When we were kids, the resounding message sent by the media (somewhat ironically, perhaps) was that “television is evil.” There were frequent reports about television viewing leading to poor eyesight, lower intelligence, shorter attention span, increased weight, risky sexual activity, violence, and most other sociomoral (is that a word?) vices. Despite this, Americans continued to watch television, and more of it, as programming became increasingly salacious and hedonistic. We are still being told that television is bad. I don’t know if any of the given reasons is true, but I do know that TV is not inherently bad in itself.

The problem is that television watching is nearly always physically passive while being mentally stimulating. No, perhaps it’s not very enlightening to watch that episode of Seinfeld for the tenth time, but the images and sound coming out of the box are all stimulating your senses in the biological sense. And you will continue to be stimulated, whether you are watching that Seinfeld episode, the commercials that are interspersed throughout the show, or whatever it is that might come next. In fact, even if you don’t particularly like what you’re watching, you’ll probably still watch. And therein lies the danger, at least for me.

It’s hard to resist the promise of neverending stimulation like that. Suppose you’re sitting on your living room couch, with no great urge to do anything in particular. You could stare off into space, literally doing nothing; you could pick up a book and put forth the effort to understand what you read; you could see if someone else is around and start a conversation, if you have anything in particular to say; or you can push the power button on the remote. The activity that requires the absolute least effort — doing nothing — is terribly boring, and the passage of time is painfully obvious in most cases. But turning on the TV involves barely any additional work, and the reward is a bright moving picture show that rewards you for just sitting there. What’s better is that it never ends. You don’t have to turn a single page, think of something to say, or think of anything at all. There’s really nothing wrong with passive entertainment like that, and there are times when it is both appropriate and necessary to relax in this manner. In my experience, however, I am unable to turn away when it’s time to stop. The half-hour show ends, and before I know it I’m halfway through something I would never choose to watch on my own.

Random web surfing has the same effect, only it’s potentially more dangerous; after all, the medium — my computer — happens to also be a ubiquitous tool in almost every aspect of my life. Whereas the television is objectively about as important to me when it’s off as when it’s on, I need my computer for a good portion of the week. And when it’s on, it’s just ridiculously easy to check out CNN.com (for the tenth time), check my email (after a five-minute hiatus), or look up something marginally related to my work…and then get distracted by a different article I might find during my research.

What’s the solution? Have you ever heard of someone who successfully went cold turkey on anything and succeeded? It’s doable in the short term, but nearly impossible to do forever. People who swear off carbs, fats, or sweets might be able to do it for a week. But if you have a problem with eating too much of a certain food, it’s probably because you enjoy it. How easy can it be to deny yourself — forever — something that you like? This is why going cold turkey is so difficult, and why it takes more than a vague desire to “be better” to fix it — you have to actively dislike what you liked. It’s not easy, and it’s even harder when you’re dealing with something addictive like cigarettes.

Anyway, the more feasible solution is to cut back. When the activity is not particularly harmful, it’s fine to indulge now and then; as a matter of fact, it’s probably beneficial to “waste time” for part of the day. I’m learning to stay away from the Safari icon and the remote until I’m done reading for class. When it comes to boring projects, the web is never more than a click away…and I still get burned from time to time. I can usually get by if I promise myself some time to waste as soon as I’m done. The key, for me at least, is to follow through on that promise. If I can’t keep my own promises, how will I ever follow through with anyone else?

Speaking of school, I’ve got to get caught up for tomorrow. I have some thoughts about the semester so far, but I’ll expound on a later date.

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