Leading article: A generation with better things to do than watch TV

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For years we worried that young people watch too much television. Now, when at last there is evidence that they are watching less, we are bound to worry about what else they might be doing with their time. Surely if they are not watching mindless American pap or violent videos, they must be playing computer games, searching for porn on the Internet, making each other pregnant or sniffing glue?

Certainly, one group of people most alarmed by the trend are television bosses, who fear they may be losing their grip on the market of tomorrow. They are often in thrall to a second group of people, advertisers, who sometimes give the impression of becoming increasingly desperate about the difficulty of communicating with younger age groups. Why young people don't watch television was one of the underlying themes of last weekend's Edinburgh TV Festival, the industry's annual navel-gazing cum showing- off exercise.

The apocalyptic scenario was most luridly painted by an American analyst called Douglas Rushkoff, who warned that what he called "screenagers" were being lost to television. These young people are literate in the new language of the communications revolution, he says, and will watch less and less conventional television as computer games and the Internet become more sophisticated. This was, in the brash American style, an argument put forward with little of the supporting evidence which might have slowed down its breathless rush to a simplistic conclusion. The idea, for instance, that young people are less interested in narrative than they used to be does not stand up to scrutiny.

But the amount of television we watch has undoubtedly fallen over the past 10 years, and especially among 16- to 24-year-olds. This may appear to be bad news for the corporate planners who are trying to build brand loyalty among the viewers who will matter once the technological changes in the television industry really get going. As a newspaper, The Independent understands the need for media companies to "grow" their audience. And it is important to our civic culture that the BBC should develop habits of viewing and listening which support public service broadcasting. But the idea that some people "only watch the BBC" because independent television is vulgar is already laughably out of date. Equally, there are very few who would say that they switch on to Channel 4 first, or who even have the vaguest interest in which television company produces which programme. Of course, channels have identities, and the BBC's brand name is a guarantor of a minimum level of quality. But the primary loyalty viewers have is to programmes - or to sports, a fact exploited ruthlessly by Rupert Murdoch's BSkyB.

So if programme-makers are producing programmes which fewer young people watch, is that a good or a bad thing? Surely the answer depends partly on the rival attractions on offer, because it is not possible meaningfully to argue that the diversity and quality of programmes has declined. If one of the main causes of the great switch-off has been the growing range of other and better things to do, then the trend should be welcomed. Over the past decade, more young people have been staying on in full-time education and in recent years youth unemployment has been falling. Also, Mr Rushkoff is clearly right that the explosion of computer ownership and services now offers a vast choice of alternative screen-based activity, some of which is worthwhile and some of which is not - like TV, in fact.

It seems likely, then, that young people are turning off not because television programmes are failing to keep up with their changing tastes, but because they prefer to do something else. In which case the Rushkoff prescription - to abandon narrative and compete for the attention of the least attentive - would be a recipe for disaster.

That does not mean television's rulers should be complacent, however, because it does matter what young people watch. Last week, the pro-censorship lobby seized on a new study which purported to show that violent films can make aggressive young people more violent. This story, and stories like it, have been a familiar feature of the journalistic and ideological landscape for much of the last 20 years. The scenery has not changed partly because the case for there being a link between screen violence and the real thing is obvious, while what to do about it is not. Of course people's behaviour is influenced by what they see on television and video, but how can such things be controlled in a free society? For a long time this issue did not have to be faced, because the watershed on four television channels and film censorship sifted the vast bulk of people's viewing. But now it is easier for younger and younger people to watch any films that have been made. It is not sex that is the problem, since almost all pornography that is readily available portrays essentially consenting sex (even though the conservative press always likes, irrelevantly, to cite Crash in this debate). No, it is violence that we should worry about. There is too much about, and too much finds its way on to the television screen by one means of transmission or another.

But the advocates of censorship have always missed the point about the social context of watching violent films. What we watch will only influence what we do if it is reinforced or encouraged by people around us, which is a much bigger issue than the responsibility of British television chiefs or Hollywood moguls.

Meanwhile, the news that young people in particular are watching less television should be received with at least two cheers. The odds are that they have found some other more interesting - and probably harmless - way of occupying themselves.