ESSAY- Turn it off: The plug-in drug is killing us

In a doctor's office recently, I was the only one of 22 adults who wasn't glued to the 27-inch screen hanging high in a corner of the waiting room. A cute little girl in a pink skort set and corn rows tried desperately to get her mother– in a stretched FUBU XXL athletic jersey– to read any of the Working Woman, Sports Illustrated, or Parents and Child, in a rack by her chair.

"Get the TV Guide, honey," the woman finally told her.

As a college professor, I've been watching the destruction of the American mind– and the American body– while most have been watching computers, or, more likely, television screens.

Don't get me wrong, I teach television, and I can't imagine life today without my laptop. But Americans need desperately to wake up from the stupor caused by what Marie Winn calls "the plug-in drug."

We are literally killing ourselves.

Our surgeon general has been loud and clear about the health and economic effects of the fact that the average American TV is on seven plus hours a day and that the average child spends over four hours in front of a screen.

It's helping make us obese, he's told us for years. It's aiding in the growth of Type II diabetes, it's adding to our strokes, our cancers, our arthritis, our heart attacks, and even our mental disorders.

Some 125,000 of us die every year from preventable obesity, and dealing with it costs well over $117 billion annually. The primary reason for all these deaths and dollars, the doctors say, is inactivity– what our bodies are not doing while our minds are not thinking and our eyes are not perceiving.

"The easiest way to reduce inactivity is to turn off the TV set," reports the Centers for Disease Control. "Almost anything uses more energy than watching TV."

Every April the National TV-Turnoff Week pulls about six million of the 270 million Americans away from the boob tube. That's two percent of us. And it's only one week a year.

For the other 51 weeks and the other 264 million, it's "Eat, drink and watch, for tomorrow we die."

"I have complex thoughts about TV," a librarian once told me. "You can turn on your TV to American Movie Classics or the history channel and get a wonderful education in drama or some insight into us as Americans. Or you can watch sit-coms, so-called 'reality' and daytime drama until your brains turn to mush."

Now that people use the library's computers, he claims to see more and more "mush."

"Some people come in here and spend an hour on their email while their kids, bored senseless, beg them to go over and read a (children's) book. And they say, 'Go away and leave me alone.'

"This is the person who is hopefully going to be there at your funeral and see that you get buried. And you're saying, 'Leave me alone, leave me alone,' today?"

That kind of cause and effect, that critical thinking, is one of the things that TV does a brilliant job of eliminating­ with an assist from education.

My test questions often begin, "Explain /describe /argue /talk about..." with the words in bold, italicized and underlined. And as I hand out the test I add: "Leave nothing blank. Guess, argue, comment, answer a different question, make me laugh. Write something."

For half the questions, I get two-word answers.

Many students today can't conceive of having their own ideas. Their experience tells them that it's there somewhere in A), B), C) or D). The plot's already plotted.

Life's not like that, I cry. Hollywood happens only in Hollywood. Most sex actually happens in marriages, not in affairs. Most cops don't beat up everybody and shoot everybody else. Most people who live in New York and can get only part-time work in coffee shops starve. Most of us don't look like Halle Berry and Tom Cruise– and all of us actually have to work on the job, not joke.

Reading, just about everybody in education agrees, is the key to developing a mind able to discern something real in life. You can't bring critical thought to bear on your problems, or this nation's issues, unless you've built a background from reading.

Watching doesn't do it.

A few years ago, seven students raised their hands when I asked if they'd ever called Miss Cleo, the TV psychic. None answered, however, when I asked if they'd read the newspaper article about her faked credentials and how her "associates" were hired from unemployed cleaning women.

Miss Cleo drew more callers than the presidential election drew voters.

Caveat emptor­ let the buyer beware. But in America we're buying our own slow death, and we're selling the right to think for ourselves.

The problem is that with childhood fat tripling in the past two decades, with adolescent comprehension falling, with teenage creativity disappearing, we're not only doing it to ourselves, we're doing it to the next generation.

"Honey, get anything but the TV Guide."

Randy Salzman is a Charlottesville-based journalism professor and freelance writer.