Can TV be good for you?

With TV making its way onto computers, tablets and mobile phones, we’re suffering from squarer eyes than ever before. But, as Diane Shipley finds, TV has more to offer society than brain rot

According to the Broadcasters’ Audience Research Board, the average person who lives to 80 will spend 13.4 years watching television. That’s a lot of sitting still, and a sedentary lifestyle is frequently associated with everything from thrombosis to cancer. But while many of us would benefit from a little more fresh air and exercise, the goggle box does have its good side.

Research published this February in the American journal Pediatrics showed that children who watched only socially conscious programmes such as Sesame Street were more disposed to helping others than those who watched a wider variety of shows. In 2009, a study at the University of Rochester, New York, found that people who viewed nature scenes were more likely to give money to a good cause afterwards than people who looked at urban settings.

TV can be educational: in a large-scale survey, 55% of 18-24 year-olds said they learned about politics from legal and government-themed dramas. It can also raise awareness of health and social issues: a report by Glasgow Caledonian University called EastEnders’ 2004 domestic violence storyline “groundbreaking” in terms of increasing public awareness. And Dr Fran Walfish, psychotherapist and author of The Self-Aware Parent (Palgrave MacMillan, £10.99) says that TV shows with mature themes can be a tool to communicate with children and teens.

“The way to do that is for the parent to sit with the teenager and watch the show that, for instance, has strong sexual content,” she says. “It’s a real opportunity afterwards to say, ‘What did you think about that scene and did you know that already?’”

Some people find their favourite programmes inspire them during difficult times. Kerri Simpson is a psychology student whose enthusiasm for her degree was waning to the extent that she considered quitting. But after watching an episode of Bones featuring psychologist character Dr Sweets, she was re-inspired to hit the books, achieving 92% on her next exam. “It feels a bit odd to admit to having a fictional role model, but it did the trick,” she says.

“45% of storylines involving someone with a mental illness portrayed them as being dangerous to others, when in reality mentally ill people are more likely to be the victims of violence”

After Greg Staffa became homeless, his favourite show, White Collar, about an ex-convict who gets a second chance, became a lifeline. Not only did its message of redemption provide hope, but once a week he would rent a cheap hotel room in order to shower, get a good night’s sleep, and watch the programme. “It may just be a TV show but it gave me something to look forward to week after week,” he says. “For a homeless person, looking towards the future means living.”

A strong connection with a show can clearly be a powerful thing. But even when a programme has an important message, it may not impress its intended audience. Says Dr Walfish, “People need somebody they can identify with in order to convert to the new belief.”

Not identifying with the people on screen often means that groups that tend to be underrepresented on TV, such as ethnic minorities, disabled people, and members of the LGBT community, can feel alienated when they don’t see their experiences reflected.

Inaccurate portrayals also perpetuate stigma: a 2010 Department of Health report found that 45% of television storylines involving someone with a mental illness portrayed them as being dangerous to others, when in reality mentally ill people are more likely to be the victims of violence.

But things may slowly be changing. Last October, mental health charities Mind and Rethink Mental Illness hosted an event for TV writers to discuss best practice in portraying mental illness. And in April, the Cultural Diversity Network, a consortium of 11 media organisations, announced its Diversity Pledge: a commitment to improving diversity on screen and behind the scenes.

Despite these encouraging developments, a 2011 study by the British Journal of Sports Medicine found that people who watched six hours of TV a day shortened their life expectancy by 4.8 years, so perhaps the best thing we can do as viewers is to be selective about what we watch. If we want to encourage more progressive (and impressive) television, we need to reward quality shows with our attention. But perhaps we’ll enjoy them that bit more if we venture off the sofa and out into the real world once in a while.