Despite the extraordinary and rapid advances made by the Internet and mobile telephony, television remains the most successful mass medium yet known to man. Yet it has had some powerful, and I believe detrimental effects on society. Perhaps these are hard to see because at its best telly is, well, fun. After a hard day it is just so tempting to throw off your shoes, grab a drink and let the sofa take the tension, while TV takes care of your mind. It certainly doesn’t seem evil. How could we think ill of the technology that brought us the Clangers, Miss Piggy and Monty Python?
In 2000 American social theorist Robert Putnam published a remarkable and important book. The “Bowling Alone ” of its title refers to the collapse of bowling leagues in towns across America during the last 50 years, but Putnam is only using this as a metaphor for his central theory that social capital has declined drastically in the USA in the same period.
What he means by social capital is the invisible bonds that tie communities together – “the stock of active connections among people: the trust, mutual understanding and shared values and behaviours that bind the members of human networks and communities and make cooperative action possible”. Important features of this are reciprocity – people doing things for each other, either implicitly or explicitly sure that those favours will one day be returned, and trust. Intrinsic to the concept of social capital is the idea that social networks have value in themselves.
Most people who are not diehard misanthropes will recognise the existence of social capital, even if it may be harder to measure than say, physical capital. At a family level it’s called doing the washing up without expectation of immediate return. Among neighbours - where it still exists – it may be putting the cat out or watching their house while they are away.
Putnam pulls together an extraordinary array of data to support his theory that social capital is in free fall in the US. He uses indicators such as political participation, membership of clubs, engagement with associations such as the PTA (parent teachers association), church attendance, trade union and professional association membership, social visiting/entertaining at home, family dinners, card playing, charitable giving (measured against real income). In every one the decline is dramatic, statistically proven and clear – and usually starts from the early sixties.
There are contra-indicators: for instance increased membership of non-governmental organisations such as Greenpeace and the American Association of Retired Persons. But it turns out that where the trends are up either there is a generational difference in attitudes (i.e. it’s old people who take part) or the demands on participants are characteristically low. Engagement might be represented by an annual donation, the receipt of a newsletter, signing a petition. People are prepared – with their greater disposable income – to join, but not to do.
Overall there is a shift to more temporary communities with less grip or stickiness. Quoted by Putnam, sociologist Morris Janowitz called them “communities of limited liability” – suggesting beautifully how a group sense of responsibility is being eroded. According to Putnam “large groups with local chapters, long histories, multiple objectives and diverse constituencies are being replaced by more evanescent, single-purpose organisations, smaller groups that “reflect the fluidity of our lives by allowing us to bond easily but to break our attachments with equivalent ease ””.
I’m not aware of any similar study in the UK – but I’d be prepared to bet it would show similar results, allowing for some local quirks. Especially given Putnam’s analysis of why this is happening.
He carefully narrows it down to four factors:
• Pressures of time and money
• Suburbanisation, commuting and sprawl
• Electronic entertainment – chiefly TV (most of the statistics he uses are pre-Internet)
• Generational change
The last two are interlinked: the younger you are, the more likely you are to be affected by electronic entertainment. He estimates that the combined effect of TV and what he calls the TV generational difference is responsible for maybe 30% of the decline in social capital.
Can TV really have had such an influence? After all, there has been a never-ending debate about screen violence, and we are regularly assured by its champions that it has never been shown that TV makes children, or society at large, more prone to violence.
Putnam’s analysis of the role TV has played begins with two generalised observations on the effect of mass media, telecoms and entertainment. The first is the trend to more individualised news and entertainment. Music is a good example: from live concerts, to recorded discs to MP3’s we have moved inexorably towards much greater choice determined by the individual at an ever more microscopic level. News web pages can be personalised, satellite subscription packages specified. Secondly there is a distinct shift to personal and private rather than public consumption, from the concert hall to the Apple I-Pod. Television in particular moved has theatrical entertainment into the privacy of our own homes.
Now for the facts.
By 1995 viewing per TV household was more than 50% higher than it had been in the 1950’s. The average American watches three to four hours a day – estimates vary. Television took almost 40% of the average American’s free time in 1995, an increase of almost 1/3rd since 1965. Again – these figures do not take into account the rise of the Internet and there is evidence that TV viewing has declined because of it, since the mid 1990’s. However the Internet is still an electronic screen based medium.
Between 1965 and 1995 Americans gained an average of six hours per week in added leisure time, and spent almost all of them watching TV. “Time diaries show that husbands and wives spend three or four times as much time watching TV together as they spend talking to each other, and six to seven times as much as they spend in community activities outside the home.”
The amount of television viewing done alone has also risen. “At least half of all Americans usually watch by themselves, one study suggests, while according to another 1/3rd of all TV viewing is done alone”. Among children the figures are worse. Less than 5% of TV watching is done with their parents.
A very important distinction is between habitual viewing (leaving it on in the background or switching it on just to see what is on) and intentional viewing (switching it on to watch something specific and pre-chosen). One could just as easily call the habitual form distraction viewing. Guess what? Habitual (or distraction viewers) are much less socially engaged. “Selective viewers are 23% more active in grassroots organisations and 33% more likely to attend public meetings than other demographically matched Americans. Habitual viewing is especially detrimental to civic engagement. Indeed the effect of habitual viewing on civic engagement is as great as the effect of simply watching more TV”. In case you are thinking, ‘well hey its just the Slobs and I’m safely middle class’, note the key definer – “demographically matched”. In other words this affects all strata of society. Selective viewers, even in the later 1970’s outnumbered habitual viewers by more than three to two. This has now been reversed.
Putnam believes that once other factors that might affect civic engagement are accounted for, on average each extra hour of TV viewing per day reduces activism (going to meetings, membership, letter writing) by 10%. He shows clearly that there is a link between the amount you watch TV, and how much you are likely to do for society in general. For instance in one study 39% of light viewers attended a meeting on town or social affairs in the year, compared with 25% of heavy viewers. 29% of light viewers had played a leadership role of some kind in a local organisation, the figure for heavy viewers was 18%.
Just to ram the point home, among this group of well educated working age Americans, there were nearly twice as many heavy viewers. Dependence on TV for entertainment is the “single most important predictor” of civic disengagement.
So what you may be thinking. It is certainly easy to be cynical: at times Putnam comes close to conjuring up a possibly mythical land before the sixties when everyone earnestly helped each other and played together – modern ideas of fun don’t seem to enter into it. In British terms, do we really wish to return to a dull but worthy land of boy scouts, Women’s Institute jams and Rotarian dinners?
But his social capital is not only about institutions but also about our social connectedness. “People who say that TV is their ‘primary form of entertainment’ volunteer and work on community projects less often, attend fewer dinner parties and fewer club meetings, spend less time visiting friends, entertain at home less, picnic less, are less interested in politics, give blood less often, write friends less regularly, make fewer long distance phone calls, send fewer greetings cards and less e-mail, and express more road rage than demographically matched (my italics) people who differ only in saying that TV is not their primary form of entertainment.” I know which club I want to be in.
Of course this does not on its own prove that TV is the culprit. It is certainly associated in some way with the decline of social capital – could it be the cause, or an effect? It’s hard to be sure but here are some pointers.
All the indicators for civic disengagement begin to flicker alarmingly in the 1960’s about ten years after the widespread availability of television – i.e.; just as the first TV generation began to hit the workforce and make an impact (or not) on society.
Canadian researchers in the early 1970’s found a trio of remote towns, one of which (they christened it Notel) had no television, sited as it was in a wrinkle of the landscape. As TV arrived here, they compared levels of civic engagement using the two other similar towns which already had TV as control cases. They concluded that there was a direct link between TV and a lessening of social ties. Studies in other countries have had similar results.