What TV Does to You

While television viewing, especially by children, is a favorite bugaboo — it turns your mind to mush, it makes you violent, etc., etc., etc. — there’s a growing body of research suggesting that much of TV’s bad reputation is undeserved.

Especially when it comes to educational TV, this would seem to make sense, at least on one level. Just think all of the resources devoted to creating the TV programs that are delivered into your child’s home for a few pennies. All the writers, producers, actors, editors, etc., who create Sesame Street, for instance, work for thousands of collective man hours just so your little one can view an hour of coherent edutainment. Whereas when that little one tots off to nursery school, he’s competing with lots of other kids for very limited teacher time.

That said, in the wonderful new memoir The Crowd Sounds Happy, by Nicholas Dawidoff (disclosure: he’s a friend; but the book is still wonderful), there’s one of the most cogent arguments against TV viewing I’ve ever seen:

That last year in New Haven, I could go out to friends’ houses more or less when I wanted to and watch television as often as I liked, only to find that now I agreed with my mother about TV. I had begun not to like what happened to me when I watched.

Given the chance, I stared like a guppy, immobilized for hours in somebody’s den on an increasingly itchy wall-to-wall carpet, intent on things I didn’t even enjoy, passive and yet also anxious, too aware of how soon the hour would be up when the little world in front of me would evaporate and I’d have nothing left but an uneasy regret and another new show beginning that I couldn’t get up and walk away from.

It was so easy not to resist because television was doing all the work for me, making all the decisions. That was especially true, I noticed, when I watched baseball. The field became reduced to the fragment that fit on the screen, minimizing the game into a fraction of itself, implying that everything happening off-camera was irrelevant. The players were minimized as well, because they did not exist unless the ball came their way. Then the lens swooped into their faces and there was too much of them — which weirdly created distance.

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  1. David R. says:

    Vin Scully broadcasting the Dodgers over radio deserves higher ratings than any television show.

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  2. Imad Qureshi says:

    A lot of people think I am penurious because I don’t have a TV but I use my laptop for everything from keeping myself updated with news and watching my favorite shows (Jon Stewart’s daily show and family guy). OK I watch daily show one day late but so what. And yes family guy; not all the episodes but whatever is there on youtube and hulu. Its enough when I need to laugh.

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  3. Silas says:

    It’s a shame that there is far more money in creating “edutainment” than in teaching our children. My simple suggestion: teachers are way under paid. Our society would be nothing without our teachers. We can obviously do without the Disney Channel.

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  4. Elizabeth says:

    While its true that a child at nursery school competes for limited teacher time, that doesn’t mean that he is not learning. When a child interacts with other children, figures out how to fit a puzzle piece into the puzzle, observes the adults going about their work, and otherwise actively engages in his world, he is learning far more than when puppets recite the alphabet. I think Sesame Street is clever and entertaining and it does teach, mostly by repetition, numbers and letters, but the research seems to show no long term learning benefit.

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  5. Doug Schoemer says:

    What solutions does he propose? Attending baseball games in person (he must be a member of McCain’s middle class) or giving it up altogether? I hope he forgoes any tv interviews for his new book – they would seem to be a waste of his time anyway, as what tv-watching drooling idiot would actually want to go out and buy and read a book?

    I enjoy this blog because it usually links to research, yet here we have one writer’s biased opinion. How about a link to that Syracuse professor’s work a few years back where he seemed to show tv and video games actually helped intelligence?

    I would suggest that Dawidoff just doesn’t know how (or possibly what) to watch. And he shouldn’t blame tv for itchy carpets.

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  6. gabe says:

    That’s not a cogent argument, at best it’s a well articulated personal experience.

    Being against TV in a blanket way is… no wait, this says it all:


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  7. Steve says:

    What about the people like me who watch TV precisely because we don’t have to do any work?

    I sit at a computer all day wracking my brain to do my work. When I come home, I give what’s left of my energy to my wife and kids. After the kids go to bed, I’m usually mentally exhausted and watching some TV is how I relax.

    I normally don’t want to think when I’m watching TV because I’m trying to escape from that. That’s not to say I don’t watch shows that require some effort on my part, I do. But 90% of my TV watching is to forget about the stress of that day and wind down.

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  8. DJH says:

    I’ve watched my share of TV while growing up, but to be honest I never got caught up in it very much. I found most content to be un-entertaining. Not only that, even when watching a show I did like, commercials tended — annoyingly — to jerk me back to reality every 10-15 minutes.

    IMHO the widespread assumption that TV turns kids into zombies is overstated. I have no doubt it CAN happen, in SOME cases, but in all, or even most? No way.

    Having said that, TV is not what it was in my childhood (late 60s and 70s). A great deal of marketing is geared directly at the juvenile mind, and kids command a much larger slice of broadcast time than in my day (when “kids’ TV” was 9 am to noon on Saturday on the big 3 networks and the hour and a half late each weekday afternoon of Sesame Street and Mr Rogers’s Neighborhood). The mass media have empowered kids societally in a powerful way. I’m not sure it’s beneficial to them … but while this empowerment is highly visible in TV, it’s found in other areas of life too (such as entire stores devoted solely to kids’ clothing and furniture).

    If TV is detrimental to kids, I surmise that it’s due to the larger effort by the mass media and the corporate world to empower children. No wonder the millennials have such a reputation for being selfish and needing to be coddled … the world around them has raised them to have a sense of entitlement which did not exist in prior generations.

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