Television does, in fact, have a mesmerizing quality--what researchers Robert Kubey and Mihaly Csikzentmihalyi call the “passive spill-over effect.’' Kubey, an assistant professor in Rutgers University’s communication department, and Csikzentmihalyi (pronounced: Chick-sent-me-hi), a professor of psychology and education at the University of Chicago, have documented this phenomenon in a new book, Television and the Quality of Life: How Viewing Shapes Everyday Experience.
Typically, people turn on their television to relax. Yet Kubey found that people feel worse and derive less satisfaction from viewing the longer they watch.
“People report feeling more passive and less able to concentrate after they view television,’' says Kubey. “The passivity spills over into how they feel after viewing. A kind of inertia develops, and it becomes more and more difficult to get up and do something active. In other words, viewing leads to more viewing.’'
In a sense, watching television takes on some of the aspects of drug addiction. Explains Kubey: “It’s an easy, cheap way of changing the way you feel--you become more relaxed--with virtually no effort, but the more you use it, the less you get out of it.’'
Kubey’s work grew out of Csikzentmihalyi’s earlier studies to determine when and under what circumstances people are happy. All the participants in the study had been issued electronic pagers, or “beepers.’' Using the beeper system, Csikzentmihalyi and his associates would signal people throughout the day and ask them what they were doing at that moment and how they felt. Frequently, they reported they were watching television.
Kubey’s television research, he says, “has strengthened my own resolve that we must formally educate children in the critical analysis of mass-media products. We take children in junior high and high school and spend hours teaching them how to read poetry and novels, when the vast majority will read very little poetry and very few novels when they leave, especially with respect to the number of hours that they will spend watching television. That we don’t do more in this area is shortsighted. We owe it to ourselves as a culture and to our children.’'
A version of this article appeared in the June 01, 1990 edition of Teacher as Tune In, Zone Out