02 January 2015

Why we don't have a TV

We don't have a TV.

Why watch TV when you can watch the highlight of 2014 live, right across the road: 'Excavator knocking down HOUSE!'

As we never made a 'sustainability commitment' to not having one, I've not written about this. However, several times when I have presented about our sustainable living efforts it has emerged as a choice people are interested in, so here is my effort to share.

Disclaimer: Let me put right up front that this is not an attempt to judge anyone else's choices about television. If you have negotiated the issues I raise below in other ways, or the benefits of TV out-weight these issues for you, that's great. This is my attempt to explain my choices, not to have a go at yours.

Our family grew up without a TV* and, although I resented it many times as a kid, I am now grateful for that. [*We did have one in a box after I was seven, which came out in school holidays and for the Olympics]. When house-sharing, my flatmates often had one and I had patches of watching it. I learned that I am easily addicted to TV programs, especially ones with never-ending plot lines and endearing characters. I negotiated several times for the TV not to be in the main living area of our share-houses, once even buying a suitable wheeled table so it could be moved easily into the room of whoever wanted to watch it. Since Tyson and I have lived together we have never had a TV in the house. We watch a little Iview some evenings after the children are asleep, when we are too exhausted to do anything else (mostly British drama), at most perhaps five hours a week, more often one or two shows in a week (2 hours?). On very rare occasions Eva has been permitted to watch ABC kids TV shows on YouTube when she has been really sick. We also sit with them to watch and talk about clips on YouTube relating to things that interest them (most often excavators, excavators, chickens, giraffes, excavators).

I am not opposed to all TV watching forever, but I am choosing not to own one, and to limit our use of digital TV through the internet. It is a key strategy for us towards ensuring that as much as possible we create a home on our own values, not values absorbed by accident through a screen.

There are a whole range of reasons we don't have a TV. The summary version is: I believe TV primarily disconnects us from each other, sets up unrealistic and unhealthy social norms, and pushes us to be insatiable consumers. To explain a bit further...

How we shape our 'wants' 

I think the biggest problem of our unsustainable western lifestyle is that we want so much. One of the simplest ways to reduce our wanting is to cut out the voices of those suggesting more things for us to want. 

At the most obvious level, this is about not having advertising in our house (we also do not receive junk mail, read our news online so we don't have newspaper ads sitting around, and don't subscribe to the sort of magazines that are padded with ads). This makes a big difference. It was a change for Tyson when we moved in together, and over about the first year of sharing a predominantly ad-free house we both observed a noticeable reduction in the things he was wanting to obtain. Our children know very few brand names - in contrast to an American study that showed children entering primary school could identify on average 200 brand logos.

Of course it is possible to watch TV without advertisements (God bless the ABC and lets raise our voices to protest the budget cuts there!). However, in more subtle ways television as a medium, regardless of the advertisements, tempts us to want more. People are presented in an airbrushed manner (or presented as 'lacking', often by presenters who are clearly not 'lacking' in the same areas), creating a sense that the wonderful, earthy, fallible ordinariness of real lives is inadequate in some way. From the decor of fictional houses to the clothes of documentary presenters, the television world shows us a million things that we don't have, which we could potentially have, which could potentially redress that 'lack'. Yes, popping in to your neighbour's house and seeing their stuff can have the same effect, but it comes with a relationship, a possible story (including the reality of how little impact stuff has on happiness), and the limits of how many people we actually know to pop in on.

Focus of living areas

The way our houses are arranged both reflects and shapes the values we live by. Many Australian living rooms are arranged with seating almost in a line - perhaps a semicircle - focused on a television screen. If you are in a room like this, it can be quite hard to make good eye contact with everyone when having a conversation. The very way we place ourselves within the room reinforces a sense that we are spectators, passive recipients of someone else's agenda. I feel like this occurs even when the TV is turned off, because it remains the visual focus for how the furniture is set out.

In many ways television sets are placed within homes in the way that an altar might be placed within a home where religious observance is part of family life. It becomes a thing we worship. I find it a little obscene that it is considered the norm in Australian house design at present to include a 'home theatre' - a room virtually without windows, designed for people to not interact with each other or the outside world at all, but to be completely in relation to the digital world. This room is generally larger than the size of a whole house in many parts of the world, and uses far more energy and resources to create than those simple dwellings.

Our living room is a circle of couches and armchairs. There is also a piano, sort of at the side, and a toy shelf/play bench under the window, flanked by armchairs. I like that when we sit in this space, the focus is each other. When the children play they are central to our living space. Guests in our home have at times noted how relaxing they find it to be in a space without an omnipresent screen. (When we watch Iview or YouTube we use the office computer. The office, being also the guest bedroom, has a fold-out couch that can be used to watch the screen)

When we go on holidays, accommodation pretty much always provides a TV. We always cover it with a cloth, and sometimes move a couch in front of it.  

Objectification of people

The nature of television turns people into objects. We are watching; they are performing. We consume them. 

This is fairly obvious when, for example, an actor is performing a fictional role for our entertainment, and is not such a problem in that context (not so different from live theatre). However, we don't have the opportunity to see the actors leave by the stage door in their street clothes after the show, as ordinary and wonderful as us. When we do, it is in the context of celebrity-watching: trying to pretend we know these actors because we know something about them (however tenuous), or to pick holes in their presentation, to take evidence of ordinariness and hold it up as a fault, not a gift. Actors become semi-fictional realities that we seek to somehow have some ownership over.

However, objectification is more of a problem, in my opinion, when it relates to non-fiction content. News reporting is the most troubling for me. Other people's life crises become objects for me to watch. People being reported on cease to be people, cease to be 'like me', and become a Thing, a News Item, which I consume.

I believe that spending a great deal of time watching other people as objects, without any relationship with them, imprints on us a sense that people can be treated as objects; A sense that it is OK to think of others in a transactional way, rather than a relational way - where interactions always have a quality of what I give and what I get, rather than who and what we are building between us (with acknowledgement to William Cavanagh for getting me thinking about these things). Once we have made that step - and I think to at least some degree we have all made it - we can partition off some people, some 'objects', as less deserving of our compassion, or attention, or effort. Particularly, in the context of this blog, those among us who are most vulnerable as a result of our unsustainable lifestyle.

Gender representations

Somehow we have made it through five years of this blog without me beating this drum, but here goes:

The presentation of men and women on television is grossly imbalanced. The number of men, particular 'serious' men (in suits) far outweighs the number of 'serious' women, or women at all. Some excellent television drama includes strong female characters, but far more often women are presented within strongly gendered stereotypes. At worst, they are actively violated. More often, they are sexualised props for male-driven plots, with male heroes (sometimes with one token woman to make up the 'balance') and outcomes affirming male dominance. These are not the assumptions of a woman's role that I want my daughter to have imprinted into her (or my son, for that matter).

And men are poorly presented too: male characters, when not being macho aggressive strong-men winning situations by force and speed, are often goofy, a bit daft and easily led astray. Neither inspires my son to grow into a strong, thoughtful, compassionate, relational, confident man ready to take his place as an equal in the world with every other human.


Once you add together objectification and gender stereotyping it is no surprise that I have deep concerns about the sexualised manner in which both men and women are represented through television. The way a person looks is paramount to their TV appeal; the rules of what is 'appealing' are set by a narrow understanding of what is sexually attractive. Women are never seen without make-up (the way women actually arrive at every day of our lives, and the way we are known and loved by those we are really important to) or in clothes that might be described as 'shapeless': ie, not emphasising legs, hips and breasts. There is nothing wrong with dressing up and enjoying fitting a particular social norm; there is something deeply wrong with being made to feel unacceptable, to yourself or others, if you don't do it. I also have a problem with people's bodies, male or female, being an object for the gratification of people who don't know them, but watch them.

At the very pointy end of this, objectifying and over-sexualising women makes us vulnerable. Presenting men as either macho strong-men or a bit hopeless makes women vulnerable too. Both contribute to women being abused, and to men staying silent about it (or even encouraging it). 

Many of the things I hope for my daughter and my son are actively discouraged by the gender and body-image social norms that television is a big part of creating. I am helping them learn to navigate these cultural assumptions (yes, even at 5 and 2, and ever more so over the next twenty-odd years) but I am also inviting them to live their home-lives without those abnormal 'norms' constantly surrounding them.

Disempowering narratives

Most television content resolves problems within a viewing period. Perhaps it may take a whole season, but problems will be resolved. The overwhelming dominant narrative is that problems will be resolved by being the strongest/smartest/highest-tech or by straight out violence.

My understanding of the world is that actual, genuine change is slow, often hidden, and generally comes about by the sustained effect of countless tiny acts of love, kindness, bravery, generosity, hope, peace... most of which would not be remotely worthy of being 'viewed'. If you happen to be strong, smart, or equipped with marvels, the dominant narrative puts enormous and unrealistic pressure on you to provide results on behalf of all those ordinary people who are not so 'fortunate' - and it is little wonder that violence is so often the chosen approach. If you are not one of the 'fortunate' (I think it is a very mixed 'fortune'), this narrative either excuses you from having to contribute to our common good, or tempts you to feel hopeless about what you can actually achieve.

For those living within a narrative that is not heading for solution - chronic mental illness, for example, or the death of a loved one, or cyclical discrimination and poverty - the dominant narrative of problem-strength-solution has no place for you. Your grief is not permitted space. Your insights are not welcomed. Your ordinary daily struggles and triumphs are neither lamented nor celebrated - they (and you) are ignored. Perhaps that is its own blessing. It can also be degrading and disempowering.

Limiting children's creativity

I know there is much good children's television produced. However,  the nature of the medium largely makes the child a spectator while someone else does the creativity. Where good children's programming gives ideas for activities children can follow up, this tends to be a particular activity with a particular outcome.

We like to give our children materials and opportunities where they can invent their own outcomes, and often their own process as well. We like to read them books where there is plenty of room for their imagination to work, and the range of books available makes it pretty likely they won't be internalising quite the same mix of characters and stories as any one of their friends. It might be cute to have every girl at kindy playing at 'Elsa' but I am delighted that my daughter has instead played a hundred different characters of her own invention, including many that TV would have suggested to her were boys' roles.


Who's agenda?

Television programming can become a household's programming. Its 7pm, finish dinner so we can watch the news; I need to be home to catch the next episode of [insert favourite drama].

This is being somewhat addressed by digital TV-on-demand, but there is still a drive to watch it as it is aired (someone might spoil the ending for you on Facebook otherwise) or to catch it before it expires online. I have had dinner guests go home early because of a TV show they wanted to see; I have myself made choices about staying home to 'catch up' on a show online, and I don't like that.

The value systems implicit (or sometimes explicit) in both televised content and the medium itself are an agenda that I don't want to be run by. I feel TV needs very careful handling if we are to maintain our family agenda of love -  love for each other, love for our wider community, and love for our earth.

What do we support?

Its not so difficult to come up with a list of reasons I am against TV, but the more important question is: what I am for? Some of our priorities are: hospitality; building relationships; compassion; all people being equally valuable regardless of appearance, strength, colour, religion, ability, intelligence, disability, size, age, gender...; community; creative play; imagination; encouraging reading; open-ended play resources; getting into nature; non-violence; celebration of our ordinary bodies and ordinary lives; hope and possibility; genuine, wide-reaching gender equity; sustainable living; simplicity. On the whole, I believe owning a television does not advance these priorities and in many cases it is actually a hindrance to them.

So there you have it. Bless you for reading this far - I hope it is at least something interesting to think about.

What do we do instead? At gremlin hour, between 5pm and 6pm? When the kids wake up early on the weekend? The photos in this post are a few illustrations. We are fortunate that our work situation has meant we very rarely have only one adult in the house in the late afternoon, so one of us can cook and the other give the children 100% attention. Or the children help cook. Or we send them to jump on the trampoline, that magnificent child-minding device. They do get up early and they mostly find toys and activities without us. Mostly lego or craft, but I can see that when Eva learns to read it will be books, books, books.

Initial Time:  zero

Initial Cost: zero

Ongoing time or cost commitment: Not having a TV is both a time commitment, and a gift of time.

It is a time commitment, because without TV to mind the children they need more of our attention, patience and creativity.

It is a gift of time because I have available to me the hours I might otherwise spend watching TV to do all manner of other things. Things like writing this blog, being on the kindy parent committee, reading books, having really good conversations with my husband, hosting various groups in our house, playing Scrabble, writing in my journal... Sometimes I wonder how people who regularly watch TV fit anything else in, as my days and weeks are generally full to the brim without it.


I believe I learned to be a more imaginative and creative person by not having a TV as a regular part of my childhood. I am hopeful to pass this gift on to our children.

A plethora of studies about the impact of television on child development suggest links between TV watching and aggression/violence, and long-term lower academic outcomes for children with high TV exposure. Here's a well-referenced article on potential impacts of TV on child development that goes into these and other issues in more detail. We are hopeful that our TV choices are having a positive impact on the sort of people our children are becoming, their views of the world and their ability to creatively navigate the challenges of their lives. 

Its not just about the children, though: I think limiting my adult TV viewing has a positive impact on the sort of person I am becoming. The people I admire and aspire to be like are people shaped by influences outside of the world of TV.

I think as a household we 'want' less than is considered 'normal' for our culture. There are whole cultural trends I genuinely know nothing about, or very little (loom bands? Frozen? Game of Thrones?). I know this will shift as we get deeper into school years, but Eva has not been in complete isolation - the last two years she has been part-time at kindergartens; she attended daycare; we are part of a church community; we have a wide network of friends and family, many of whom do not share our tentative approaches to certain cultural norms. We talk about things together, including advertising. We try to ensure birthdays and Christmas celebrations are not all about getting more stuff (see previous posts one two three four five).

Energy savings are not listed above as a reason we don't have a TV, because I have never been motivated in this choice by electricity use, but it is an energy saving to not operate a TV. The average Australian child in the 2-10 age bracket watches between 1 and 2 hours a day of TV (not including other screen activities), and more on weekends (the American Academy of Pediatrics in 2010 recommended no more than two hours TV a day, but various American studies estimate kids in the USA are watching closer to 30 hours a week of TV). Australian adults on average watch TV about two hours a day. So, if we were 'average' our household might watch about 25 hours of TV a week between us. The other 143 hours of the week nearly all Australian TVs are on standby, which also uses electricity. How much energy your TV uses depends on many variables: how much it is turned on, what sort of technology it is, how big the screen is, how bright you choose to have the settings. Here is more detail on TV energy use, including a TV-energy use calculator (scroll way down). Apparently, most TVs use between 80 and 400 watts. Older models can use up to 15% of this when on standby, but newer models often have efficient standby settings that draw as little as 1-3 watts. If we had a super-efficient 80-watt TV and watched the average 25 hours a week, we might use around 2kWhr (units) per week watching and another 143Whr in standby: a total of 111.5 kWhr per year (at current rates this would cost $34.55). If we had the 400-watt inefficient model, and allowed for 15% standby, 25-hour viewing weeks would result in an annual usage of 966.2 kWh (nearly half of which is standby usage) - a cost of $299.51, so not exactly 'free' entertainment for your children! Using these calculations, running a TV in Perth creates between 91.43 and 792.28 tonnes of carbon dioxide per year - more, if you have an inefficient model (plasmas are particularly bad) and watch more than average amounts of TV. Plus there are the issues of embodied energy I discussed recently in relation to washing machines.

Perhaps the greatest impact for me personally is that when I don't watch any TV I am happier. I would like to give this gift to my children.

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