Steven Johnson wrote recently in the New York Times Magazine that "Watching TV Makes You Smarter." Oh, how I would love to believe that. Even if it's true, Johnson makes the claim only about recent television programming, not what I watched during my long school vacations. Zero mention of Punky Brewster, MacGyver, or Yo! MTV Raps.
You see, I used to watch up to 12 hours of television a day. I often wonder how much more I could achieve with my mind if I had spent that time reading or, heck, watching paint dry. I sometimes console myself by saying that it didn't rot my brain--there are many types of literacy, and watching so much TV just made me learn to think in a particular way. Maybe not a way useful to the classroom, but a way that will make me wildly suited to some fabulously constructive endeavor someday. For a while I was very interested in going to grad school for media studies. Finally, a way to turn my years of experience with TV into an asset!
According to Johnson, I would not have to worry about watching too much TV nowadays, because TV has become a "cognitive workout." I've always admired the scriptwriting of ER and The West Wing. They're more like plays or literature or movies. Johnson praises narrative shows like these and 24 for their complex and interweaving plot lines and refusal to spell things out for the viewer. (They use "multiple threading" and few "flashing arrows.")
Johnson also praises reality TV for inducing "the intellectual labor of probing the system's rules for weak spots and opportunities," improving "social dexterity." Talking about Survivor et al., he says:
The phrase ''Monday-morning quarterbacking'' describes the engaged feeling that spectators have in relation to games as opposed to stories. We absorb stories, but we second-guess games.
One need not limit oneself to reality TV. I instinctively deconstruct everything I watch. Even the youth of today realize all of showbiz is just a game too. And shows like The Daily Show and Best Week Ever coach us in the analysis of news and entertainment media. The more you watch, the more comfortable you become with the mores of modern culture, as long as you treat boob-tubing as an anthropological outing.
The Onion once ran a story titled "Study: Watching Fewer Than Four Hours Of TV A Day Impairs Ability To Ridicule Pop Culture."
"An hour or two of television per day simply does not provide enough information to effectively mock mediocre sitcoms, vapid celebrities, music videos, and talk-show hosts—an essential skill in modern society," said Dr. Madeleine Ben-Ami, a professor of cognitive science and chief author of the study. ... Ben-Ami said she and her colleagues fear that, if it is not corrected, television illiteracy could result in an American sub-group unable to function in the modern world.
If you've ever watched the late great Mystery Science Theater 3000, you know that the worse the show, the less passive watching the show is. More crap, more callbacks. The Onion goes on:
Graf said that, without supersaturation in the worst forms of the medium, children will treat television as a source of passive entertainment.
"Long gone are the days when an individual would switch on his set and enjoy a simple, satisfying, and fun hour of diversion," Graf said. "To perceive television this way is to be hopelessly out of step with our times."
All that said, I will NOT let my kids watch as much TV as I did. I still wonder what role it played in my depression and attentional problems. (I know they're correlated, but was one the cause?) Multiple studies show that watching TV decreases happiness, attention span, and creativity, and makes viewers less social, less perseverent, and more bored in unstructured situations. For a review, read this Scientific American article on Television Addiction.
Soleil Moon Frye, you have ruined my life!!!