What Handheld Devices Have Done to Family TV Viewing

TV when I was a kid was a different animal than today. Sure, it had its detractors and proponents, but what it didn’t have was 24-7 programming—anything you can imagine watching and then some—at your fingertips in your pocket. We’ve entered a new age. The age of The Handheld Device.

The ability to interact with the world, with programming has not only changed how we view the world, it’s changed our viewing behavior.

Image_warping_example.jpgBy Salemterrano

-image courtesy Salemterrano, Wikimedia Commons

When I was a kid, we had PBS, Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom, local news, 60 Minutes, Disney, Startrek, Gilligan’s Island, After School Specials, The Electric Company, Sesame Street, The Brady Bunch and National Geographic—and CBS and NBC News: Walter Cronkite and Tom Brokaw. This benign programming made up the core of my early 70’s childhood TV viewing.

512px-Leonard_Nimoy_William_Shatner_Star_Trek_1968.JPG by NBC TV

-image courtesy NBC via Wikimedia Commons

But it’s not so much the sanitized, selective viewing I miss, but that limiting viewing to one TV made it a family event. As much as I at times loathed that we watched the news over dinner and waited to talk when it was over, I realize now how much of my understanding of the world and development of a world perspective was formed by those interactions with my family and others—if they just dropped by—and were invited into our conversation.

I’d venture to say the American act of coming together, watching the news or a documentary and talking over the meal is largely gone. In my household and I suspect most households.  Sometimes we do share things we’ve found online, but they’re shorter, they’re from widely different contexts, they may have no discernible cultural or relevant context, and they lack in-depth and the synthesis of a broader experience other than the moment held before us in our palm.

Today, with multiple viewing and interacting devices, families rarely watch and discuss anything together anymore. At least mine. And, when my kids try to show me something, I find I don’t “get” the humor, vocabulary, gestures and language. Okay – I’m sounding like my grandmother. But I think individual devices are the accelerant that has fueled the fires burning gaps between generations and cultures within cultures.

For example, I don’t “get” Thirty Rock. But I get Big Bang Theory, probably because of my early Startrek training. And my husband who grew up on European news documentaries in Germany loathes the fifteen-second news-to-seven-minute ad cycle modeled by CNN whereby part of the story is repeated in the next cycle… “You can watch for an hour to get 10 minutes of real story. And no analysis. Frustrating.”


Big_Bird_Sesame_Street.jpgBy Igel B TyMaHe

-image courtesy Igel B. TyMaHe, Wikimedia Commons

In keeping with where I want to put my energy, I’m looking for ways to get my family focused back on one program that widens their view and understanding of the world. True, we rarely watched Sesame Street as an entire family… but I’m searching for that family learning experience–uncut beats sanitized if it engenders meaningful conversation.  One program we’ll all stand a chance of enjoying and learning from. If enjoyment’s not possible, I’ll settle for the learning, but I’d like it to happen all together in the precious window of time after dinner and before homework, before we all collapse into bed… with our individual devices docked on our bed stands waiting to wake us in the morning if not distract us from sleep.


How have you handled this issue in your home? What programs are great for spurring family discussions about culture and social change—whether at home or abroad?

17 thoughts on “What Handheld Devices Have Done to Family TV Viewing

  1. Good point!! I was thinking of my own use. For me its like when an adult would read the paper and didnt want to be bugged. Thats me! Lead by example is my first thought. Switch my own habits. Man…i remember sunday eves. Mutual of omaha, disney, sonny and. Her, donny and marie!! The best!


    • I use my handheld for reading books and papers too…but my kids don’t seem to project that understanding…”But, mom, you’re on your device ALL THE TIME…playing around.” I’m not sure the New York Times is playing around! But I do like it and my device!


      • Totally! And im realizing it all “looks” the same . FB or reading something important…im sitting there w the fam on my phone. Its like ive become some preoccupied electronic bookworm. Time for me to be done! Treat family time like going out to dinner…the phone gets put away. Not sure that was the goal of your post but thanks for the wake up!!! K.


  2. Our family loves our pizza Friday with a movie. We do our best to find a movie the entire family will enjoy (thank you, Netflix!). None of us have the patience for commercials, so we will wait for a season to be streamed. We have one TV in the house, but with tablets and a laptop we are able to watch shows that only one of us is interested in watching. The upside to this arrangement is that the rest of us don’t have to listen to a show we can’t stand. The difference between a teenage daughter and son in what they watch is huge (think Glee vs. Futurama), so giving them time to enjoy one of their own shows is a nice break.
    Oh, and you watched all the shows our family enjoyed together when I was young! Star Trek, MASH, and Sunday night Disney were favorites.


  3. I’d like to add All in The Family to the list of 1970s family favorites. I can’t believe my parents let me watch this when I was about 5-6, but in a way, I’m glad they did as it made me think about societal issues from a very young age. Ohhh, Archie…
    Fast-forwarding to today, my wife and I are very careful with TV around our 10-year old son, who goes to Waldorf school where TV viewing for young kids isn’t really encouraged in the first place. We definitely do not watch the news with him! Luckily we have a new public broadcaster here in BC that provides a lot of really good children’s programming and documentaries, that we watch with him, and we also let him watch some sports (his big favorites are NHL hockey and Premier League Soccer). As Cal Pixie says above, it’s good to lead by example…


    • Ian, I’m with you on “Oh Archie.” That guy! I used to argue with my parents about him. I’m glad we’ve all come a long way! And it is so important to monitor what young children see. And how could you not watch “Oh Canada’s” fav–Hockey? I grew up across the border from Niagara Falls Ontario. We used to watch curling on TV… so the Olympic chatter and curling bashing is so familiar to me!


  4. We have four televisions, and must own so many movies I’m hesitant to approximate. We love movies. We got rid of Netflix last year, just hadn’t used it in months…My husband is now the only real tv person in the house, and he’ll watch anything.
    We tend to split up in the evenings, with books, laptops, games — sometimes alone, sometimes in pairs.
    As a family, we watch The Big Bang Theory and The Taste. The youngest watches NCIS as a weekly snuggle time ritual with her daddy. Sassy and I like to watch SNL on Sunday mornings. Here of late, we’ve enjoyed The Olympics.
    I don’t think it’s a bad thing, especially with the DVR’s. I know no one else wants to watch Moo’s LaLaLoopsies, and think it’s nice that she can go off to do that. (While she plays LaLaLoopsies, lol!)


  5. This post made me think of a recent Comcast ad where everybody in the house is in a different room on a different device, having grand old individual times in their own separate worlds. Yet somehow the theme of the ad was supposed to reflect family.

    Every time I saw the ad it irked me… on a deep-sociological level. It always made me think “What’s wrong with this picture? Why is this family in digital solitary confinement pitched as a good thing?” The ad never even closed with a shot of the whole family watching TV together. It was better for them to be “alone together” I guess

    I know Comcast is selling a tech product and not a tool for family love and togetherness, but it just seems emblematic of our continuing personal disconnect due to this explosion of information technology. True, there are benefits to it, and I enjoy them myself — but I believe the long-term effects will be reflected in our collective inability to forge true, meaningful connections with others and to empathize with our fellow humans. I’m not a Luddite, but sometimes I long for the world before I first logged onto AOL in 1995, thought “wow,” and jumped on this runaway train that is changing society in ways likely not anticipated back then.


    • Such a great analogy about the runaway train that is the internet with all it’s pluses and minuses. And your take on the ad is fabulous as well! How this thing that can “connect” us to the world, separates us from the intimacy of real –body, soul, breath– relationships. Thank you Michael, your dropping by is as insightful as ever.


  6. Until only a few years ago the choices here were limited to the four main providers on free to air TV unless you wanted to pay a small fortune for the pay TV companies. Now those four providers have branched out to have other channels, but they are mostly filled with shopping shows and repeats. We find that we have more free to air choice than ever before and we watch less than ever before.


    • Thanks for checking it out Otto. I just mentioned your blog to a student, since she was writing essentially about flow and being in the zone… I referred her to your work as a great introduction with great visuals agumenting this concept. Best to you. On Monday, I’m posting my first in s series of posts about getting my dad to Kathmandu this Fall. If you’ve been, or know someone, I’d love to pick your brain! Best, Renee


      • In am honoured that you mentioned my blog to a student. Thank you, Renee. I have indeed been to Kathmandu, but it’s really a long time ago, so I don’t know how much I can contribute with. Still let me know.


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