Is Television making us stupid?

Is the term ‘idiot box’ accurate? Is television making us stupid? There have been countless amounts of constructive arguments on the topic of how television affects one’s intelligence, but the uncertainty clouds are views as a general public. Could it be that this amazing past time that has given us  thousands and thousands of hours of entertainment actually be bad for us?

How is television making us stupid? 

The adhesive nature of conformity led us to believe that the masses watch television programs which are total rubbish. We live in a time with so little self-decency that we allow ‘women getting punched in the face’ (courtesy of shows like the Jersey Shore) an okay thing to show on TV. People find and confide in shows much like these. Heck, I even do. It’s a guilty pleasure. But could it be that the reality show’s are the pitfall to what makes us ‘stupid’?

Well, when you think about it, there are no ‘real’ significant educational factors in any reality show. Whether it’s The Voice, X-Factor, The Real Housewives of somewhere (who really gives a shit), Survivor, The Bachelor, The Amazing Race or whatever else, one thing is for certain with these programs. You don’t learn shit from it. There is nothing factual about what happens in these shows. Yeah perhaps you might think there are educational values within ‘Survivor’ or ‘The Amazing Race’, but on the contrary when was the last time (if any) they showed us ‘how to make a fire’, ‘how to survive in the wilderness’ or ‘guides for traveling to different parts of the world’?

This is perhaps why people assume that television is making us stupid. The mind numbing genre of ‘reality’. But what about the other genres within television. Does that fall into the same category as reality does?

Let’s take children’s shows, for example. Probably the best platform to check as television can play a much more influential role in a young and growing mind. The children’s show ‘Sesame Street’ has won countless accolades from around the world for its revolutionary teaching model for children in preschool and kindergarten. “Through a television series chock-full of entertaining, quick, catchy themes came measurable educational skills in language and math. It was an instant success.” – American Psychological Association. I mean who can forget the stylings of Big Bird’s songs, Elmo’s world of witty knowledge and, of course, The Count and his laugh. 1 ah ah ah, 2 ah ah ah.

This inspired other lines of inquiry on ‘if television is educational for children’. Developmentally Sesame Street was effective for those who were taking their first steps into education, but for those who were older, it lacked substance. Substance which could negatively affect the child if the same facts are repeatedly enforced. This is where watching television can actually make you stupid.

But studies from Ohio University has mentioned that, “parents shouldn’t be so quick to turn off the television if their children are watching “Wheel of Fortune” or “Jeopardy” instead of doing their homework. Many TV game shows provide kids with information on geography, science and vocabulary”. But can adults learn off quiz shows like Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy as well? Hell yes, we can. Sure our recall of knowledge or facts may not be as strong as we get older, but the truth be told we are just as competitive when watching game shows. Who doesn’t watch ‘Who wants to be a millionaire’ and not yell out A, B, C or D when you know the answer?

Starting to see a pattern yet?

Regardless of what the type of show is, game show, children’s, drama, sitcom and so forth. What matters most is entertainment value. No matter how intriguing a show full of facts may be, if it is just black and white, the chances are the public isn’t going to like it. It will be dismissed and classified ‘boring’. This is partially the reason why morning news shows have to have soft segments or soft news (well that’s my opinion). It showcases the presenters personality. The world of media is a big popularity contest.

Is television making us stupid?

As Marty Kaplan, the founding director of the Norman Lear Center explains that, “In Hollywood, many – though not all – people with power don’t understand that their jobs include a component of moral responsibility separate from a return on investments to the shareholders and from the goal of maximizing profit.” That moral responsibility being the fine line of ‘educational/informative or stupidity vs entertaining or boring’. A balancing act that has the tendency to lean towards stupidity and entertaining far too often. It’s just easier to create shows like these.

So if we establish that ‘entertainment value’ is the key ingredient to a successful program, what programs have incorporated this with an educational twist? I’m not going to name every one of them because there is a lot, and I mean a lot. Shows like the ‘Big Bang Theory’ for example employ scientific advisers to advise about the ‘know how’ of science. People who watch this show, a whole 19.96 million per episode (2nd in the 2013/14 primetime viewers) are both entertained and educated with the intellectual jokes and quirky nature of the show.

Great right? Well, it’s not over. The scripts in shows like these are designed to get you curious. Curious enough to get you typing into Google whatever scientific term they used in dialog. I personally do this all the time and I’d imagine many of you do as well. Sometimes you just have to know what they are talking about to make sense of some of the jokes. But regardless, shows like these engage with their audience. It teaches us nonphysicists (the vast majority) that if you want to learn further you have to look elsewhere. Funnily enough, the show’s success saw a massive spike in numbers of people wanting to study physics. Who would have thought?

Other shows like House, ER and Grey’s Anatomy are very informative with medical procedures and ailments, so much so that they actually collaborate information with the Central Disease Control (CDC). Studies have been conducted on how medical shows such as these influence the audience, and the results were very promising. For example, when viewers watched an episode that talked about ‘sexually transmitted diseases’ (nothing gets young people more curious and with an elevated heart-rate than this), according to the statistics there were significant rises on the specific topic of ‘sexually transmitted diseases’. – Lear Center

Check this article out for how television solved this medical mystery.

Whether it is a clever ploy for getting people to practice safe sex or a good storyline doesn’t matter. It nonetheless wasn’t making us stupid. It was educating us both directly and indirectly.

So is television making us stupid? Are we worse off that the television exists? Is the world worse off now that people are reading less and watching more? I think not. Many shows do depict illicit activities such as violence, drug use and various sexual conducts as ‘cool’, but there can be a deeper meaning which can be portrayed through television. Violence = Arrested, Drug Use = Health Consequences, Sexual Conducts = Diseases.

Yes, the landscape of television viewing has definitely changed over the course of the last decade. But with the vast choice of channels and programs readily available at your fingertips, the conundrum of whether TV makes you stupid lies on you as the viewer. It is your choice to watch the Kardashians or the discovery channel.

What will you choose?



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