Does Watching TV Damage Character?

Couch potatoes, beware – someday you might be saying “the TV made me do it.”

A new special report by the Culture and Media Institute (CMI) indicates that watching too much television could be hazardous to your moral health.


The report, The Media Assault on American Values, reveals that media messages appear to be undermining the pillars of America's cultural edifice: strength of character, sexual morality and respect for God.  The report is based on findings of a major scientific survey commissioned by CMI, a division of the Media Research Center.

The National Cultural Values Survey reveals a striking correlation between greater exposure to television and permissive moral views.  Heavy television viewers (four hours or more per evening) are less committed to character virtues like honesty and charity, and more permissive about sex, abortion and homosexuality.  Light television viewers (one hour or less per evening) are more likely to attend religious services and live their lives by God's principles.

The survey wasn't designed to identify causal relationships between media and behavior, but it did collect information about television viewing habits.  The results are compelling. 

Let's look at the foundation of good character—personal responsibility.  According to the survey, the more a person watches television, the less likely he will be to accept responsibility for his own life and for his obligations to the people around him. 

Personal responsibility begins with providing for your own needs, but the news media and movie directors like Michael Moore consistently preach that people should look to government, not rely on themselves.   Heavy television viewers are much likelier than light viewers to expect government to provide retirement (64 percent to 43 percent) and health care (63 percent to 48 percent). 

Another aspect of personal responsibility is taking care of your neighbor's needs.  The media's voyeuristic, celebrity-driven entertainment and “news” programming promotes narcissism, not charity.  Not surprisingly, light viewers are more likely than heavy viewers to contribute time or treasure to every kind of cause.  Heavy viewers are more than twice as likely not to give at all (24 percent to 11 percent), and not to volunteer (56 percent to 27 percent).

The pattern persists with sexual morality.  Is sex outside of marriage, the way Hollywood incessantly depicts it, always wrong?  39 percent of light viewers say so.  Only 26 percent of heavy viewers agree.  55 percent of light viewers say homosexuality, another Hollywood hobbyhorse, is wrong, but only 43 percent of heavy viewers.   

The media's continual portrayal of clergy and believers as moral reprobates, and outrages like showing God in bed with a woman (both Fox's Family Guy and Comedy Central's Sarah Silverman Program), appear to be eroding the nation's devotion to religion.  32 percent of heavy viewers say they live by God's values above their own, significantly less than the 43 percent of light viewers.  

Overall, 74 percent of Americans say our moral values are weaker than they were 20 years ago, and 48 percent say values are much weaker.  That's another way of saying they see eroding character, lower sexual standards, and diminished respect for God – precisely the values the media undermine. 

In consequence, overwhelming majorities hold the media responsible for contributing to moral decline.

Ten Americans believe Hollywood is harming the nation's moral condition for every one who thinks Hollywood is helping.  The numbers? 73 percent to 7 percent.  For the news media, the ratio is five to one:  54 percent harming the nation's moral standards, and just 11 percent helping. 

The bottom line: Most Americans believe the nation's morality is slipping.  These people name the media as the second greatest factor in the moral decline, exceeded only by the family.   

CMI will present our latest special report, The Media Assault on American Values, in a seminar in Washington D.C. on June 6.  The report will be available on our Web site,

Brian Fitzpatrick is senior editor of the Culture and Media Institute and the author of The Media Assault on American Values: The conflict between the media, personal responsibility and respect for religion.  The Culture and Media Institute is a division of the Media Research Center.