Television Addiction: The Effects of Watching Too Much TV
Lately, TV is being compared to mind-altering substances, but mind-altering substances are just fine in moderation, aren’t they?
There was a volcano on the island. There were palm trees and fuchsia bougainvillea and tiny bright birds that flew into the giant open-air pavilion of our hotel room. At the foot of our bed there was a plunge pool paved with glittering blue glass tiles. The room came with a butler. In the warm, calm ocean, there were schools of tiny silver minnows, black-and-white angelfish, and on the evening we arrived, there was a flying fish that leaped out of the water, seeming to hover for a moment in front of a rainbow sunset. There were the most delicious mojitos I’ve ever had, the sweetest grapefruit imaginable, live music everywhere we turned, and flowers strewn across our mosquito-netted bed at night. It was the first vacation my husband and I had taken without our kids since they were born, and it was paradise, our every whim indulged instantaneously. And yet…there was something missing, an absence that made us antsy and agitated. We stared at each other, not quite knowing what to do or say. How had we let this happen? Yes, inadvertently we had checked into a hotel with no television (and, for that matter, no wireless Internet or cellular service—but we knew about that part).
After several listless forays onto the edge of the deck, waving an iPhone around fruitlessly, hoping to catch a signal from somewhere in the hilly jungle that would make the screen jump to life, we began to adjust. I read four books in three days. We talked to each other. We played tennis and swam and sometimes just sat. I discovered all this uninterrupted empty space in my mind in which to rove. I was my own content provider, my own show runner, my own head writer, my own lead actress, my own reality TV. It was like I had put away a coat for the summer and when I pulled it out again months later, found a million dollars in the pocket. This was my life—uncut and commercial-free—and it was fun!
I resolved to watch less TV when I got home. Only 30 Rock and Mad Men, I told myself. Oh, and Parks and Recreation (love Amy Poehler). But I kept adding exceptions. Because there’s also The Daily Show With Jon Stewart (that’s like educational television, right?). And The Sarah Silverman Program. And then I caught an episode of Celebrity Rehab at the gym and had to put it on my DVR auto-record list (what can I say? Tom Sizemore broke my heart, sweating and weeping and struggling to get off meth and smiling that sad, embarrassed smile whenever Heidi Fleiss called him a loser). And I realized that a television is like a cake. Once it’s in your house, you have to have some. And then, once you have a piece, you still can’t help but stick a finger in the frosting, and maybe cut a few slivers off, eat a rose. The only difference is that with a cake, at some point you finish it and you’re released from its magnetic draw—but TV is never all gone. There is always more TV.
I’m not alone in my compulsion. Watching TV is the world’s most popular pastime, and the latest Nielsen data shows that as of December 2009, Americans were watching more than ever before in history: 35 hours a week, to be precise. And, despite the economic downturn, we haven’t stopped buying televisions. In fact, we reached a record high in January, with an average of 2.93 TVs per household.
It’s gotten to the point where researchers are using a startling word to describe our TV habit: addiction—and not in the “Oh my God, I’m totally addicted to my new shampoo!” metaphoric way. Robert Kubey, PhD, professor of journalism and media studies at Rutgers University, and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, PhD, professor of psychology and management at Claremont Graduate University, made that clear in an article in Scientific American, “Television Addiction Is No Mere Metaphor,” which kicked off the whole debate about whether the boob tube should be treated like a controlled substance. “Psychologists and psychiatrists formally define substance dependence as a disorder characterized by criteria that include spending a great deal of time using the substance,” they write, “using it more often than one intends; thinking about reducing use or making repeated unsuccessful efforts to reduce use; giving up important social, family, or occupational activities to use it; and reporting withdrawal symptoms when one stops using it.”
Now, I don’t watch 35 hours of TV a week. I would peg my weekly fix at fewer than 10 hours, and yet I exhibit all the signs of addiction Kubey and Csikszentmihalyi enumerate. Of course, my more limited intake is not due to superior willpower, but to inferior amounts of free time. In fact, it irritates me to learn that most people have so much spare time for TV, and here I am with so little that on many days, I have to choose between watching television and bathing. I choose TV, naturellement.
So, speaking of allowing your personal hygiene to deteriorate so you can sit next to your spouse (who you’re always complaining you never get to spend enough time with) and watch the second season of Celebrity Rehab PresentsSober House in total zoned-out silence—why can’t we turn away? Part of it goes back to Pavlov—you know, the guy with the dogs. He was the first to describe humans’ biological “orienting response,” an instinctive reaction to any new visual or auditory information: Something rustling in the brush? Your body slows down as your senses go on high alert, trying to figure out if it’s a friend or a bear. It can be physically documented. Your blood vessels dilate, your heart rate declines, alpha waves in your brain are blocked. “Once you see it’s not danger, you would normally look away and shift into free-floating attention,” says Deirdre Barrett, PhD, assistant clinical professor of psychology at Harvard and author of Supernormal Stimuli, a book about the ways modern life hijacks age-old survival instincts. But television, with its fast pace and constant cutting among new scenes and characters, “throws out a new stimulus at just the point the orienting response was subsiding. It is very actively grabbing your attention in ways that are very carefully geared to the human response system.”
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Having one’s orienting response thrown into overdrive for 35 hours a week doesn’t come without a cost. Epidemiological data from the massive Nurses Health Study showed that watching television increases your risk of diabetes and obesity even more than other sedentary pursuits (the researchers theorize this stems from a mix of factors: television edging out exercise and other active pastimes; higher calorie consumption while watching, especially because TV bombards us with “commercial advertisements and food cues”; and the quasi-sedated state in which TV puts the body and brain—you burn more calories sleeping). Couples with a set in the bedroom have 50 percent less sex than those without one, according to one Italian study. And using your free time for TV obviously leaves less for activities you might find more enriching, like talking to friends and family, developing a hobby, playing sports, or joining a political or community group.
In fact, data from the recently completed General Social Survey of 45,000 Americans found that television was the only activity on a list of 10 items such as working, reading the paper, and going to bars that significantly correlated with increased unhappiness—the more television people watched, the more likely they were to report being “not happy.” The question, says University of Maryland sociologist John Robinson, PhD, is what is the “causal direction”: Does watching TV make you unhappy, or do unhappy people watch more TV?
People have a strange relationship with television, psychologically. Though in surveys they list it low on the list of activities they enjoy “in general,” when scientists collect data in real-time—i.e., they ask subjects while they are watching TV if they’re enjoying it—television is rated quite high and viewers are truly relaxed. However, after turning off the tube, people report feeling worse than before. So, just like an addict with a drug, you subconsciously end up watching more television to put off the crash that comes when you turn the set off, say Kubey and Csikszentmihalyi. The only problem with that is, the longer you watch, the less satisfaction you seem to get from it. In the real-time surveys, heavy viewers (more than four hours a day) reported enjoying TV less than those who watched fewer than two hours. Heavy users also have more trouble enjoying other activities and report more anxiety being alone and in “unstructured situations, such as doing nothing, daydreaming, or waiting in line.” In psychological tests, self-described TV addicts are more easily bored and distracted. Again—does TV scramble your brain and make it harder for you to entertain yourself, or do people who can’t entertain themselves turn to TV? (As my mother used to tell me, “Only boring people get bored.”)
In the absence of data to decide the question, the researchers are divided. Barrett is of the opinion that TV is harmful in any amount, comparing it to cigarettes. “I think it’s always bad,” she says. “There is no healthy amount.” Kubey and Csikszentmihalyi seem to view it more like alcohol—healthy in moderation: “Television can teach and amuse; it can reach aesthetic heights; it can provide much-needed distraction and escape.”
In studies of alcohol consumption, health consequences can usually be plotted on a bell curve, with abstainers and heavy drinkers both less healthy than moderate tipplers. But in Robinson’s study, at least, happiness plummeted as TV viewing increased. The happiest folks were the TV teetotalers.
On the other hand, among children, the impact of TV is more complicated than most of us think. For middle-class kids, watching a lot correlates with lower grades. But for children from poor homes, the more TV they watch, the better their grades. And a 2006 international analysis found that the IQs of children were linked closely to the number of newspapers printed—and the number of TVs per thousand population.
Still, some days, especially beautiful summer ones, I’m struck by how quickly my life is passing. The days flit by like scenes on a television, the years disappearing in a series of jump cuts. I live in a small canyon of apartment buildings, with large residential towers rising up around me 20 and 30 floors into the sky. And sometimes I look out at night and see all the windows glowing blue with television, and I do feel sad that we’re all watching and not doing.
Throwing out the set is not an option for me. My husband and, most importantly, my babysitter would never allow it. However, Kubey and Csikszentmihalyi offer ingenious tips for cutting back. First, they recommend keeping a diary of each time you turn on the TV, what you watch, and how much you enjoy it. Next, they suggest making a list of alternative activities—running, reading, painting, Parcheesi…sex—and posting it on your fridge so that when you find yourself at loose ends, you don’t automatically park in front of the nearest screen. Make rules—no television on weekdays, or no more than one hour a day, for example—and follow them (this takes willpower, they note). Only watch shows you’ve prerecorded—no channel-surfing. And finally, make television less convenient: Own only one set; put it in a guest room; cancel cable and watch shows on DVD; don’t make it the focus of the living room, with all the furniture turned toward it.
I’m thinking of going cold turkey—it’s the free-time issue for me. With my time so limited, I’m not sure it makes sense to spend even 10 hours a week watching television. When I add that up over the rest of my lifetime, it’s about three whole years wasted on the couch. You can get a law degree in three years, gestate four babies (although I don’t recommend trying that), plus take God knows how many showers. My life could be more like my vacation, full of good books and deep thoughts and funny conversations with my husband. Now all I need is a butler and a volcano.