How I survived my week out of tellyland
She missed X Factor and spent heaps of money, but Chrissie Russell enjoyed switching off
Television is often described as the menace that everyone loves to hate but no one can do without. Just last week psychologist Dr Aric Sigman made a speech to the European Parliament urging a ban on toddlers watching TV and hailing excess viewing as "the greatest unacknowledged health scandal of our time".
When independent regulator Ofcom released its statistics on the hours people spend glued to the screen I, like many, was horrified to learn that the average viewer notches up almost four hours of television time every day. Then I did a quick calculation and was even more horrified to discover I often come in over the average.
Since starting to work from home several days a week, I've noticed my attitude changing towards the TV. I put it on first thing in the morning over breakfast to watch the news but before I know it, it's 11.30am and I'm still engrossed in re-runs of Coach Trip or something equally captivating.
I automatically switch TV on again at lunch time, when I'm making dinner, eating dinner and through the evening. The constant drone has become habit, whereby sitting in total silence in the apartment feels oddly unnatural.
There's a moment in The Simpsons where Homer embraces his TV set, murmuring: "Television -- teacher, mother, secret lover" -- and while not quite at that point -- I'm starting to empathise.
The worst part is I can hardly pass off my viewing as 'discerning'. I tune in for a news broadcast and the occasional documentary but by and large hours can go by where I've been staring at mostly drivel.
The Hills, Four Weddings, America's Next Top Model ... I watch episodes of Friends that are so familiar I can recite whole portions of dialogue from memory. I've even developed an odd fascination with Ghost Whisperer.
Whoever described TV as chewing gum for the eyes has been tuned into my scheduled viewing.
Until now. Shocked by my own inertia I volunteered to try a week without TV -- and was stunned by the results.
Day one was easy. It was actually more restful to wake up and have breakfast in silence before catching up on what was going on in the world over the internet. Without the distraction of TV, I concentrated harder on work and worked more efficiently.
When I took a break, I went swimming and out for a walk to the shops. Because I'd finished up what I was working on earlier than anticipated, I used the time to make homemade soup and a shepherds pie for dinner.
When my boyfriend came home from work, we sat at the table and chatted about our days rather than sitting, meals on our knees, munching in a glassy-eyed silence in front of the box.
By day three I was seriously impressed. Rather than staying up late and watching old episodes of Sex And The City I found myself curled up in bed with a book and asleep by 11pm -- and I was sleeping more sound.
One evening I went to the cinema and on another I met my cousin for dinner. Later in the week I went to the driving range, walked and even played a game of Scrabble -- all of which left me feeling much better than a night sprawled on the sofa.
But trouble came on Saturday. As X Factor o'clock drew near I was aware of my boyfriend staring balefully at the empty screen. "It wasn't my decision to give up TV," he mumbled. Given that he'd been otherwise supportive in my venture I retreated to another, TV- free, room only to listen enviously as he chortled loudly at the contestants everyone would later be talking about.
On the Sunday I had decided to use my TV-less time trying something new and had booked to go coasteering. But the weather was bad and my plan of flinging myself off cliffs into the sea was put on hold. I went to visit my parents but found them glued to a televised tennis match.
Undeterred, I spent the day in silence reading the Sunday papers but my enthusiasm was starting to wane. I never imagined I would experience withdrawal symptoms but a straight 100-odd hours of shunning the remote was definitely starting to have an impact -- good and bad.
Monday saw another turn for the worse. Once again I'd planned to head out for a nice country walk but a steady downpour put paid to that idea. I was stuck in my parents' house, alone with no car and a book I was fast growing sick of.
I tried to use my enforced incarceration wisely by catching up on filing bank statements and clearing out old clothes. But it was only when my parents came home from work and the weather cleared the next day enabling me to get outside again that I felt back on form.
And the oddest thing was that after the week was up I didn't actually feel like switching the TV on.
A week without the constant noise had left me feeling calmer and I got more done. I spent more time chatting with people and exercising and without TV to fall back on I had to think outside the box (pun intended) for ways to entertain myself.
It wasn't always cheap. By the time I added up cinema visits, meals out, shopping trips, magazines, trips to the pool and the golfing range and the postponed coasteering venture, I was out more than €200 in the week but I felt like my time had been better spent.
I'm not saying I'll never tune in again, but the experiment has certainly made me want to be more selective in what I watch and made me realise just how easy it is to fritter away time staring at a moving screen when I could be doing something better.
The fact is, as we strive to look for more and more ways to make life less demanding -- convenience food, remote controls, cars -- TV is the easy option for entertainment.
Almost every household has one and with myriad channels to choose from, any age group is almost guaranteed to find something they want to watch; it's a cheap and easy option.
But there could be a bigger price to pay when it comes to our health.
According to Dr Bernadette Carr, Medical Direction for Vhi Healthcare, all those hours spent watching TV could be killing you. "Television viewing has now been proven to have a significant impact on health," she says.
"Research shows that television viewing is linked to increased levels of obesity, risk of cardio vascular disease, type two diabetes and cancer mortality."
While it's not a case of TV itself being toxic, it's the fact that millions of us are plonked in front of it doing nothing when we could be out exercising.
Dr Carr says: "For many people, putting the TV on at night is their habitual way of unwinding but that time, or part of the time, could easily be used to do some physical activity -- it's just a case of changing the habit.
"Cutting down TV viewing and raising levels of activity makes a massive difference to health. Exercise lowers stress levels, improving mental health and making the body tired so ensuring a better sleep."
It's estimated that one-fifth of Irish homes, which are reliant on analogue TV, could be left facing blank screens when the country makes the shift to digital in 2010 -- but perhaps it might be a blessing in disguise.
"Television is seductive but too much viewing is quite simply not a good thing," says Dr Carr. "There's a definite link between how much TV people watch and the obesity epidemic that's sweeping the country. If you want to watch one programme, fine, but then turn the set off, pull your walking shoes on and get outside."