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Does television rot your brain?

In the early days of TV, optimism surrounded this new communication tool. It was going to be a University of the Air, bringing culture—the symphony, opera and theatre—to elevate the masses. TV executives quickly learned that the masses have no interest in being elevated and would rather watch car chases, adultery and professional wrestling.

High hopes for television were pretty much gone by 1961, when FCC chairman Newton Minnow called it a “vast wasteland.” He described TV programming as “a procession of game shows, violence, audience participation shows, formula comedies about totally unbelievable families, blood and thunder, mayhem, violence, sadism, murder, western badmen, western good men, private eyes, gangsters, more violence and cartoons. And endlessly, commercials—many screaming, cajoling and offending. And most of all boredom. True, you will see a few things you will enjoy. But they will be very, very few.”

That’s certainly not true today, right? Clearly we have fewer westerns on TV. Plus, with about 80 percent of U.S. households receiving cable or satellite television, the vast wasteland has become much vaster. There’s still nothing good on, but with 200 channels it takes a lot longer to find that out.

Ever since the “idiot box” became our culture’s dominant media voice, frustrated parents have warned that television will rot their children’s brains. There’s no scientific evidence that points to a mechanism for this—it’s not like “TV rays” penetrate the skull and directly kill brain cells.

But the developing science of neuroplasticity suggests that our brain changes throughout our lives, based on what we’re asking it to do. If you ask your brain to do crossword puzzles or memorize Scripture, your brain will adapt to the challenge. And if you ask your brain to watch “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo,” it will adapt to that as well.

Most of television’s negative effects probably come in the form of “opportunity cost,” an idea from microeconomics that boils down to “an hour spent doing one thing is an hour that’s not available for something else.” Groucho Marx illustrated this concept when he said, “I find television very educational. The minute somebody turns it on, I go to the library and read a good book.”

But another way television affects us is by subtly changing our worldview. It doesn’t happen overnight. It’s not like you watch an episode of “Real Housewives” and decide “I should become a shallow person with anger issues.” But TV offers a window to the world, and over time we can come to believe that what we see through that window is an accurate picture.

Communication scholar George Gerbner called this “cultivation theory,” the idea that television portrayals can “cultivate” certain attitudes in viewers. For instance, the more you watch TV, the more likely you are to fear becoming a victim of crime—since the TV world is packed with criminals. Heavy consumers of television also tend to overestimate—by about 500 percent—the number of people involved in law enforcement (there are lots of cops on TV to chase all of those criminals).

What other false realities might we be absorbing from television? Many TV characters live in homes much nicer than their jobs can justify. They spend a lot of time eating out without ever gaining a pound. And God just isn’t a part of the lives of TV characters. A study by the Parents Television Council found that faith is nearly absent from prime-time entertainment, with only one mention for every 1.6 hours of programming.

Lest you think that I’m some kind of media-phobe whose secret dream is to join an Amish community (where many people don’t even have basic cable), let me admit that I watch more than my fair share of television (just ask my wife). But I try to balance that with reading, socializing and experiencing the real world around me. (It’s in 3D, and the resolution is amazing!)

I’d share more ideas for keeping TV in check but I have to go—there’s a rerun of “Last Man Standing” calling my name.




— by Doug Trouten

Doug Trouten teaches communication at the University of Northwestern – St. Paul.