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?