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THE TINY SCREEN: Is Television Good for You?:

Is TV really good for you? We know it’s not good for your body but is it good for your brain? Yes, says Steven Johnson, author of Everything Bad Is Good for You: How Today’s Popular Culture Is Actually Making Us Smarter. In his groundbreaking book, Johnson posits that television and video games (pop culture information input) is doing anything but dumbing us down. It’s firing up our brains with complex ideas, relationships, problem solving – of the kind that could mean those raised with video games and television might score higher on IQ tests than a generation before. Huh?

It sounds crazy but Johnson has put together a theory that many are actually buying. And when you think about it, all of the negative studies regarding TV and video games don’t address intelligence; they address our ability to focus, our health (obesity), propensity toward sex and violence, etc. But intelligence? No one had ever gone there. Now someone has. What will be the fallout?

Johnson calls it the “Sleeper Curve,” named after that hilarious moment in Woody Allen’s Sleeper where the doctors of the future declare that everything we thought was good for us is now bad for us and vice-versa. Pop culture, rapid fire information doesn’t dumb us down apparently, it moves us forward because our ever-expanding brain waves demandit.

The most recent bad news about television had to do with ADD – children exposed to too much television were found to have trouble focusing by age 7. But what they were having trouble focusing on, of course, was sitting still in a classroom and paying attention to the teacher. They had absolutely no trouble sitting in front of a computer and focusing their attention for hours on end. Ever notice that?

Could it be that ADD isn’t really a setback at all but just an advanced form of behavior that requires educators to catch up? Could it be our brains are growing too fast for our own good and we aren’t equipped to harness that intelligence or energy yet because we’re still measuring it by the intelligence of generations past?

Whatever the answer turns out to be, I have found many benefits of the steady stream of television to my own child’s growing up, as well as some drawbacks. For instance, I firmly believe she learned her sense of morality from shows on PBS. Because she watched them all of the time, she learned the many lessons they serve up (I limited her exposure to “educational” TV) – and they teach you all of the right things – be kind, don’t lie, be helpful, do good deeds. Believe me, she didn’t learn it from mom, though I would love to take credit for it.

On the other hand, she has picked up odd perceptions as well – things I’ve never taught her nor exposed her to that she must have gotten from TV. She recently asked me why white people were nicer than black people. Since she goes to one of the most liberal elementary schools in LA, where second graders wore John Kerry buttons, I couldn’t believe she picked it up from school. But could it be that she picked up from the media without my knowing it?

Yes, it’s possible television can make us smarter, for better or worse. But those little sponges our children have for brains are going to be soaked with all kinds of information. What goes in may make us think faster, but it may not make us think better.

What Steven Johnson is no doubt saying in his book is that we shouldn’t write off pop culture and television as evil, as having no benefits whatsoever, but should realize, instead, that information coming in has superhuman powers over our own impressionable, fleshy interiors – and it takes a more mature mind to know what to filter out, whether or not our kids are getting smarter than we are.

This Week’s Notable TV

Thursday, May 12

Misery (***), with Kathy Bates, 8 p.m., TNT.

My Big Fat Greek Wedding (**), funny but overrated, 8 p.m., ABC.

Paris, Texas (***), 8:30 p.m., FMC.

Cape Fear (***), with Robert DeNiro, 10 p.m., TNT.

Friday, May 13

Elvis by the Presleys, Lisa Marie and Priscilla talk about The King, 8 p.m., CBS.

X-Men (***), 8 p.m., FOX.

French Kiss (***), with Meg Ryan and Kevin Klein, 9 p.m., FMC.

War Games (***), with Matthew Broderick, 9 p.m., BRAVO.

Saturday, May 14

Backdraft (**), 8 p.m., BRAVO.

Dr. Wayne Dyer, the Power of Intention, 8 p.m., KCET.

Dances with Wolves (**), 9 p.m., HISTORY.

Road House (**), from the ‘80s, 9 p.m., ABC.

Sunday,May 15

Butterfield 8 (***), 7:30 p.m., TCM.

Witness (****), 7:30 p.m., SPIKE.

When a Man Loves a Woman (**), Meg Ryan as an alcoholic, 8 p.m., WE.

Miss Marple: What Mrs. McGillicuddy Saw, 9 p.m., KCET.

Monday, May 16

The Emperor’s New Groove (**), 8 p.m., DISNEY.

Hercules, brand new movie, 8 p.m., NBC.

The Longest Day (****), 9 p.m., FMC.

Second Sight, with Clive Owen, 9 p.m., BBCAM.

Tuesday, May 17

In the Heat of the Night (***), 9:15 p.m., AMC.

Britney and KevinL Chaotic, 9 p.m., UPN.

Frontline/World, 9 p.m., KCET.

Safe (****), Todd Haynes’ brilliant look at the paranoia of living in the modern world, 10 p.m., IFC.

Wednesday, May 18

Star Wars: Empire of Dreams, 7:30 p.m., A&E.

The Verdict (****), 7:30 p.m., AMC.

Cooking Under Fire, 8:30 p.m., KCET.

Strange Days (***), with Ralph Fiennes, 8:30 p.m., FMC.

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