Millions might be hooked on TV, but we have forgotten about TV addiction

More people than ever are hooked on motion pictures, but media science largely ignores the issue.

by Wilfred Clifton - 3 April 2016

Is TV a safe babysitter for our kids - illustration

Imagine waking up one morning. You get up and prepare breakfast while watching TV in the kitchen. You spend the afternoon watching shows while doing light chores, taking a small break to browse Facebook and answer emails. You eat your ready-made TV dinner in front of the set. Later in the evening, you return to the couch for your highlight of the day: your favorite shows. The day ends in bed, where you fall asleep watching movies on your laptop.

Unfortunately, the example above is not fiction; millions of Americans spend most of their waking hours in this exact way, in front of their TV sets. Groups with a lot of spare time, such as retired senior citizens, stay-at-home moms, children and unemployed people, are especially vulnerable in this respect.

A recent study by the renowned TV rating company Nielsen found that heavy viewers spend on average a whopping 705 minutes a day watching TV.1 Let that number sink in for a minute or two; 705 minutes is nearly 12 hours! This segment of viewers, which represents 20% of the American viewership, is responsible for nearly 50% of the total viewing in the US. Most people watch TV, so if these numbers are correct, roughly 20% of Americans do little else besides watch TV and sleep. There is no doubt that Americans are fond of watching TV, but these numbers seem almost unbelievably high. Then again, it’s unlikely that the results are significantly wrong. Nielsen is known for using so-called “people meters,” electronic devices that accurately measure the time individual members of a household spend watching TV. There are few margins of error here and the sample size is also substantial. Nielsen’s findings should therefore be fairly accurate, if distressing. It is also interesting to note that African-Americans are overrepresented among the heavy viewers.

The fact that one-fifth of Americans with access to television spend most of their waking hours on their couches is a sure sign that TV is more than a neutral medium. TV is a habit-forming and addictive technology with which millions of people develop an unhealthy relationship. Is it really possible to watch an average of 12 hours of television a day without being an addict in a clinical sense? True, there is a difference between excessive use and addiction, but when you spend most of your day in front of the TV, the difference between “excessive use” and “addiction” is mainly of theoretical interest. For all practical purposes, you’re hooked; you have a serious media problem. And obviously, you don’t need to watch as much as 12 hours of TV a day to be addicted.

If we agree that it’s possible to get hooked on television, it must be a truly pervasive addiction, due simply to the sheer prevalence of television viewing as a pastime. Only a limited amount of the population smokes or gambles, but it is a near-universal habit to watch TV. Even if only a small percentage of people are addicted to television in a clinical sense, there will still be hundreds of millions of TV addicts globally.

In a survey published in 1998, roughly 10% of the participants identified themselves as TV addicts.2 If the actual numbers are anywhere near this estimate, there could be tens of millions of TV addicts in the US alone.

Meanwhile, media science is indifferent

In recent years, there has been a lot of attention paid to media addiction. Even if media addiction isn’t a formal psychiatric diagnosis, the phenomenon is usually recognized among mental health professionals. It’s widely accepted that people get addicted to computer games, social media such as Facebook and technology such as smartphones and tablets. While these forms of addictions constitute a real and increasing problem, there is one type of media addiction that has been sorely neglected the last decade. People still get addicted to television!

We decided to use Google Scholar to get a basic idea of the attention given to the different forms of media addiction by media science. Revealingly, a search for “television addiction” yielded only 833 results, while we got an impressive 22,900 results for “internet addiction” and 4,390 hits for “gaming addiction”.3 A meta-analysis found only 33 published studies about television addiction.4 On the other hand, it is safe to say that there are hundreds, if not thousands, of studies about internet addiction. Thus, with a few notable exceptions, it seems as if the issue of television addiction is virtually ignored.

A search of the same terms in the ordinary Google search engine also showed a similar disproportion. In conclusion, there is good reason to assume that media scientists, and people in general, are more concerned about addiction to the internet and video games than about TV addiction.

Why have we forgotten about TV addiction?

TV has been a household commodity since the fifties, and by now the medium is familiar and old. Television has been a part of our lives for generations, and there is a high likelihood that you who read this article have never experienced society before the introduction of TV.

The majority of studies about TV have explored a single topic, namely media violence. Meanwhile, the question of the basic impact of the medium itself has been relegated to the back row. With the introduction of new information technology, TV research has suddenly become even less fashionable than it was before. Of course, it’s timely and proper that the challenges of the new information technologies are recognized, yet we regret that television addiction has been overlooked along the way.

We suggest that one important reason for this is found in the dominant position of television in our society. Television is still our primary medium, and watching TV is how people get most of their information about the world. Television is the main medium for information and news, yet knowledge about the negative effects of the medium (including TV addiction) is suspiciously absent. This isn’t merely because there is little research on the issue; the existing research is solid and alarming enough for us to take the issue seriously. Instead, we suspect that an important reason for this omission is that TV networks want people to continue watching and to not get rid of their TV sets. This can in many ways be compared to the way in which the tobacco industry historically has downplayed the negative health effects of cigarettes.

As a consequence, television addiction has become an addiction that people have forgotten about. People don’t see documentaries about it and it is rarely mentioned on TV. Thus, for all practical purposes, it doesn’t exist in the minds of people. Also, even those who realize that TV addiction is real are often tempted to downplay the seriousness of the problem. TV addiction is widely viewed as a relatively harmless addiction and it’s reasonable to assume that media researchers to some degree are influenced by these widespread cultural attitudes.

In other words, the reason why we’ve forgotten about TV addiction is probably deeply rooted in our culture. TV is an integral part of most people’s social lives, and media scientists are not exempt. Media researchers are most likely TV watchers too, whereas very few of those who conduct research on, say, heroin addiction, have ever tried such a substance themselves. It’s no wonder that researchers seem to have shied away from this unpopular issue. Television is widely perceived as a harmless pastime, an indispensable part of everyday life. Our TV-saturated culture might create a bias against seriously considering even the possibility of television addiction.

We need more research about TV addiction

Let it be perfectly clear that it’s not our intention to call out anyone with this article. We don’t blame media scientists as a group for the dearth of research on TV addiction. Science is ultimately just a reflection of society as a whole.

If anything, the relative lack of research on TV addiction (and the cognitive effects of watching motion pictures) is a golden opportunity for media researchers. They have the possibility of conducting groundbreaking research in a field that in many ways is uncharted waters.