“How I Kicked the TV Habit,” Ensign, Mar. 1977, 17
I was thirteen years old when we got our first television set. That was in the days of “I Love Lucy,” “Howdy Doody,” “Search for Tomorrow,” “Love of Life,” Eddie Fisher, Dinah Shore, and Groucho Marx. One of my favorite pastimes was watching TV from the time I got up until the channel went off the air. Naturally, I was pretty tired the next morning so I really enjoyed doing nothing more strenuous than repeating the whole process all over again.
Our set only picked up one channel, but I became instantly addicted to every program on it. Some were excellent. Some taught worthwhile values that I can applaud even now. However, others didn’t and I didn’t distinguish between them. If it was on TV, I watched it.
When I was a senior in high school, the soap opera, “As the World Turns,” entered my life. Since the main characters in this series were two seventeen-year-olds, it was easy for me to identify with them. They yelled at each other a lot, and I soon found myself doing the same with my family.
Then real life usurped the television for several years. I went away to school and got married. We had three small children before we bought our first television set—in October, so we could watch general conference. I started watching the news, then interview and detective programs. Then I left “Love of Life” on one afternoon. Almost immediately I was addicted. I tried to arrange appointments so I would be home for it. I resented accompanying my daughter to the school bus stop because it had to be done during the last five minutes of my show. I was irritated by my children’s interruptions. I tried to plan my housework so I’d have some sit-down chore for that half hour; but when I couldn’t, I sat and watched anyway.
I could think of lots of reasons why television was good for me. My small children kept me home most of the time, so TV was adult companionship. It gave me a break from home problems and frustrations. It was emotionally relaxing to see polite, beautiful, and sympathetic people who still had problems. Then, too, my friends watched TV; if I didn’t, I wouldn’t know what they were talking about when we got together. I was too busy to read the newspaper, but keeping up on the news was easy if the TV was on all the time. I had to keep abreast of weather bulletins in case violent weather suddenly developed. In short, turning on the TV became one of those things necessary to start the day, like opening the drapes and making the beds.
Then three experiences planted a seed of discomfort in me. One day I was discussing children’s TV programs with a friend who never intended to get a TV. I told my friend it was as important for mothers to see that their children watched only wholesome TV shows as it was that they ate only wholesome food. She asked, “And don’t you think it’s equally important that you refrain from polluting your mind?”
I have another friend I admire very much who also never intends to have a TV set in her home. She had seen an episode of “Little House on the Prairie” at a relative’s and commented sadly on how much more depth and beauty the book had contained. As I thought about the shows I’d seen taken from great books, including the scriptures, I also realized that a TV presentation is indeed a shallow substitute.
Then I mentioned television to one of the most energetic, intelligent women I know, a fifty-nine-year-old, slender grandmother of fourteen. A few years before, she said, she had spent most of her time watching soap operas. Rheumatoid arthritis made it hard for her to get around, but she also made it an excuse not to be involved in Church or community affairs. She also snacked constantly on goodies she saw advertised, and was dangerously overweight. A coronary insufficiency attack snapped her into realizing that a stroke might be next unless she changed her ways; and, frightened, she prayed fervently for help. The answer: change her eating habits, and get up and do something. She exerted all her will power to eat right, to exercise her body by tending to her responsibilities, and to limber her mind by studying the scriptures and other good books. Excessive TV watching fell by the wayside as her mental and physical health improved.
Sobered by these encounters, I looked at my own situation. I was sending my children to bed according to the programs I wanted to watch, not by when they needed to go to bed. Rather than spending a few minutes talking at “tuck-in” time. I hurried them off, so as not to miss a minute of my show. Uneasily, I remembered how I used to spend my time before we got the TV. Even though I had three children under three, I read Church books and magazines, usually cover to cover, while feeding the babies, stirring food on the stove, and beating egg whites. I read other things as well—but now there didn’t seem to be any time.
These realizations made me uncomfortable, but I was still reluctant to change. My next help came, unintentionally, I’m sure, from my favorite soap opera. After a year of successive tragedies, I began to wonder how realistic it was. No one really went through that many disasters in a lifetime, let alone a year. If they did, they’d be such emotional and physical wrecks they wouldn’t survive for the next episode.
Then I started noticing other things. The main characters in my soap opera rarely worked. One was a real estate agent who seemed to have a day off five times a week. A psychiatrist apparently had patients because she was always cancelling her appointments with them—“pressing” personal and social commitments, you know. Another main character owned a bookstore but seldom did anything there but close early. Now and then a minor character, who worked all day every day of the week, would enter the drama. He was usually crabby, scrubby, boring, and unfeeling.
It seemed to add up to an “anti-work” ethic. The most sympathetic characters had jobs high in glamor and low in effort. People who had regular jobs—certainly the norm for my family and friends—weren’t the kind of person anyone wanted to be around.
And those glamorous people were incredibly immature. A successful doctor punched a reporter whom he felt was harassing his singing-star wife. Married characters were regularly embroiled in marital conflict. Adultery and drug abuse were as common for them as skinned knees at our house.
I was amazed, too, at how crisis could completely overwhelm character and disrupt habits. During a moment of bereavement, two supposedly mature and admirable people suddenly commit adultery. By the next episode they were mature and admirable again. I had a hard time swallowing that one.
I had a harder time with the delinquent child who came to live with the perfect family and was instantly reformed. Sometimes parents would do everything right and the child would still be a brat. Or the parents would do everything wrong and the child would be an angel. I know children have their own personalities—after all, I had my own to teach me that—but I couldn’t believe that there was no cause-effect relationship between parents’ character and children’s character. But even though I knew this, I was shocked to discover that I wasn’t really trying hard to be a good mother, because the TV writers made it clear that I would fail anyway.
Now that I was looking for inconsistencies, they were piling up fast. Total strangers would meet someone in deep trouble, and within a few episodes all problems were smilingly solved. The culture portrayed on TV excuses murder when you commit it, adultery if your spouse is nasty, and lying if it’s for a good cause. Yelling, slamming doors, and throwing things are depicted as acceptable outlets for emotions. Religion is for the elderly and women. Going to church is for Christmas, fanatics, and illegitimately pregnant girls.
Some people really do act as immature as many soap opera characters; but in real life, hardly anyone puts up with it. These childish people keep going on TV because they are surrounded by incredibly patient people who seem to have nothing else to do.
I don’t recall any soap family having more than three children. Even that “large” number occurred only in “As the World Turns” twenty years ago, and they were presented as definitely provincial.
So there I was. I knew TV was taking away my freedom. As a result of excessive TV watching I was neglecting my children, scheduling my housework around it, and limiting my reading. I saw through its phony values and resented what was happening, but I was still watching it. It may sound strange, but I was really hooked on what would happen in the next episode. I honestly—and illogically—felt that I’d be disloyal to good friends if I stopped. They had entertained me so long that I owed it to them to continue my support. The breakaway had to come gradually.
It started when my husband casually mentioned how much more it cost to operate a TV than a radio. Since I often only listened to TV anyway, I started to use a little portable radio. At least there were no soap operas on radio. But I wanted to cut down more.
I decided to quit watching it on Sunday. That was no way to spend the Sabbath. But I still had a struggle with those super Sunday evening detective programs. However, I gave myself some stern lectures and started spending Sunday evening with the scriptures instead. After a few weeks I began to reap the benefits of peace that scripture-reading brings. That made it easier to leave the set off.
But what really shocked me into action was noticing that my older children, following my example, would watch and sometimes imitate the characters in my favorite soap opera. I decided I had to quit and I picked Monday. Tuesday was Relief Society homemaking meeting when I’d get home too late for my soap opera anyway.
The following Monday, I felt like an alcoholic throwing away the bottle as I switched off the set just as the theme music started. In each of the days that followed, I had trouble turning that TV off. In fact, a few times I didn’t; and it was comforting to see the old familiar faces, but I noticed that they were getting along fine without me. They didn’t need me! And I, by George, didn’t need them either!
I checked my reaction on other shows too. It depressed me to see people on game shows win more things in seconds than I would likely ever have in a lifetime. I turned them off too.
Then I ditched the evening detective shows. I really resented spending time with them instead of with my children, so I finally did something about it.
And then the payoffs started to roll in—all the blessings of my liberation from the habit.
1. One of the most pleasant changes was the great reduction in household noise. With the TV off I could hear my baby cooing and my older children singing. I discovered they often all sang at once, a truly heartwarming sound for a mother.
2. It’s so much easier to get my work done. I have three or four fewer appointments each day, just because I’m not trying to work all my TV favorites in. My flower beds are beautiful—neatly trimmed and weed free. I sew and cook faster because I no longer have one eye and both ears on the TV.
3. Since I’m not glued to the TV set, we seem to spend more evening time together—talking, enjoying our yard, or having gymnastic and tumbling “talent shows.” I’m getting much-needed physical exercise because of this added activity and also because I now “have time” to attend a dance class at our civic center.
4. Because my mind is free, I can plan my activities more efficiently and get through my work faster. I also find it easier to deal with my children’s problems or with my own because I can really concentrate.
5. I no longer brood about illness, financial difficulties, crime, emotional upsets, and legal entanglements—TV used to make them seem like such real possibilities.
6. I’ve discovered that in the length of time it takes to watch one soap opera I can write a post card to each of my state and federal congressmen expressing my opinion on current legislation.
7. I usually finish dinner ten or fifteen minutes after the rest of the family; rather than finishing my meal in front of the television as I used to, I use those extra minutes to read. I can get the Ensign read from cover to cover each month just by using these few minutes each day for that purpose.
Of course, I haven’t given up TV completely. Sometimes our whole family watches shows together, and it’s fun. But now I’m the master. When I want to invite newsmen, actors, or entertainers into my home I do so. But it’s because they have informative and/or morally, spiritually, and emotionally uplifting programs to offer—not just because they’re there.