How to watch television

Published 11:00 pm Friday, February 21, 2014

I know what you’re thinking:

“I already know how to watch TV. Pour a bag of potato chips or popcorn into a bowl; grab a half-gallon of soda and plop my posterior into a chair. Then grab the remote and start clicking.

How can we move our watching of television from pure entertainment into active mental stimulation? How can we learn from watching television?


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According to a 2013 Nielsen report, the average American over 2 years old watches more than 34 hours a week of live television, plus as many as three to six hours of recorded programming.

The average American — including 2-year-olds — watches the equivalent of a full-time job’s worth of television.

So, my question isn’t how do we stop watching television, because that argument seems to have been lost a long time ago. We may want to think about limiting our television usage well below 30 or more hours a week, but TV isn’t going anywhere.

So how can we use television for our greatest benefit? How do we turn it into a useful tool for learning, rather than a grand distraction?

Here are a few thoughts:

  • Most obviously, watch educational television programming. Force the kids to take a break from watching SpongeBob’s follies and instead watch a documentary on the History Channel or Animal Planet.

Find programming suitable to the ages of the children watching that has inherent educational value. There is a lot of good learning programming for young children on PBS, for example.

  • Teach kids to watch television actively, the way one reads a piece of good literature. Ask them questions about why Squidward is so disgusted with SpongeBob’s latest antics.

Teach children to use their brains to think through some of the things they watch by watching it with them and then discussing it. It’s a good idea to know what they are watching, anyway. Ever wonder where your kid learned that phrase he just used to be cheeky to you?

  • The same goes for older kids and adults. Watch television actively. A few of the shows on television are created by great minds. A few producers are creating art in their productions.

Watch a show the way you would watch a play. Pay attention to character development and see yourself in the story. How would you react to similar circumstances? Is your personal character all that it should or could be?

  • Have discussions after watching television. Make TV an event, not a default. Use it as a base for human interaction, not a substitute.

These are just a few thoughts on this subject. Surely there are more. What do you think? Is television redeemable? Can we find ways to use it more constructively than passing the time in an endless cycle of mindless entertainment?

Chris Surber is pastor of Cypress Chapel Christian Church in Suffolk. Visit his website at