Predictors of unhappiness, according to some recent studies, are certain observable conditions which tend to indicate decreased happiness. For example, financial worry is a very high predictor of unhappiness. Others are “being single,” and poor physical health. As you might guess from the ironic title of this post, a fourth predictor of unhappiness—roughly equivalent to financial insecurity—is the reliance on television as a primary form of entertainment.
To clarify further, this does not mean that everyone who watches television is likely to be unhappy. The studies were specific: they did not focus on all television viewers, but only on those who indicated that television was their primary means of entertainment. This group was more reliant on television for their stimulation than all other activities, such as entertaining friends, cooking, going out to some public place, or reading. In a word, this group was TV-dependent. Thus TV-dependence, and not just TV, is the subject here.
Why is TV-dependence such a powerful indicator of unhappiness? In psychology, two primary elements of addiction are tolerance and withdrawal. Tolerance means that ever-larger quantities of the substance are needed in order to achieve the desired effect. Withdrawal means that ever-increasing discomfort is experienced when use of the substance is ceased. This creates a vicious cycle which destroys both the enjoyment of the substance and the enjoyment of life in general, and we call this cycle addiction.
No one knows better than the television industry that viewers are building an impressive tolerance to the medium. Greater visual stimulation is constantly required; as soon as the viewer becomes accustomed to each new increase in stimulation, it must be increased again to achieve the “desired effect.” One result is that attention spans are growing shorter all the time as the desired effect is harder to reach. This is the tolerance part.
Withdrawal is observed when study participants have been asked to give up the stimulant. TV deprivation, in those who have built up a great tolerance, has been shown to cause irritation, anxiety, boredom, and even depression.
This all ends in a case of clinical dependence, which can be clearly seen from a 1977 study, which could only find 5 out of 120 families who were willing to abstain from television for a month in return for $500. Consider that along with the fact that viewers generally rank television as less satisfying than just about any other leisure activity (it is about equal to washing dishes).
Isn’t that a bit crazy? A $500 bribe was offered, and it was still insufficient to get families to give up television—the same activity that is statistically less satisfying than scrubbing silverware. When a major bribe is insufficient to get someone to forgo an activity that they don’t really find very enjoyable in the first place, then it is time to ask what degree of dependence has been formed in regard to this inertia-fostering activity.
Readers Digest has compiled a nice list of 17 Ways to Beat Your Television Addiction. Number 1 is “Give your extra TVs to charity.” I’m not sure how I feel about this one. It sounds sort of like telling the alcoholic to kick his problem by giving his extra booze to the homeless guy down the street. Even so, if you are feeling charitable and are tired of losing two months out of every year to the Kardashians, then donate away—you can even write it off on your taxes.
I liked Number 4 on their list much better: “Throw away your remote controls.” Try it—I can tell you from experience that this will deal a serious blow to your TV-time. I haven’t had a remote for a couple years now, not at all because I took some moral high ground and threw it away, but because I lost the thing, and my procrastination apparently knows no bounds. Lacking a remote control, I am certain I have avoided many hours of “vegging-out”, if for no other reason than that it wasn’t worth walking to the TV to manipulate it manually. The beauty of this method is that it doesn’t even require hard work. As I found out, the lazier you are, the quicker you will drop the TV habit.
In the end, there are a million ways to decrease your viewing if you really want to try. Ever notice how the term “Family Room” is now equivalent to “TV Room” in contemporary language? Change that. Move the TV to an inconvenient spot, or simply move the furniture so that the central focus of the room is not the television. Arrange things in such a way that the room could once again logically be called a “Family Room”—arrange it in a circle. Or cover the TV with something. Or create one-hour sections of time during which TV is forbidden (if you use TV for background, this will profoundly throw off your routine, in a good way).
Creativity goes a long way here… and guess what? Reduced viewing of television has been shown to increase creativity! So go for it, reclaim your leisure time.
I will end with a few final observations regarding the negative aspects of this particular technology.
MONEY: It is cheaper not to buy cable than it is to buy cable. I’m sure you did not need me to tell you that, but there it is. It is also cheaper not to have to upgrade to the newest video technology every other year. VHS becomes DVD; DVD becomes high-definition 720p; 720p becomes1080p; 1080p will eventually become 9999p, or Green-Ray, or some such thing—it will be cheaper not to buy all that stuff.
SLEEP: Television is, by far, the number one activity of choice before bedtime. It is used to wind-down after a hard day. Unfortunately, TV does not really wind anyone down. It has actually been proven to interfere with sleep, not encourage it. Yes, it can encourage physical relaxation, but it stimulates other senses, creating a sort of “zombie mode”—an unrestful state of inertness. Insomniacs spend a lot of time watching television. The question is: do they watch television because they are insomniacs, or are they insomniacs because they watch television?
A-D-D: The Center for Screen-Time Awareness found that with each hour of television watched by a child each day, their chances of developing an attention disorder are increased by 10%. Four hours of television each day would increase chances by 40%. I mentioned last week that television is mildly addictive. As tolerance builds, the viewer needs more and more visual stimulation to maintain attention. Could certain cases of attention disorder actually be misdiagnosed cases of withdrawal from television addiction? When you take a person with a highly developed tolerance to visual stimulation, and then suddenly place that person in front of a blackboard and tell them to “pay attention” to boring lectures, there is going to be a severe struggle. If television deprivation can cause depression and agitation in mature adults (which it can), then it is a bit silly to expect children to handle the deprivation in a more controlled fashion. Yet this is what our age expects. When reality proves this expectation unreasonable, we assign disorders and prescribe medications. Speaking of medications…
DRUGS: No, I’m not talking about the infamous stuff. I’m talking about the legitimate drugs that you see on TV commercials every five minutes. No longer does the consumer have to live under the oppressive yoke of his pesky doctor, who will only prescribe medications that his annoying “experience” deems appropriate. We have moved beyond all that primitive silliness. Now the consumer has access to the market. He has freedom of choice. He can now watch a 20-second commercial and know for himself how to best treat his depression, his insomnia, or his arthritis. “Not feeling quite right these days? Not laughing as much as you used to?” Well, now that you mention it, Dr. Marketing Specialist, I would like to laugh more! What’s the name of your drug again? Yes… I need that.
Seriously, though. Here is the script from a real commercial: “Do you know the warning signs for osteoporosis? Unfortunately, there aren’t any. It’s a silent disease with no symptoms unless a bone breaks.” There you have it. Don’t bother wondering if you actually need this pill, just be terrified and go ask your doctor for it, and do it quick before your brittle arm bones collapse beneath the weight of your remote control. And speaking of weight…
OBESITY: Television calms and pacifies the viewer physically. The metabolism literally slows down during prolonged sessions, encouraging weight gain. So not only is television an alternative to exercise, it is the opposite of exercise.
PLAY: In child psychology there is a thing called “parallel play.” It is a stage of social development, usually around age 2, when children play near each other but not with each other. They may play with the same toy, but they do not engage each other. Healthy social development progresses towards actual friendships, when the children begin playing with each other, and not just around each other. Television represents a sort of “regression” back into primitive parallel play, because it involves individuals who are around each other, and who may interact with each other, but between whom there is not necessarily any cooperation or intimacy. It is a social activity that does not require relationship.
CONCLUSION: Someone once said “Watching TV is a lot like smoking. People know all the crummy side-effects and continue to do it anyway.” Do they? I’m not so sure. We all feel it—in the same sort of way the smoker feels that something questionable is going on when he inhales smoke particles for the first time, or feels the agitation of deprivation that tells him he is due for another smoke.
It is one thesis of this post that, as with tobacco, a certain amount of exposure taken in a certain fashion is not necessarily harmful, but an excessive dose, or one taken in an inappropriate fashion, is profoundly dangerous. As with tobacco, each individual must decide for themselves when the negative side-effects are potent enough to drop the habit. However, denying that the side-effects exist is no longer feasible. Smoking causes cancer. TV causes… well… just smash the thing and you won’t have to worry about it.
Reprinted with permission from the McPherson (KS) Sentinel.