Is The Stereotype That Older Adults Watch More Television a Form of Ageism or Has It Proven To Be True? By Jessica Willburn

The idea that older adults spend more time watching television (TV) than other age groups has become a stereotype of the older population. Many people believe that older adults have a lot of time on their hands that they fill with watching television. Since this stereotype has become widely accepted, more research looking into the relationship between gerontology and TV viewing has been done in the last 10 years to see how much truth there is to this belief. In my personal experience, I have seen that the older adults in my life do spend a large portion of their time watching television. The literature regarding the stereotype that older adults view more television than other age groups has suggested that on average this stereotype is true.

Television viewing is usually thought of just a leisure activity, but in the case of older adults, it can be used for several different reasons. In Ostlund’s (2010) study, it explains how TV viewing often becomes part of older adult’s daily routine, allowing them to reflect and consider the content they are viewing to stay socially integrated (Östlund, 2010). This study included 20 participants between the ages of 82 and 100 years old. Using ethnographic methods of observations and interviews, researchers recorded the habits, routines, time spent, and spaces used by the participants in their everyday lives. Participants were observed on 4 different occasions for 2 hours each over a period of 3 months (Östlund, 2010). The study yielded results that coincide with the stereotype of older adults watching a large amount of TV.

Out of the 20 participants, 16 of them watched TV every day (Östlund, 2010). If they did not watch TV it was due to limited access to it. The results showed that TV can serve as a coping mechanism for older adults when they have feelings of disengagement (Östlund, 2010). It helps older adults maintain their daily routines and disengage socially if needed. On average, 86 year olds reported that the most frequent leisure activity engaged in was watching TV. For those in geriatric care, it often was the only activity in their unit that they could engage in. Overall the participants spent a considerable amount of time watching TV (Östlund, 2010).

Another study researching older adult’s television viewing included 90 participants selected through convenience sampling (Chilvers, Corr, & Singlehurst, 2010). These individuals were in-between the ages of 60 and 85. They were asked to keep a time-use diary for one week. In the diary, they described their daily activities, why they were engaging in these activities, and their overall mood during them. There were three categories that the activities could fall under, which included necessary, enjoyable, and personal. TV was categorized as an enjoyable activity. TV viewing was the 3rd most engaged activity following sleeping and housework (Chilvers, 2010). The results showed that 94% of the participants watch TV daily and 11% of their day was spent watching TV.

Since the results broadly generalize the viewing of TV in older adults, there was not similar motivations behind their chosen leisure activity. The researchers concluded that when working with older adults, in occupational therapy, the clients should be evaluated on an individual basis (Chilvers,2010). The participants answered similarly to questions but their motivation and reasoning behind choosing certain activities looked very different. Generally, the study did conclude that TV viewing constitutes for a large portion of older adult’s leisure activities.

In Goodwin’s (2007) study the Positive Affect Negative Affect Scale was used to evaluate how leisure activities, including television viewing, affect older adults (Goodwin, Intrieri, & Papini, 2007). There were 69 participants with an average age of 71.8 that were selected using the Experience Sampling Method. Over a 7-day period, the participants received 6 signals a day from an electronic pager that prompted them to fill out a questionnaire. The questionnaire asked what activity, location, and emotion the participants were feeling when the pager went off. Over the course of the 7 days, each participant received 42 different signals at random times (Goodwin, 2007). The researches then evaluated if the activity was a necessary or leisure activity along with the moods expressed while engaging in these activities.

The results showed that on average 39% of the activities recorded by participants were leisure activities (Goodwin, 2007). And out of all of the diverse leisure activities, TV was the most frequent activity amongst the participants. The researchers also noted that during the time of the research, there was good weather outside and plenty of opportunities for outdoor activities (Goodwin, 2007). From the Positive Affect Negative Affect Scale, TV showed to have the lowest levels of both a positive and negative affect on the participant (Goodwin, 2007). While watching TV, participants recorded having more negative moods. This often coincided with higher levels of stress and depression in the participant. This showed that TV did not seem to have any further effects on the participant’s moods which allowed for an activity that served as a distraction.

In another study, probability sampling was used to research if there was an increase in TV viewing as age increased (Mares & Woodard, 2007). Using the GSS annual household survey sent out by the National Opinion Research Center, adults were asked to report their TV viewing habits. This sample reached the full adult population of the United States. Other questions asked in the survey included statements on loneliness, depression, and the SES of the adult (Mares, 2007). The researchers used these questions to see if adults watched more TV if they had feelings of loneliness, depression, or if their social class reflected them as poor. They looked at these demographic variables because it is often stereotyped that older adults watch TV because they are sad, lonely, or poor. Questions also included how much time their children spend watching TV so that the researchers could compare the older adult’s answers with the younger population.

The study showed significant results for as age increases in the United States population, TV viewing also increases (Mares, 2007). The age range of 60 and over proved to watch more TV than younger populations. They also looked at older adults having more free time when controlling for adults reporting that they are not lonely, miserable, or poor (Mares, 2007). Researchers did caution that even though the results are significant, that there is a high degree of variability in the older population. The results exhibited that an increase in TV viewing often seems to be correlated with life situation changes. Due to this broad reasoning of life situation changes, there is many different reasons why older adults may show to watch more TV than younger people (Mares, 2007).

It is often stereotyped that older adults watch more television than any other age group. Recent research studies have shown this stereotype to be true (Mares, 2007). All of the literature reviewed in this paper does pay careful attention to the fact that while on average older adults watch TV more than any other age group, it does not apply to everyone. Some younger age groups watch more TV than most older adults, and some older adults do not watch TV at all. It is also important to note that not all older adults have the same reasoning or motivations behind watching TV. The literature explains that these correlations are just averages for the populations and that individual differences play a large role in TV viewing habits. Some of the research compared their results to previous studies done in the 1970s that yielded very similar results as the current studies (Goodwin, 2007). This stereotype has manifested into a very common belief over the years. Using more modern research methods, better conclusions can now be drawn. This stereotype has become very common, and while the research does show significance for an increase in TV viewing as age increases, this stereotype does not apply to every older adult.




Chilvers, R., Corr, S., & Singlehurst, H. (2010). Investigation into the occupational lives of healthy older people through their use of time. Australian Occupational Therapy Journal, 57(1), 24-33. doi:10.1111/j.1440-1630.2009.00845.x

Goodwin, P. E., Intrieri, R. C., & Papini, D. R. (2007). Older Adults’ Affect While Watching Television. Activities, Adaptation & Aging, 29(2), 55-74. doi:10.1300/J016v29n02_04

Mares, M., & Woodard, E. I. (2007). In search of the older audience: Adult age differences in television viewing. Journal Of Broadcasting & Electronic Media, 50(4), 595-614. doi:10.1207/s15506878jobem5004_2

Östlund, B. (2010). Watching television in later life: A deeper understanding of TV viewing in the homes of old people and in geriatric care contexts. Scandinavian Journal Of Caring Sciences, 24(2), 233-243. doi:10.1111/j.1471-6712.2009.00711.x


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