we have been unraveling, and more likely than not, they are ringleaders.

"“After reading more statistics from Putnam’s book maybe we should keep it off for more than seven days. Some of these are unbelievable… By the late 1990’s three-quarters of all US homes had more than one television set, allowing ever more private viewing. The fraction of sixth-graders with a TV set in their bedroom grew from 6 percent in 1970 to 77 percent in 1999” (p. 223).

“Time diaries show that husbands and wives spend three or four times as much time watching the television together as they spend talking to each other, and six to seven times as much as they spend in community activities outside the home. Moreover, the number of TV sets per household multiplies, even watching together becomes rarer…more than one-third of all television watching is done alone” (p. 224).

-“81 percent of all Americans report that most evenings they watch TV” (p. 227).

-“Americans spent nearly an hour more per day in front of the tube in 1995 than in 1965” (p. 228).

-“In 1977 the Detroit Free Press was able to find only 5 out of 120 families willing to give up television for a month in return or $500. People who do give up TV reportedly experience boredom, anxiety, irritation and depression. One woman observed, “It was terrible. We did nothing – my husband and I talked” (p. 240).""

J.R. Briggs (March 2005)