Watching television is one of the most popular and time-consuming human activities worldwide. However, based on previous research, television seems to harm individual health and happiness, and there is evidence that television viewing can have negative social consequences, including reduced political involvement, a loss of social capital, and higher divorce rates.
But, if television is so detrimental, both individually and for society, this raises the question of why people watch so much television in the first place. New research, to be presented at the annual conference of the Royal Economic Society, sheds fresh light on this question, using historical evidence on the uneven expansion of TV provision in West Germany.
The puzzle of individuals engaging in an activity that appears to be socially and individually harmful has been interpreted in the research literature as a clear case of irrational behaviour. Accordingly, people suffer a self-control problem: they should know that watching TV is bad for them, but they just cannot stop watching. Many ways to address this problem have been suggested. For example, one study even proposes that people could benefit from placing uncomfortable chairs in front of the TV set.
The authors of the new study argue that, before drawing any policy conclusions, it is imperative to clarify whether watching TV actually falls into the category of irrational behaviour with negative individual consequences. In particular, the direction of causality may go the other way. Perhaps it is not true that people who watch TV become unhappy and unhealthy, but rather that people who are less happy or less healthy choose to watch more TV. It is difficult for researchers to determine whether television viewing is individually harmful without experimental data.
The new research paper overcomes this problem through a comprehensive study, taking advantage of a historic happenstance in West Germany. In the decades after World War II, citizens of West Germany received public TV only via terrestrial frequencies, while commercial TV was banned. In the 1980s, commercial television became legal in Germany, and new private TV channels emerged.
Since neither satellite nor cable TV were available for most Germans until the 1990s, the new private channels used left-over frequencies on transmitter stations that were built for public television in the decades before. By chance, this resulted in limited regional access to commercial television for some households in West Germany, while others could not watch those commercial TV channels at all.
The researchers calculated the terrestrial signals from the transmitting stations in detail using geoinformation software, and combined them with high-quality survey data that followed Germans over time, to investigate individual health and happiness.
Perhaps somewhat surprisingly for sceptics of TV, and in clear contrast to the previous literature, the research finds that individual happiness is not reduced, but rather improves, due to TV viewing. Furthermore, there is no evidence that Germans in that historical time period suffered health impairments from watching more TV. The results are robust for a time window of several years, rejecting the idea that television makes people unhealthy and unhappy.
The researchers conclude that individuals do not suffer from self-control problems in this area. Instead, they seem to make a rational choice, in the sense that television provides them with a benefit. The findings explain why, despite its possible social costs, TV watching is one of the most popular leisure activities.
The researchers recommend that policymakers addressing the negative consequences of TV viewing should first consider whether individuals simply do what is good for them – but not necessarily for society as a whole – by satisfying their desire to be entertained.
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