Does Watching TV Together Really Help Families Bond?

1950s family watching tvCenturyLinkQuest hit me up with an email announcement about some research the company performed about families and television viewing. Since CLQ is a CenturyLink reseller and sells Internet and TV services to homes, it’s hard to imagine that the firm would find a negative correlation between families, TV, and happiness, but it’s still interesting reading…

CLQ quotes Nielsen’s estimate that 121 million US homes have televisions. But I dug a bit further, finding that’s out of a total of 125 million homes in the United States. The surprise is that 4 million homes apparently don’t have television. Do they watch on their tablets, computers, or phones? I know, there are actually some households that eschew visual media, and that’s ok. But the more interesting question to me is how many homes have more than one television?

Turns out that number is a bit hard to ascertain, but it is interesting (and related) that the number of households with more than two TVs is actually going down, after peaking around 2009. According to the Energy Information Administration, roughly 39% of US homes now have three or more televisions, down from 44% roughly a decade ago.

EIA Data: Average Number of TVs in US homes

A good sign for family togetherness? Sorry, no. I figure that the trend is more reflective of the rise of laptops and tablets. My kids watch just as much TV content on their devices as they do on big screens (and with earbuds or headphones, they have a lot more privacy to watch content otherwise not approved by parents). In other words, “you want to watch “Love Island”? Ugh, no thanks, please take it off the big screen ASAP 🙂

TV Helps Families Bond?

The CenturyLinkQuote research reports that “62% of people [surveyed] enjoy watching TV as a family because it helps them bond”. We’ve definitely found that true and my college-age kids routinely come to my place for movie nights, particularly when I have a screener link for an upcoming theatrical release (next up: Jungle Cruise)

The thing is, this stat is also a bit optimistic because the proliferation of media options means it’s even more likely that people are going to be enjoying different shows. Couple that with the fact that every child now has a phone, tablet, or computer, and it also means that media is also splitting us apart: When I was growing up, we had one TV in the main room and no other viewing options, so if I wanted to watch TV, it was de facto with my parents. Now? We have at least a half-dozen TV-capable screens in the house.

family watching tv together grahpic

This isn’t to say that planning and sharing a show can’t be fun and reaffirming for a family. Certainly, if everyone can agree on a show – or movie – then it can be very fun to laugh together, be pulled into a story, and debate what’s going to happen to the characters in the next episode! Indeed, I think that most media is designed to be watched in a social setting, as demonstrated by how a mediocre movie can be outright bad when watched alone at home but can be great fun when in a crowded, lively theater. (I’m thinking in particular of films like The Rocky Horror Picture Show).

Again, who hasn’t gone to a friend’s house to watch the latest episode of Lost, Game of Thrones, Stranger Things, or The Bachelor?

How To Watch Shows Together

The trick is to know how to watch a show together.  Movies are relatively easy because they’re linear, without interruptions, but watching a movie or any other programming on commercial TV requires the use of a key feature on your remote control: Mute. It’s something I’ve done forever with my kids, mute the ads and ask questions about the show we’re watching to fill in that time instead.

tv remote mute button

It’s easy and turns out to work really well because you can ask a simple open-ended question and really help your kids process and understand what they’re watching. You probably do it already without thinking, the “Oohhh, what’s Jamal going to do now that Suzanne quit the play?” or “How can they avoid being eaten by the zombies?”

This ability to converse during or after a show is much of what makes viewing such a different experience when you’re with other people. Who hasn’t left a movie theater with friends and talked about the movie you just saw for the next hour?

TV Expands Your Family’s Horizons

I do agree with CenturyLinkQuest’s findings that watching shows about different cultures and lifestyles can reinforce “that there are other ways to see the world.” 82% of respondents agreed with that statement, which is heartening. But, again, a bit of parental direction is called for in this instance, because with the enormous variety of content available to us, it’s not too hard to find shows and movies that reinforce your own biases and views of the world. Those negative stereotypes that you and your children might harbor? They can be reinforced by TV as easily as challenged or examined.

This cuts both ways, of course. How often will a liberal Democratic family watch a movie suffused with Christian values or a show that features characters proud of their traditional family values? Similarly, how often does a flag-waving Republican family sit around the TV and watch the latest documentary about LGBT groups or efforts to change institutional racism in law enforcement? Maybe sometimes. I’d like to think so. Because diversity means challenging yourself too, not just watching a sitcom set in Sri Lanka, Shenzen, or Johannesburg and feeling like you’re a worldly family.

tv infancy morals warning retro

Suffice to Say

Truth is that TV offers an opportunity for families to share favorite shows and movies but it’s still up to us parents to pick good content and provoke those bonding conversations. And a key idea: Don’t judge your children for their views, because it’s quite possible they look at things differently to you. Support that diversity and ask them questions about it, even as you also invite them to question your ideas and views too.

Might that be occasionally uncomfortable? Yes. But bonding and expanding your family’s views and perspective might just come from a bit of discomfort and an occasional “huh, I never thought about it that way” moment, not just cheering the hero and shared laughs over the actor’s antics in the show.

That’s my view. What do you think about TV’s continued ability to knit families closer together through shared viewing?

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