Shielding children from sex and violence, avoiding commercials and finding extra time for other activities are among the key reasons Americans live without television, according to a new book by Marina Krcmar, associate professor of communication at Wake Forest University.
"Living without the Screen" is an in-depth study of American families and individuals who choose not to watch television. It will be published Aug. 28 by Routledge.
Krcmar wanted to find out why some people permanently turn off the TV, while the average American watches three hours of television each day.
"Non-viewers perceive television to have power," Krcmar said. "They believe it can steal time, can affect consumer behavior and can influence how autonomous children are."
Krcmar interviewed 120 adults and children from 62 different households who do not watch television. Some filled out a survey or completed diaries documenting how they spent their time. She visited the homes of 15 participants and conducted extensive interviews with the adults and children in the household.
Some in the study never owned a TV, others did not replace one when it broke or did not have a television due to financial considerations. Some owned a TV, but kept it hidden away and occasionally pulled it out to watch a movie on DVD. To allow her to make comparisons, Krcmar also interviewed 92 participants from 35 households who do watch television.
"Based on the interviews, the surveys and the time-use diaries, it appears that those who do not watch television not only reject television in order to keep sex, violence, shallow news coverage and consumerism out of their lives, but also to encourage family interaction, their children's independence and creativity, and a wise use of their time," Krcmar said.
Those with very liberal or very conservative political views are among those most likely to say "no" to television, she said. Although more than half of the non-viewing study participants fell into politically opposite categories, others fell across the demographic spectrum.
"I was surprised to find that two large groups of non-viewers were exceedingly different in many ways, but shared commonalities regarding television," Krcmar said. For example, one of the study participants was a politically liberal, single artist in Boston. Another participant with similar views about TV was a Midwestern woman with 10 children who described herself as a conservative Christian.
A common characteristic among non-viewers was that, compared to viewers, they had "very strong opinions not only about television but also about those issues they saw as being associated with it such as politics and couple-interaction," Krcmar said. "In other words, they are zealous and idealistic."
They all believed themselves to be unusual and generally liked being different. Not watching television was part of their family identity. Krcmar found the non-viewers were more engaged with family and friends than their TV viewing counterparts.
Many who did not watch TV rejected the entire television industry as immoral or unethical. By rejecting the industry, they felt they gained power in their homes, Krcmar said.
Parents in the study said banning TV in their homes helped make their children more independent. Instead of the short-term entertainment value of television, the children benefitted from the long-term ability to entertain themselves, they said.
For children, not watching TV meant a loss of social capital, Krcmar said. They could not join in conversations about popular TV shows. However, many of the older children interviewed had grown comfortable without TV and had found other ways to connect to peers. The book includes anecdotes about parents offering to let their children watch something on TV as a reward and the children responding that they were not interested.
"By researching families without television, I think we learn a lot about the role of television in the lives of American families," said Krcmar, who does not have a TV in her house. "I know this may sound counter-intuitive, but when we look closely at family interaction in the absence of TV, we see the ways in which television has become an integral part of our lives."
Krcmar's research focuses on children, adolescents and the media, and her most recent research has examined the effect of violent video games on adolescents and the role of media consumption in adolescent risk-taking.