Some things haven't changed from the 70s. A few years ago, a study by the Council for Research Excellence found that subjects still underestimated how much traditional TV they watched. But a new finding came to light: Participants also overestimated how much time they spent on their mobile phones, a huge and new source for streaming shows and videos.
How much does digital technology have to do with TV guilt today? When homes had just one TV set with a limited number of channels, didn’t sitting down at night for a show with the family mean connectedness and good feelings all around? Contrast that with today, with laptops, tablets, and smartphones feeding binge-watching and solitary viewing—both of which must be guilt-inducing. Right?
Yes and no, Brooks explained. On one hand, mobile streaming—usually through YouTube or services like Netflix—has allowed for the further decentralization of the viewing experience from the living room to, say, the doctor’s waiting room. But technology has also helped TV-watching habits come full-circle, back to their communal roots. Most mobile viewing, surprisingly, takes place at home, meaning that a kid could be on her Android, watching a web series, while her parents watch CSI 10 feet away. In other words, digital technology has also engendered a new kind of togetherness.
On the demographic side, younger viewers in college and high school who have fewer responsibilities are less inclined to begrudge themselves of a couple hours of Parks and Recreation. But research indicates that once the responsibilities begin to pile up—marriage, work, kids—the burden of justification for sneaking in an hour-long episode of Mad Men grows that much heavier.
This guilt, warranted or not, has consequences. TV, alongside its similarly maligned cousin video games, can have restorative, even salubrious effects, but mostly for those who already view it as a healthy way to unwind at the end of a busy day, according to a June study in the Journal of Communication. Otherwise, people feel like failures, unable to control their own TV consumption.
More so than with other forms of entertainment, indulgence in TV is readily pathologized. For decades, researchers have noted the hazards linked to television: Depictions of guns and blood spatter can cause aggressive behavior; too much Nickelodeon can fatten up and dumb down children (even if it’s in the background); too much time in front of the set will numb your brain; you’ll get addicted. Television will make your eyes square; kids might forget what libraries are.
But TV shows have long since internalized, even embraced, the casual, long-simmering suspicion of the medium. Broadly meta TV abounds (see here, here, and here). TV openly disses itself, knowingly, winkingly, ironically.
Whatever guilt we dedicated viewers feel from time to time can be transmuted, or neutralized, by television itself. The show will, as they say, go on. Chances are if we’re still watching, we’ll keep watching.