For many years, I didn’t watch much television. In fact, I took pride in not owning one for the first few years after my wife and I married 20 years ago.
It wasn’t hard, because TV wasn’t all that great. That obviously changed, and we entered an era where television got really good. Suddenly, The Wire, Breaking Bad, Mad Men, Justified, and Game of Thrones were not only shows I happily spent time watching — they became essential parts of the broader culture.
Beyond true “must see” TV, there was a lot of great stuff to devote my precious attention to (like Weeds, Parks and Recreation, and 30 Rock). I was spending a substantial amount of time just deciding what to watch.
Of course, I’ve also viewed just about every standup comedy special on Netflix (and there are a ton of them). Yes, I enjoy standup — but I think the key point is that it was so easy to simply load up the app and watch rather than open a book as I once would have.
Is it really the idiot box?
So let’s be clear — it’s not the medium that’s the problem, despite the teeth gnashing of those who bemoan the decline in reading. And the content itself won’t hurt you; it’s rather that it’s not helping you learn meaningful things, unless it's designed to educate.
Take Sesame Street, for example. The groundbreaking children’s show was designed to be 80% educational, and the rest balanced with fun to keep kids engaged. An American study showed that children who watched the show (and watched it more often) gained 5.4 IQ points compared with the control group. A later study showed a similar effect across the world.
So, what’s the real issue? A lot of television programming is relatively mindless (and often that’s exactly what we’re looking for). It’s not necessarily the shift from reading to television that’s causing IQ scores to drop across the globe — it’s the shift from educational content to entertainment content.
Devote time to learning
If life-long learning is our secret weapon, it makes sense to set aside time to learn. And whether it’s a paperback novel, an audio book, or an educational program, it’s the what, not the how, that matters.
For example, I loved watching Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown. I always felt that I had learned something useful about a specific culture and region of the world.
And there’s room for fiction as well. I know I gleaned valuable lessons about the human condition from both reading Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment and binge-watching Breaking Bad.
It sometimes feels good to mentally check out with some fluff after a hard day. But it always feels good to know you’re a bit smarter than you were yesterday.
You Are What You Watch? The Social Effects of TV (New York Times)