Is Television Good or Bad for People?
Some people claim that television is the root of all evil, while others think of television as a best friend. Some blame the television for society's violence, consumerism, and misinformation, while others see it as a rich resource for education and global understanding.
Who is right?
I know many people who just can't seem to live without TV. As soon as they get home, they turn it on. Even if they have work to do, family to be with, or friends to see, they do it all with the TV on. For many of us, television is such a constant presence in our lives that we haven't stopped to question whether or not it is good, and most never ask ourselves if and how television might be hurting us.
For those of you who are asking this question—to satisfy your own curiosity or for an essay, debate, or other school project—below you will find the costs and benefits of watching television.
What are the Advantages of Watching Television?
- In this busy, expensive life, television is an easy and cheap source of entertainment.
- By watching international news, we are kept informed and up-to-date with breaking news around the world.
- Some shows and channels (like PBS and Discovery) offer educational programs that can increase our knowledge and make us more aware of the world around us.
- Do-it-yourself shows give us easy access to all kinds of information: Cooking channels offer new recipes and methods, home improvement shows introduce us to many money-saving DIY tips, and financial advisers give advice for managing finances and investing money, for example. Television can also be a good way to help people learn a different language.
- Some shows can motivate people who are interested in that field and help them to pursue their dreams.
- Television can help you feel less lonely. Psychologists coined the term "social surrogacy" to explain how television can fill the shoes of absent friends or family. In one study published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, researchers found that people who watch a favorite TV show report feeling less lonely during the show.
- TV can expand your mind. Some shows let you travel vicariously and teach you about different people, cultures, ideas, and places you might never encounter in real life. Watching a variety of shows might give us a broader understanding of the world we live in and expose us to things we might otherwise never come across in our own lives.
- TV can make you feel like part of a group and let you participate in a shared subculture. In social situations where you may find yourself surrounded by strangers with whom you have nothing in common, a popular show or televised sporting event might give you something to talk about.
- Gathering around the television gives families, friends, and strangers something to bond over. Even if you're not interested in the Olympics, watching the games with your family might bring you closer together; reminiscing about shows you've watched together gives you shared history and memories.
- There may be certain health benefits to watching television. If a certain show makes you laugh, for example, then an argument can be made for its mood-elevating merits. While exercising, television can distract you from what you're doing and therefore enable you to last longer on the treadmill (there's a good reason why so many gyms have televisions, after all!). One study from the University of Rochester found that people felt more energetic after watching nature scenes.
- Television might be a free, easy source of sexual education. In a study from UC Santa Barbara, young girls who watched an episode of a nighttime soap opera that showed a character dealing with an unintended pregnancy reported being more likely to practice safe sex.
What Are the Disadvantages of Watching Television?
- Sex, crime, and violence are frequently depicted on television and may have negative effects on impressionable children (and adults!). Kids who see violent acts are more likely to display aggressive or violent behavior and also to believe that the world is a scary place and that something bad is going happen to them. Ongoing studies have shown a lasting correlation between watching violence on television and aggression that begins in childhood and continues into adulthood. Viewers sometimes imitate violent, criminal, sexual, or other risky behavior they see on television... and end up in trouble, in jail, or in a hospital as a result.
- Watching too much television is not good for your health. Studies have shown that there is a correlation between watching television and obesity. Excessive TV watching (more than 3 hours a day) can also contribute to sleep difficulties, behavior problems, lower grades, and other health issues.
- Television makes us antisocial, taking the place of family and friends.
- It's a waste of time. Watching television fills the time a person might have spent doing important, enriching things like interacting socially with other human beings, being physically active, discovering the outdoors, reading, using one's own imagination, or accomplishing other things like working or doing homework or chores, or spending time with enriching hobbies like art, music, etc.
- There's nothing good on, anyway. With hundreds of channels available, viewers can spend hours just flipping channels trying to find something worthwhile.
- Some people take television too seriously. One study published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships showed that viewers experienced the same negative reactions to the loss of an imaginary friendship with a character on television as they did when their real social relationships ended. So while television might make you feel like you have a friend, it comes with its own emotional risk and negative emotional baggage.
- Television often uses stereotypes that can warp the watcher's perception of the world. Characters often participate in risky, violent, or unwise behaviors and also reinforce rigid gender roles and racial stereotypes. It can also portray idealized lives and body types that negatively impact viewers' self esteem.
- Television's hidden agenda is consumerism: Advertisers often target kids and on average, children (those who are less capable of discerning a hidden agenda) see about 40,000 ads per year on television alone, including ads for unhealthy snack foods and alcohol. Television's ulterior motive is to get us to buy, buy, buy, at any cost, even though in 2014, at least 35% of Americans reported being in debt to a collection agency.
- It's shallow, and it will make you shallow, too. Most news programs only skim the surface of issues, and often offer a skewed or biased view of events. Programs are usually too short and too often interrupted by advertisements to delve very deeply into a topic. Instead of rich dialogues we get empty soundbites, slogans, and one-liners. Most reality shows depict deplorable characters doing silly, useless things.
- Television can ruin your relationships. If you are watching television instead of communicating with your loved one, this is a problem. If you're so wrapped up in your program that you start ignoring or spending less time with the ones you love, then television is a problem.
- Television might be addictive. For those who watch a lot, it's very hard to quit, so it is similar to a dependency like alcoholism or any another addiction. Recent studies have found that up to 12% percent of TV-watchers feel unhappy about the amount of TV they watch, consider themselves addicts, yet feel incapable of stopping themselves.
Does Television Make You Smarter or Dumber?
We call it "the idiot box" and "the boob tube." People like to say that watching TV makes you stupid, but is it true?
If you took a genius and plopped her down in front of the idiot box, would she be any less smart by the end of the day? What if she went through her entire childhood without watching a single show: How would her intelligence be affected? And how would her intelligence compare to that of other geniuses who had spent their whole lives latched onto the boob tube?
As you can probably guess, it all depends on who is watching, what they are watching, and for how long.
Certainly, we can all point to anecdotal evidence that shows how television is full of lies, half-truths, propaganda, cliché, stereotypes, and misinformation, and how it can hinder people's ability to think for themselves. It's also easy to find examples of how television manipulates people's opinions (and morals) and makes them more prone to consumerism (and debt). We all have personal experience with television that persuades us to believe it is valuable or not.
But what do the scientists say?
Researchers have been diligently studying this question for a long time, perhaps ever since the late 1940s, when television became a popular fixture in the home. Many studies have been done to ascertain the effects of television on intelligence, although most of the studies focus on younger children and results are not always conclusive.
The first two years of life are critical for a child's brain development; this is a time when a child learns motor, language, and social skills by playing and interacting, not by sitting idly and watching passively. According to pediatricians and the American Academy of Pediatrics, TV provides no educational benefits for children 2 years old and younger, and can in fact be harmful. For kids this age, TV actually might delay development since it fills time a child might have spent doing other activities, ones that actually help them learn. Interacting with their environment, playing with others, and active participation are the things children should be doing but aren't when they're parked in front of the boob tube.
A 2013 study at Ohio State University shows that preschoolers who live in homes where the television is constantly kept on (or even have a TV in their bedroom) have difficulties developing a thing called a "Theory of Mind" (ToM), which is the ability to attribute mental states (knowledge, intents, beliefs, desires, etc.) to oneself and others and to understand that others have desires and intentions that are different from their own. In other words, these kids don't have the same opportunity to exercise their ability to understand other people and differentiate others' perspectives from their own.
Research has shown that high-quality shows like Sesame Street can improve children's cognitive abilities. Study after study has shown that kids from 3 to 5 years old who watch an educational program for one hour a day are able to recognize numbers, shapes, and letters better than those who don't. When 500 kids who had participated in studies were contacted later as teenagers, researchers found that those who had watched educational programs in preschool had better grades, placed more value on achievement, read more books, and were more creative than those who hadn't.
Short answer: It depends what you watch and for how long. For school-aged children, a little educational TV goes a long way.
Does Watching Television Make People More Violent?
There have been many studies exploring whether or not there is a connection between violent behavior and violence on television, and the resounding answer is an almost unanimous "Yes!"
According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, "Extensive research evidence indicates that media violence can contribute to aggressive behavior, desensitization to violence, nightmares, and fear of being harmed."
The Facts and Figures of Violence on Television:
- Any exposure to any TV—even if the child isn't watching it, even if the program is benign—is linked to more aggressive behavior in 3-year-olds.
- Two-thirds of all television programming contains violence. Programs for children contain violence more often than adult programs do. On average, a child in the US will see 16,000 murders and 200,000 acts of violence by the time they reach their 18th birthday.
- On television, most violent acts are portrayed humorously and go unpunished, while consequences of loss and suffering are either omitted or glossed over. TV violence is also often glamorized and characterized as just a fun and effective way to get what you want.
- Studies show that children consistently imitate the violence they see on TV, and continued exposure to TV violence desensitizes them and makes them less empathetic. Children under 8 years of age can't differentiate between fantasy and reality and therefore begin to believe the world they see depicted on television is real.
- Watching violence can have long-term effects: As noted earlier, a longitudinal study conducted by the University of Michigan found that aggressive and violent behavior learned on television in childhood persists into adulthood.
(This data was gleaned from the University of Michigan Health System's website.)
Short answer: Yes!
Frequently Asked Questions About the Effects of Television
Q: Do children who don't watch TV do better in school than those who do?
A: The answer depends on socioeconomic factors, including the current income of the household and the educational and economic history of the caregivers. For the middle class, it can be said that increased viewing does correlate with lower grades in school, but for children from poorer families, the opposite is true: the more television they watch, the better their grades are. If the caregivers are not around to interact with the children or are not intellectually stimulating, then the kids seem to learn more from watching television.
Q: If children from poorer families benefit from television, does that mean that children from poorer countries might benefit, as well?
A: That may be true. An international 2001 study looked at the way children spend their leisure time, including TV-watching and computer use, and concluded that in richer countries where a larger percentage of kids watched TV every day, higher scores were achieved on reading exams. Researchers also implied that those kids also had higher IQ scores.
Q: Does watching television make you fat?
A: Although it doesn't seem like too much of a stretch to say that people who watch a lot of TV are getting less exercise, exposing themselves to more temptation (since $1 billion is spent annually on junk food advertising targeted at children and teenagers alone), and mindlessly eating more (junk) food, the actual studies do not always clearly support this claim. Although television watching is a strong risk factor for childhood and adolescent obesity, it's hard to pinpoint the exact cause, so it might be more precise to say that it's not television itself but inactivity and buying into ads for junk food that contribute to higher BMI.
Q: Does watching television ruin your eyesight?
A: There is no evidence to support this rumor that began in the 1960s, when General Electric sold TV sets that emitted excessive amounts of radiation. Although modern technology is safe, the rumor is still alive, probably because parents need a scary, persuasive reason to get their kids to go outside to play!
Q: Does watching television have an adverse effect on reading skills?
A: There is evidence to support this hypothesis. Studies have found that for some older kids, TV can discourage and replace reading. Children from households where the TV is on a lot are less likely to be read to, spend less time reading themselves, and are less likely to be able to read.
Q: How much television do people watch per day, on average?
A: Too much. According to the Nielsen report, the average American over the age of 2 watch more than 34 hours a week. According to a 2013 survey conducted by Nickelodeon, children under the age of 9 watch 35 hours of television per week. The average 12-month-old gets between 1 and 2 hours of screen time per day. Hard statistics for infants can't be found but in one survey, 90% of parents said that their children under 2 watch TV.
Q: How much television is too much?
A: The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that kids under 2 years not watch any (none!) and that that older kids watch no more than 1 to 2 hours a day of "quality programming."
Studies About the Effects of Television on the Brain
There are relatively few serious studies about the effect of television on the gray matter, but there have been a few, including these:
- A Japanese study published in Oxford Journals showed that excessive TV-watching can change the structure of a child's brain and cause lower verbal intelligence.
- An Iowa State University study found that students who watched TV for two hours or more per day were twice as likely suffer from attention deficits.
- Do you dream in black and white? Apparently, this may be a result of watching television.
Which Television Shows Are Best?
We can all agree that some television shows are better than others. But which shows offer the most educational value?
PBS, BBC, NASA TV, and the Annenberg channel all have excellent programming. Nova, Planet Earth, and other science and nature documentaries are also intellectually-rich programs. But aside from the obvious choices, there are many shows on which are not only intentionally but incidentally educational, especially for certain individuals. Everyone can probably chime in with their own list of the top ten shows that make us smarter, and everyone's list would be different, so it's safe to say that the educational benefit varies from viewer to viewer (or education is in the eye of the beholder). Even shows intended as pure entertainment might teach certain viewers something worthwhile.
How to Choose Good Television for Children
While you're watching television with your kid, ask yourself (and your child, if she or he is old enough) these questions:
- Does this show encourage your child to be creative, use imagination, or ask questions? In other words, how passive or active does this show expect the viewer to be?
- How is this show like a commercial? If the show seems designed to get your kids to buy something, then it's motive is probably sales, not education. If you're at the store and your child latches onto a toy based on a TV show, this might be a sign they've been watching advertisements disguised as entertainment.
- Does this show depict stereotypical gender, race, and class roles?
Because kids believe that what they see on TV is real and true, you'll want to take extra care to make sure that the characters they watch are diverse and positive. Self-esteem can be diminished or distorted when kids don't see themselves represented on TV, don't see any characters that are different from themselves, or only see characters that conform to stereotypes.
- What is the show's message?
Watch a few episodes to see what the underlying tone and purpose seems to be. Who are the "good guys," who is considered "bad," and why? Which qualities or actions are rewarded, and which are punished? What qualities does the show suggest are important or desirable?
- How does your kid react to this show? Sometimes, actions speak clearer than words, so you should watch to see what mood your child takes away from the TV. Some shows are quiet, slow, and thoughtful, while others are fast, dramatic, and edgy. Neither is better than the other but it's important to see how the mood effects your child. Does she want to jump on furniture, run around, and hit things, or does he seem subdued and almost hypnotized after watching? Does the show inspire her to play games? Or does he have nightmares or show other signs of anxiety that seem to be a reaction to something he saw on TV?
Simply asking these questions will render any show more educational, but if your child is too young to understand, you will have to make the decision about whether or not this show is good for your kid.
What is Media Literacy?
Little kids aren't ready to think critically, but the older you get, the more capable you are of thinking, judging, and evaluating for yourself. Adults young and old can develop their ability to think outside the idiot box: Media literacy is the ability to analyze and evaluate media, including (but not limited to) television programs and advertisements.
- understand the complex messages, philosophies, and agendas hidden beneath the surface of what is shown.
- do not watch passively but rather engage actively by asking questions, challenging assertions, and digging deeper.
- don't take things at face value, but rather spend time and energy deciphering subliminal messages and motives.
Here are 6 tips to help improve media literacy:
- Understand how media shape cultures and societies.
- Develop critical thinking skills by watching actively (not passively) and asking questions.
- Recognize what the media-maker wants the audience to believe or do.
- Identify target marketing strategies: In other words, know what is being sold and to whom.
- Recognize persuasion, propaganda, bias, spin, misinformation, and lies.
- Discover the story's hidden parts and perspectives.
In conclusion, there are both advantages and disadvantages of watching television, although children are more negatively affected than adults.
What do you think? What's your favorite show? If you have something to add, please comment in the section below!
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© 2013 Rumana
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