Getting rid of the idea that older adults are television addicts

Curator's Note

Older adults (65+) watch more television (on average) than younger people do. This has led to the one-sided image that older people watch a lot of television because they have nothing better to do, or because they have nobody to talk to. As media researchers we should leave this stereotypical view behind, and search for a fuller understanding of the role of television in older people’s lives.

Notions about successful aging can help media researchers in that search. Therefore I have chosen a clip that presents some famous ideas about aging (based on the work by Baltes and Baltes). The clip shows that aging involves both gains and losses. Many people in their 60s are as active physically, mentally, and socially as they were in their 40s. Also, the SOC model is helpful, with its notion of selection and compensation as central adaptation strategies.
When we look at older adults’ experiences of their television viewing, with these ideas about aging in mind (as I did in my dissertation), a much more diverse view on watching television appears. Older people mainly use television in selection strategies: They watch television because television adds something to their lives. They choose to watch television or specific programs, because they find them interesting, instructive, cozy, it makes them laugh, or they enjoy watching together. And when they are critical about television or specific genres, they choose not to watch those. Only some people watch for want of something better: as compensation for things that are not possible (anymore).
I’m wondering whether older people in different cultures and different countries experience their television viewing differently. There will be similarities between Western countries, but also differences. For example, the American culture places much emphasis on work and achievements which could make the transition to other meaningful pastimes after retirement more difficult than in Western European countries. On the other hand, Americans watch more television on average than Europeans, which might make television viewing a more acceptable pastime. And what do we know about how older people in for example China and Japan experience their television viewing?


Thank you for your post. Use and Gratifications Theory talks about people purposefully choose media channels and content to satisfy their relational and personal needs. Research has shown that older adults are motivated to watch TV for information, surveillance, parasocial interaction, or identity affirmation, etc. But, you raised a very interesting point and it makes me wonder if our cultural values influence our motivation to watch TV. Whether certain cultural values, such as individual achievement as you mentioned, may affect older adults to engage in activities in addition to watching TV? 

Thank you for the thoughtful post and intriguing questions. I appreciate your arguments that older adults are neither passive consumers of media, nor are they merely watching television because they have nothing better to do. I like your focus on the 'experience' of watching television and line of questioning regarding cultural differences in that experience - it leads us to ask "how do older adults in different cultures experience and watch television? What cultural values (as they intersect with media forms themselves) would enable/disable particular instrumental, identity and relational needs being met by television viewing of older adults across different cultures? Certainly, to that end, cultural practices regarding media technologies themselves (and perhaps their association with various age groups) might influence how older adults experience such consumption.

Melissa Aleman

Thank you for this post and video!  I am very excited to see some additional work in the area of tv viewing, as my students frequently argue that older adults DON'T have anything else to do and thus watch tv.  Your work also seems to parallel Wendy Hajjar's work about television in the nursing home.  As you and she note, there are times when tv viewing is less active and a way to fill time, but that is not necessarily true the majority of the time. 

The video is also terrific - what a great explanation of the gains and losses, based on the data and yet so interesting and easy to understand. I hope I'll be able to share that with my students in the fall!

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