This week, in the UK, it seems that Spring has finally appeared. As we collectively shake off our 'Winter Blues' and get ready for the new season, many of us will be reviewing our screen habits—and finding ourselves not pleased. I've realised that I've been spending a huge amount of time on my phone, watching TV or on the internet, and I’m not alone in this; it's becoming a well known fact that adults spend almost 8 hours each day consuming media.
Much has been written on the effects of social media in the last few years (Guy Brandon’s accessible introduction to this topic is well-worth a read), however, television viewing figures (a key aspect of this screen time) have drawn decidedly less comment. You see, if social media is our constant background buzz, the thing we flick open on our phones in the pauses of life (on the train, waiting to meet a friend), then online streaming services are the ravenous beasts devouring whole hours—and days—on media consumption. Think this sounds like an exaggeration? In 2017, Netflix reported that over 5 million people each consumed an entire TV series in 24 hours. This ranges from ‘shorter’ series, such as Marvel’s The Defenders (at just over 6 and a half hours run-time) to shows like House of Cards (13 episodes at approx. 45 minutes each)—all in one day!  With 8 in 10 adults engaging in some form of ‘binge-watching’ (using catch-up or subscription services to watch multiple episodes of TV shows in the same sitting), it’s no wonder that a quarter reported that it led to them neglecting housework or other chores, whilst a third reported missing sleep.
So, is there a biblical framework from which to approach this growing cultural phenomenon? And is there a societal cost to the sheer quantity of media consumption?
In Proverbs 31, we find what Anthony Billington has called ‘the Bible’s fullest description of the regular activity of an ‘ordinary’ individual.’ Commonly known as ‘the wife of noble character’, Proverbs 31:10-31 concludes the ‘book of wisdom’ with a picture of wisdom embodied in a person—and expressed in the everyday work of a woman. This picture is marked by action, as ‘she sets about her work vigorously’ (v17), making and trading, serving her family and community. All of this is well-summed up in the throwaway line, she ‘does not eat the bread of idleness’ (v27).
Talking about issues of idleness and industriousness in people’s personal lives sounds to our 21st century culture both old-fashioned and unattractively moralistic. In part, this is because we are conditioned by an individualistic mindset that says ‘If their actions don’t harm anyone, why shouldn’t they enjoy themselves?’ But a biblical worldview understands that we are first and foremost relational beings and that the quality of our relationships matters to God. Our idleness—falling into the Netflix rabbit-hole at the expense of our daily existence—has a relational cost and an impact on wider society.
TV, Time and Relationships
As we frequently say at the Jubilee Centre, time is the currency of relationships. TV is wonderful, but one of the difficulties is that the character development over long periods of time can give us some of the feelings of socialisation (where characters become ‘like friends’). Sometimes it’s easier to watch a few episodes of TV then to catch up with a spouse or housemate, and you can still feel like you’ve had some form of interaction.
But urging people not to waste their time isn't solely about re-prioritising 'leisure' time to relationships. Instead, if we look at the woman in Proverbs 31, it's about embracing vigorous work and becoming 'industrious' in the context of community and service. Christians can (and often do) lead the way in modelling this as an attractive way of life—responsibility for family, friends and community as a path to wellbeing. As researchers begin to explore practices such as binge watching, they are already starting to find the links with loneliness and depression. Vigorous work—work that is connected to our responsibilities to others—is being shown to have many positive benefits for the individual and society. We need only look at the benefits to young people of programmes like the National Citizen Service to know that increased responsibility and active engagement can counter many of the isolating trends of screen time.
And, crucially, taking responsibility for our lives and the lives of others promotes the kind of wellbeing that can encourage rest. Not compulsive entertainment or mindless consumption, but contented rest. Then, just maybe, we could enjoy that single TV episode and find some much-needed satisfaction.