Friday, January 04, 2008

Does watching TV make us happy?

The question -- "Does watching TV make us happy?" -- is one I have been asking for many years. It is also the title of a recent article by Bruno S. Frey, Christine Benescha, and Alois Stutzer in the Journal of Economic Psychology.

The traditional economic theory holds that people's decisions reveal their preferences, as the authors explain:
Individuals are assumed to know best what provides them with utility and are free to choose the amount of TV consumption that suits them best. By revealed preference, it follows from the fact that individuals watch so much TV as has been empirically observed that it provides them with considerable utility.
But, is this the right way to look at it? Here is the full abstract:
Watching TV is a major human activity. Because of its immediate benefits at negligible immediate marginal costs it is for many people tempting to view TV rather than to pursue more engaging activities. As a consequence, individuals with incomplete control over, and foresight into, their own behavior watch more TV than they consider optimal for themselves and their well-being is lower than what could be achieved. We find that heavy TV viewers, and in particular those with significant opportunity cost of time, report lower life satisfaction. Long TV hours are also linked to higher material aspirations and anxiety.
Of course, TV watching also has a strong association with nutrition issues such as childhood overweight and obesity. Some researchers suspect that TV watching is simply correlated with other types of dysfunction, which in turn contribute to overweight and obesity. Other researchers think TV watching contributes directly to weight gain because it displaces active time with sedentary time, provides a venue for continuous snacking, and exposes the viewer to thousands upon thousands of advertisements for junk food.

There is an active scientific debate between these alternative explanations for the strong association between TV watching and weight status. But, I am struck how even market-oriented conservatives recognize that one or another of these explanations is correct. For example, Todd Zywicki at George Mason and his coauthors at the Federal Trade Commission work very hard to convince the reader to oppose a ban on television advertising for junk food, because it may not be the ads themselves that contribute to obesity:
More plausible causal explanations for the observed correlation between television viewing and obesity exist. First, television viewing is a sedentary activity; thus, at least some of the time that children spend watching television might otherwise be spent on more active pursuits.... Second, there seems to be a tendency for both children and adults to snack while watching television, thereby increasing calorie intake. Of course, the snacking may be triggered in part by exposure to food ads; as previously discussed, however, children's ad exposure has been found to have a very small impact on their snacking. Another possible explanation for the link between snacking and TV is that it is simply easier to eat while watching television than while pursuing other activities.
If you think about it, does it really matter which of these explanations is correct? Don't they all reflect very badly on TV watching?


vyoma said...

watching tv is one way of escaping the most glaring unanswered question. believe it or not - we spend most of our lives trying to escape the inevitable question: Why are we born, why do we die, who is God, why did He create us, why do bad things happen to good people, and so on. And yes, all these questions are just one question altogether about the mystery of our existence. But no one wants to know the answer. Fine! you can distract yourself with a million things and eventually dull out. But answering the question is the goal of our human life. Like it or not, its the truth.

Anonymous said...

I would be interested to hear if anyone has seen any literature on potential solutions to this problem.

Parke Wilde said...

Here is an article by Steve Gortmaker and colleagues about a school-based health awareness intervention that included television reduction.

Among unhealthy behaviors, television watching always seemed to me like a comparatively easy nut to crack. After all, many of the activities you can do instead are more fun than watching TV anyway. The grownups in my family watch several movie videos a month, little broadcast TV, and we don't even have cable. The children watch less. If we were to increase that amount of TV to the U.S. average of several hours per day, I'd just weep to think of what we'd give up -- time biking, running, working, at church (thinking of vyoma's comment), skating, having a drink with friends, keeping this blog, playing board games and card games and reading books out loud in the evening.

Anonymous said...

since its induction, tv has been blamed for all sorts of obnoxious social problems instead of realizing these institutions themselves are failing. perhaps obesity is on the rise, not because children are watching pop-tart ads, but because we subsidize corn to make the sugar ffor these foods instead of subsidizing vegetables or fruit... and maybe that is why fruit and vegetable farmers cant afford to advertise on tv the way sugary foods can. blaming tv is easy, and our nation has a habit of placong blame on easy- misleading- targets. you want to address obesity, do some research and see how it coresponds with food subsidies, not television viewing.

Bix said...

" children's ad exposure has been found to have a very small impact on their snacking."

Wow. I didn't know this was true. I wonder why food companies spend so much money on advertising then.