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Family TV Time Used To Be Social, But Now It’s Isolating

For the past several weeks, my son has gathered together on Sunday nights with friends to watch each episode of the final season of “Game of Thrones.” He’s out the door at 8 p.m. in order to “get a good seat.” I love that he’s doing this, even if it means that he leaves family dinners early. Sometimes, he even bakes banana bread to take with him. Never have I been so excited about him watching TV before.

For me, this is what watching television is about.

I can still feel the elation of racing into the family room after dinner and getting my hands on the remote control before my older brothers. Having this magic wand in my possession meant I reigned supreme and got to choose what everyone else watched.

Like so many others of my prehistoric era (Gen Dinosaur), I made sure to finish my homework on Tuesday nights so I could watch “Happy Days” and “Laverne and Shirley.” In college, my friends and I would circle up to watch “LA Law” on Thursday nights. When I was newly married, my husband and I would painstakingly set our VCR to record “ER” so that we could watch it when we got home from playing volleyball. We’d stay up late so that we could discuss it with each other and our colleagues the next day. Whether on the couch or talking about it at work, TV watching was a social event.

Sometimes my TV time was more of a lifeline. As a young parent, we watched “Franklin” with my oldest son at about 6 a.m. every morning even though I tried to pretend I was still sleeping. When my middle child was born, we all watched Disney’s Tarzan daily for six weeks (AND we listened to the soundtrack in the car). And I am not ashamed to say that I watched “Barney” with my youngest. I’d lure her to the basement precisely at 9:30, turn it on, and hop on the treadmill. Call it a Faustian bargain, but it seemed worth it to sing “I Love You” with my daughter if it meant I could work out.

As my family grew up, the TV again became a source of togetherness.

There were (and are) family sessions huddled around the TV to watch live sports. Anything that has action and a ball suffices. I am certain my boys learned math this way—or at least that’s how I justified it when they broke me and ended up staying up way too late because I knew they couldn’t sleep unless they knew the final score.

More recently, the television set is usually off. Instead, I wander into each of my kid’s rooms to find them lying in their beds, earphones in, laptops open, each streaming something different.

Now I have time aplenty, and I could watch all the shows. But I have not been able to jump on the bingeing bandwagon.  I get that it’s really relaxing to plunk down, plug in, and plow through every season of “Friends” or “Grey’s Anatomy.” And I also recognize that there is a vast variety of options that appeal to every targeted audience. But our technology progressed so quickly that I’m not sure we ever took time to think about the consequences and realize what we gave up.

Like sharing a meal, I still believe watching a television show should be a communal act that brings people together.

I’m not crazy; I don’t think watching “Parenthood” or “This is Us” or even “The Crown” is going to lead to world peace or stop climate change, but I do believe that common viewing experiences foster relationships and can serve as starting points for important conversations, which can ultimately be for the greater good. In any event, it’s face-to-face social time.

That’s why I love my son’s “Game of Thrones” nights out. I’ve never been (not invited) but in my mind’s eye, I picture these folks lounging around and talking at the TV during the show, then spending some quality time afterward discussing the intricacies of the plot (which I know nothing about—probably one reason why I’m not invited) and predicting what’s next. The passive activity of watching becomes active when you do it with others.

Still thinking about watching TV together?

With my kids growing up, I miss that. Maybe I’d be more open to bingeing if it were less isolated and more like book club. My kids and their friends (or my friends and I or even my kids and I) could select a program to watch on their own and then get together to discuss the plot, the characters, the best lines, and even the wardrobe choices. TV alone can’t keep us company. But maybe friends gathered around the TV still can.

Jody Podl

Jody Podl is a teacher at Shaker Heights High School.