An elephant in the living room?

Is TV addiction worth taking seriously?

by Wilfred Clifton - 3 April 2016

TV - The Elephant in the Living Room? - illustration

I was lucky enough to grow up in a household without television. It wasn’t until I was twelve years old that my parents caved in to our nagging and finally bought a TV set. I grew up in a Scandinavian country, and when we got a television most people had access to only a single television channel.

Programming was limited and began in the afternoon; breakfast television wasn’t introduced until a few years later. Yet the TV set exerted a remarkable drawing power over me and my siblings. Until that point, we had been starved of television and our only chances to watch it were in the homes of our friends, at school, and sometimes during holidays when our parents would rent a TV set. Naturally, when we got television we watched literally anything our parents would allow us to watch.

The first show in the afternoon was a program titled something that roughly translates to “Exercise for the Elderly”. It was a 15- to 20-minute show in which a bunch of old people on yoga mats strenuously did simple exercises and stretches, guided by a smiling woman in her sixties with silver-colored hair. Needless to say, this very exciting show glued us to the screen!

This example demonstrates that there is something about television irrespective of the programming that exerts a strong influence over us. For instance, I know an immigrant couple in which the man would sit for hours watching TV without actually understanding a single word that was uttered. To some people, the fascination of TV becomes irresistible to the point that they spend most of their spare time watching it. Much like substance dependence and other addictions, they find themselves hooked, powerless to control their habit.

As a definition, we could say that TV addiction is when the act of watching TV is more important than the content you’re watching and you find yourself unable to control your viewing habits. Sure, everybody has their favorite shows, but when you’re a TV addict your primary goal is to get your TV fix. The programming is often of secondary importance.1

Seriously, watching TV might kill you?

Some people meet the issue of TV addiction with disbelief and ridicule. They suggest that if it’s an actual phenomenon, it is a trivial issue compared to real addictions like meth and heroin addiction. This is basically an argument rooted in ignorance: “It cannot be real if I’ve never heard about it, if I have zero knowledge about this issue.”

Even scientists are sometimes guilty of making this argument. Behavioral addictions are often referred to as “soft addictions”: a gentler type of addiction which does not pose a serious health risk compared to substance abuse dependence. Yet there are many good reasons to assume that such a distinction is premature, if not downright misleading.

It is established that excessive TV consumption has serious consequences for our health. Several studies have identified a connection between TV viewing and adverse health effects. For instance, a recent study published in a peer-reviewed journal found that,

“… individuals who reported watching 3-4 hours of television watching [sic] per day were 15% more likely to die from any cause; those who watched 7 or more hours were 47% more likely to die over the study period.”2 3 As an explanation, the authors suggest that watching large amounts of TV promotes an inactive lifestyle known to be hazardous to our health.

Interestingly, the association between watching TV and higher mortality has also been identified in samples of individuals who exercise regularly. Even regular exercise wasn’t enough to counter the adverse effects of watching TV. In other words, it’s clearly wrong to argue that TV addiction is a type of addiction with no or few intrinsic negative effects. To sit in front of the TV will most likely hurt our health, although it must be admitted that the risk is not related just to watching TV, but to inactivity in general. Then again, in addition to increased mortality, there are many well-known cognitive and social disadvantages connected to excessive consumption of TV. It’s therefore undoubtedly correct to call addiction to TV a threat to our physical as well as our mental health.

TV addiction is, of course, less noticeable than alcoholism or other conspicuous types of addiction. Nevertheless, it is an invisible addiction that affects surprisingly many people. In a study published in the Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media, 10 percent of the sample were self-identified TV addicts4, and in the US 25% of viewers watch almost 12 hours of television a day. There is an emerging consensus among media researchers that TV addiction is real, but it remains a relatively understudied phenomenon.

One of the reasons why we don’t pay attention to TV addiction might be because it’s a medium that virtually everyone uses; a medium which is mostly thought of as innocuous. But it’s definitely not safe to base our lives on mere reputation or public opinion. Tobacco was also thought of as harmless not too long ago, and doctors even assumed that its use was beneficial in certain cases. It wasn’t until the fifties that the link between smoking and lung cancer was brought to the attention of the public. In other words, even if it’s not popular to talk about the negative consequences of TV consumption, both television addiction and the negative effects of TV are very real. In the future, we might judge our preoccupation with screens differently than we do today.

Addicted to our brains

A few decades ago, addiction was thought of as something that included chemical substances such as alcohol and drugs. However, it’s become increasingly clear that such a narrow definition of addiction is outdated, and numerous researchers now agree upon a broader definition of the phenomenon. For instance, an influential organization such as the American Society of Addiction Medicine now defines addiction as a “chronic disease of brain reward” rather than a dependence on a chemical agent.

We know that addiction to chemical substances triggers our brain’s reward system, but behavior addictions do the same thing. From a biological point of view, the release of dopamine is a crucial part of our reward pathway. This system, also known as the mesolimbic pathway, exists to ensure that we participate in positive activities needed to uphold life, such as eating, drinking, having sex or taking care of our kids. However, addictive drugs hijack this reward pathway, fooling our brains to reward us even when we’re not doing anything meaningful in a biological sense. Using screens has reinforcing effects and causes dopamine and other neurotransmitters to be released. We also know that dopamine is “produced in response to screen novelty”, which is relevant to all visual mediums, including television.5 6 7

It has even been demonstrated that addictions involving other types of screens produce degenerative changes in the brain’s gray matter. 8 Thus, it’s not far-fetched to assume that TV addiction might resemble the deteriorating effects of substance abuse in a neurological sense, although more research is needed to establish this assumption.

In other words, although TV addiction certainly is different from dependence on drugs, it’s wrong to assume that addiction to television is trivial or merely a psychiatric phenomenon. The characteristics of TV addiction are strikingly similar to those of other well-known addictions and include excessive use, a failure to reduce one’s consumption or reaching a point where TV habits interfere with one’s ability to function socially. People even report withdrawal symptoms when prevented from watching TV, which should be a telltale sign that television addiction is a real condition. 9

Watching television is soothing and habit-forming. In fact, the medium itself can be thought of as a psychoactive technology capable of altering our mood and consciousness. Terms such as “hypnosis,” “visual voodoo” and “the plug-in drug” are used by researchers and commentators to describe the pacifying, almost intoxicating effect of watching TV.

A society in denial

In conclusion, yes, it’s possible to become hooked on TV, and media addiction isn’t something that only “weak” people experience. People of all ages and backgrounds might find themselves completely unable to resist the temptation to binge watch their favorite shows. As with all addictions, sometimes the people with the most stubborn and entrenched habits are those who are unable to realize that they have a problem. Not only are individuals often unable to see that they have a media addiction, but society as a whole seems to be reluctant to acknowledge the reality of television addiction.

In our western society we’ve reached a point where most of us have access to practically endless amounts of visual entertainment. We’ve avoided talking about TV addiction for too long, and our denial of this problem will only cause the prevalence of addiction to motion images to increase.

As true addicts, we’ve resorted to strategies of rationalization and minimization of the problem in order to defend our own media habits. It is therefore high time that we begin to pay attention to the elephant in the living room.