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“Boob Tube Time” by Sarah Kamalsky

Title: Older adults’ television viewing as part of selection and compensation strategies

Author(s): Margot J. van der Goot, Johannes W.J. Beentjes, and Martine van Salem

Publisher: Communications

Year: 2015

URL: http://www.degruyter.com/dg/viewarticle/j$002fcomm.2015.40.issue-1$002fcommun-2014-0025$002fcommun-2014-0025.xml

Topics: reasons for watching television, aging

Methods: Interviews with Dutch older people about their television viewing habits

What it says: This article investigates whether older people, who tend to watch television more than younger people, use television as a substitute for other activities that they may do less because of their age like working and socializing. The authors draw on Selective Optimization and Compensation (SOC) theory, which states that successful aging is a lifelong process of optimizing life circumstances through selecting and compensating to maximize gains and minimize losses.

Other researchers have suggested that increased television viewing among older people is a compensation strategy for losses in their lives. The authors conducted qualitative interviews with Dutch older adults to see if they could find more instances of selection, or choosing to engage in watching television, vs. compensation, or substituting television for diminished abilities or activities.

Their analysis indicates that television was a choice for some interviewees, and that it did not simply take the place of other activities in which interviewees were unable to partake. This suggests that television was one of a variety of meaningful activities in which interviewees could participate, and that they chose television over those other activities. Interviewees also appreciated the social aspect of television and being able to share it with a partner.

For interviewees who indicated that television was part of a compensation strategy, it did take the place of more meaningful activities, or to fill time. Respondents using this strategy also reported substituting television after losing a social relationship, like the loss of a spouse. Overall, the authors found that selection strategies better described older adults’ television viewing behavior than compensation strategies.

What I think about it: The interview methodology limits our ability to generalize from these findings, but these are interesting results that relate to how we’re thinking about television vs. attending arts events more generally. In terms of other limitations, I wonder about a potential for social desirability response with some of the interviewees that might have increased the number of respondents who appeared to use television as a selection strategy instead of a compensation strategy. Additionally, given that the Survey of Public Participation in the Arts data shows a mostly upward trend of arts participation with aging, it’s possible that older adults tend to engage with more entertainment in general, which in turn might explain some of the selection strategy.

What it all means: Selection and compensation strategies apply to aging, but I wonder if this construct applies to other aspects and changes in our lives. According to these results, the choice to watch television among these older people is usually healthy and fulfilling, but can also be a simple use of time and related to things that they have lose throughout their lives. Similarly, I wonder if people who find themselves with an injury or in poor health, experienced a loss, or have otherwise undergone a change in life find themselves in a similar position of having to choose whether or not to watch television to either compensate for losses or maximize a positive aspect of a life change.

The SOC framework seems related to how we’re thinking about how people of lower socioeconomic status choose to prioritize and fill their free time. For some, limitations might push them toward watching television instead of doing what they’d really like to be doing, like perhaps attending arts events, and for others television might be a meaningful activity with which to fill their time. While the results from this article can’t point us in any conclusive direction, this is an interesting way of framing the question.