A close look at the impact TV and the Internet have on our daily lives.
Questions about the media's effect on audiences are often limited to content, assuming that humans mimic art with little forethought or individual agency. Less often considered is the question of how the social and economic structures necessary to support new media affect behavior.
A recent study by Stanford geographer Martin Lewis about a major drop in global fertility rates contains an interesting insight: Lower birth rates in India are found in areas with the highest television ownership and media exposure.
Television isn’t what causes fertility rates to decline but a space where people go to rationalize approaches to family planning and sexuality that have already become part of the zeitgeist.
In America, we are long past the emergence of television, but there is a parallel to the Indian case: Teen pregnancy rates tend to be lowest in the areas where broadband Internet is most accessible. Some people have argued that using the Internet regularly lowers a person's sex drive, depresses people, or leads to addiction, so it's possible to think that Internet access itself lowers the likelihood that a person will want to actually have sex.
But it's just as likely that broadband Internet access, like television before it, is a function of social and economic conditions that make it unlikely for there to be high birth rates in the first place, especially among teens.
It's not the Internet or television that desexualizes us but money and its tendency to drive those with it into living conditions that are isolated in ways that make the pursuit of new leisure technologies consistently desirable. It’s never just the device but what we want the device to represent. When the device becomes familiar and domesticated we lose our faith in its ability to represent the values we want to be true, and so the changes that seemed to have sprung from the emergence of a technology slowly undo themselves.
Televisions have become so ubiquitous in America—285 million in 2006, almost one for every person in the country—that if they had some innate power to reshape human behavior, sexual or otherwise, it should still be in effect. Just as television's ability to entertain is gradually fracturing as TV sets have become cheaply available, so too has its predictive power on teen pregnancy and fertility rates.