"When the habit interferes with the ability to grow, to learn new things, to lead an active life, then it does constitute a kind of dependence and should be taken seriously."
-- Robert Kubey and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in the article "Television Addiction Is No Mere Metaphor," Scientific American, February 2002
Conquering an addiction is not easy. An addiction, by definition, is an uncontrollable compulsion to repeat a behavior regardless of its harmful consequences. Many types of addiction have been described including alcohol, tobacco, drugs, gambling, food, sex, pornography, computers and work. Adding television to that list should not be a stretch considering the ubiquitous presence of TV screens throughout our world. Additionally, the classic vacant stare of the TV watcher should also count as prima facie evidence of the medium's power.
The Modern Condition
In January 2004, Timothy Dumouchel of West Bend, Wisconsin threatened to sue the Charter Communications cable television provider for TV addiction. "I believe that the reason I smoke and drink every day and my wife is overweight is because we watched TV every day for the last four years," Dumouchel stated in a written complaint against the company. "But the reason I am suing Charter is they did not let me make a decision as to what was best for myself and my family and (they have been) keeping cable (coming) into my home for four years after I asked them to turn it off." Apparently, Dumouchel was never charged for his cable television.
In the end, Dumouchel decided not to go through with his lawsuit but commented that TV addiction is a real affliction. "I'm definitely addicted," he said. "When I'm home, it's on. I wanted to talk to my family. When you're watching TV, how much do you communicate with your family?" To those who scoffed at his accusations, Dumouchel commented, "I challenge anyone to keep your cable on and not turn (your TV) on for 30 days."
One could comment that if someone can be addicted to television, then people could be addicted to anything -- and in a sense, this criticism is true. Any compulsive habit that causes the actor pain or negative repercussions would be defined as a type of addiction. Addictions are usually described as either physical dependence or psychological addiction and treatments vary between the two. Physical dependence, such as the one associated with nicotine/tobacco or hard drugs, can be extremely strong and usually involves severe withdrawal symptoms. Dependence is serious business and usually will involve medical professionals to overcome.
For mental health professionals, television addiction is believed to exist as a type of behavioral addiction similar to pathological gambling. In 1990, a symposium at the convention of the American Psychological Association developed the definition of TV addiction as "heavy television watching that is subjectively experienced as being to some extent involuntary, displacing more productive activities, and difficult to stop or curtail." Though not considered an "official" mental disorder, there is a growing body of evidence that pieces together the framework of the TV addict.
This article will define and identify both the causes and symptoms of television addiction and then present a plan to help break free of compulsive TV watching.
A British psychology professor has proposed a theory that human brains are genetically predisposed to enjoy watching television. Geoffrey Beattie of Manchester University, the celebrity psychologist on the British reality-TV show Big Brother, has proposed many theories as to why humans like watching TV. One idea is 'the fairytale factor' where people are interested in the lives of celebrities in much the same way stories such as Cinderella or Snow White are popular -- maybe they too can go from rags to riches. Conversely, another Beattie theory is called 'the Schadenfreude Effect' and this is described as taking pleasure in a celebrity's suffering. Both of these theories are considered natural and explains the allure of shows such as Entertainment Tonight or Hard Copy.
Beattie's main theory, however, is that the human brain will process audio and visual stimuli better than either text or images alone. "Television is such an effective medium because it provides a form of communication firmly embedded in our evolutionary past, the brain has after all clearly evolved to deal with speech in the context of the spontaneous images created by the human hand," writes Beattie.
His research confirmed that television is a superior method for advertising when compared to radio or newspaper. "We found that television is indeed a particularly effective communication medium for transmitting core information because it can split the message between speech and image, in the form of iconic gestures, and further that iconic gestures are an extremely effective mode of communication within television advertisements."
Hurray for television! "The brain simply likes telly," Beattie said in 2002. "Even I am surprised at how powerful television has been proved to be. No wonder it is the world's favorite medium. It's a perfect medium for advertising"
Even though Beattie is clearly a television industry cheerleader, he is is describing a behavior that is already widely observed. Try having a conversation with somebody in the same room as a broadcasting television set and try NOT to look at the screen. The flashing colors, quick movements and attractive people commonly portrayed on TV programs are irresistibly engaging.
Canadian media critic Marshall McLuhan said that "the medium is the message." What McLuhan saw in the 1950s and 1960s was how television was changing cultural perceptions of the world in profound and fundamental ways. "In the spiral of historic development, McLuhan says, we have returned . . . to a situation similar to that of tribal societies whose members could all congregate in the center of the village to listen to their leaders, priests, or shamans," explains Martin Esslin in the book The Age of Television.
"The age of civilization based on reading, on a written literature, is over," writes Esslin. "In our new era of oral communication, the linear, discursive mode of thought is going to be replaced, McLuhan maintains, by a primarily image-oriented type of perception and thinking."
If modern society is a tele-culture, then it should come as no surprise that video entertainment plays a huge role. A tele-culture, obviously, will give perennial approval for routine TV watching practices. No house is complete without a TV and today inexpensive LCD screens can literally place a TV set anywhere.
The U.S. Department of Labor reported in September 2004 that watching TV accounted for about half the leisure time on average for both American men and women (see chart below). The Department's Time Use Survey showed that watching TV was third in total daily use of time behind working and sleeping.
Watching television is culturally approved use of one's time. Using the above statistics, the average American will spend about 3 hours per day watching television which adds up to 15 hours a week. If a person spends about 9 hours sleeping, then at least one day's entire waking hours each week are spent watching TV.
The UK Office for National Statistics reported that around 85 percent of men and women watched television every day in 2002. The latest Social Trends survey shows that television tops the list of leisure activities for the United Kingdom (see chart below).
Television's complete infusion into modern culture can be explained in a few ways. Esslin suggests that TV is a dramatic medium whose core nature is to portray the ordinary or mundane as exciting and compelling. Good television is dramatic and nothing interests people more than stories, both positive and negative, about others. "The ability of TV to transmit personality is, undoubtedly, the secret of its immense power. For human beings are insatiable in their interest about other human beings," writes Esslin. "This seems to me one of the basic human drives. Next to the satisfaction of the drives for food, shelter, and procreation, the satisfaction of the drive to gossip about the experiences of others must be one of the central concerns of all human existence . . . Television, with its unending stream of characters conveyed dramatically (whether fictional or 'real'), is the most perfect mechanized conveyor of that gossip."
Today's 'watercooler conversations' are often comprised of what appeared the previous day on television. Opinions are molded by television and the eyes delighted by the flashing colors and attractive TV personalities. Though the Internet can also bring information into the home, the Net lacks TV's drama and the ease of use. What could be easier than simply pressing ON? Because people spend so much of their free time watching television, the medium has an enormous cultural effect.
"The identity of culture, the self-image of a nation, is formed by the concepts, myths, beliefs, and patterns of conduct that are instantly recognized by the members of that social entity as being particularly theirs," explains Esslin. "No other single factor of our present-day civilization -- not the educational system or religion or science or the arts -- is so all-pervasive, so influential, so totally accessible to and shared by all individuals in society as is the world presented by television."
Indeed, television's control over the cultural discourse makes it a seemingly indispensable resource in people's lives. There is a compelling cultural dogma that the "world presented by television" is the real and true world and one cannot possibly be a functioning member of society without a close familiarity with TV programming. In most cases, people cannot stand to live without their television set.
There is no doubt that television exerts a strong grip on the watcher. However, is a high amount of TV watching due to cultural norms combined with a genuine interest in what is broadcast or is the watcher simply powerless to turn it off? What are the factors that can mutate this devotion to television into a harmful addiction?
Television's mighty grasp on the eyeballs of the viewer is partly due to the human body's inability to react to the transmitted programming. Images from the glowing, pulsing TV screen are simulating, however the nature of the medium does not permit the body to respond appropriately. The body wants to react to the barrage of images, but cannot. This sensory disorientation -- the TV watcher is visually and auditorily simulated while remaining physically passive -- confuses the mind. These conflicting messages and feelings succeed in creating an almost hypnotic trance in the viewer.
In his book, Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television, Jerry Mander described how many avid TV watchers described the experience of sitting in front of the tube:
Anyone who has spent time watching television should agree with some, if not all, of these statements. Mander clarifies the comments by mentioning that not all the perceptions were negative. "Often the people who described themselves as 'spaced out' liked the experience. They said it helped them forget about their otherwise too busy lives," writes Mander. "Others found it 'relaxing,' saying that it helped them 'forget about the world.' Some who used terms like 'brainwashed' or 'addicted' nonetheless felt that television provided them with good information or entertainment, although there was no one who felt television lived up to its 'potential.'"
Mander's book was published in 1978 yet the experience of watching TV has not changed. Television is still a passive medium -- one that requires the watcher to remain silent and still. Unlike any other leisuretime activity, watching TV is completely physically passive. (The only other comparison would be going to watch a movie, however one must actually travel to the theater, and buy a ticket, popcorn, etc. Going to watch a movie is an actual experience or event unlike watching TV, whose hours and hours of inactivity blend into each other.) The inactive nature of TV viewing creates in interesting psychological paradox -- the more people watch, the worse they feel and, in turn, the more they watch.
The most complete study of TV habit and addiction comes from researchers Robert Kubey, a professor at Rutgers University and director of the Center for Media Studies, and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Professor of Psychology at Claremont Graduate University. In the article "Television Addiction Is No Mere Metaphor," (Scientific American, February 2002) Kubey and Csikszentmihalyi describe their experiment and results with a technique called the Experience Sampling Method (ESM):
"To track behavior and emotion in the normal course of life, as opposed to the artificial conditions of the lab, we have used the Experience Sampling Method (ESM). Participants carried a beeper, and we signaled them six to eight times a day, at random, over the period of a week; whenever they heard the beep, they wrote down what they were doing and how they were feeling using a standardized scorecard.
"As one might expect, people who were watching TV when we beeped them reported feeling relaxed and passive.
"What is more surprising is that the sense of relaxation ends when the set is turned off, but the feelings of passivity and lowered alertness continue. Survey participants commonly reflect that television has somehow absorbed or sucked out their energy, leaving them depleted. They say they have more difficulty concentrating after viewing than before. In contrast, they rarely indicate such difficulty after reading. After playing sports or engaging in hobbies, people report improvements in mood. After watching TV, people's moods are about the same or worse than before.
"Thus, the irony of TV: people watch a great deal longer than they plan to, even though prolonged viewing is less rewarding. In our ESM studies the longer people sat in front of the set, the less satisfaction they said they derived from it. When signaled, heavy viewers (those who consistently watch more than four hours a day) tended to report on their ESM sheets that they enjoy TV less than light viewers did (less than two hours a day)."
In a paper entitled "Television Dependence, Diagnosis, and Prevention," Professor Kubey describes a cyclical effect of watching television. Heavy TV watchers tend to be people who feel anxious or lonely and watching TV provides a break from negative thoughts or ruminations. Providing a pseudo-social media experience, the television creates a virtual connection between the watcher and other people, however this does nothing to help the real feelings of loneliness or boredom.
Kubey explains that "the possibility of a vicious circle wherein the experience of negative moods and thoughts when alone and when unstructured may interact with the ease with which people can quickly escape these feelings by viewing. As a result of many hours spent viewing television over many years, some people may become unpracticed in spending time alone, entertaining themselves, or even in directing their own attention."
Watching TV can never be a true substitute for real-life experiences. Kubey explains that his research shows that heavy viewers get trapped watching TV. "In short, a television viewing habit may be self-perpetuating," writes Kubey. "Viewing may lead to more viewing and may elicit what has been called 'attentional inertia,' i.e., 'the longer people look at television, the greater is the probability that they will continue to look.' Discomfort in noncommitted, or solitary time, can lead to viewing, but after years of such behavior and a thousand hours or more of viewing each year, it seems quite possible that an ingrained television habit could cause some people to feel uncomfortable when left with 'nothing to do,' or alone, and not viewing."
Kubey's conclusion makes perfect logical sense. Television watching is not an "experience" but instead it replaces experiences. So TV watchers exchange the real world for the virtual one behind the screen. The cultural pressure and acceptance of heavy TV watching combined with the habitual nature of the medium can produce an unholy marriage between one's inactivity and boredom.
Is television addictive? Most psychological research suggests that TV can certainly become addictive and that heavy TV watchers display all the symptoms of a non-substance behavioral addiction. Breaking free of TV, and any addiction, is not an easy task. The difficulty in replacing television images with different (and more substantial) activities is the greatest obstacle breaking the addiction.
There is a basic theory in cognitive psychology called structuralism. Most closely associated with the work of Cornell psychology professor Edward Titchener, this theory contends that the mind breaks down life experiences into groups or concepts. Much like a chemist defines complex structures through its smaller parts and elements, the structural approach breaks down experiences and cultural identity into specific perceptions, notions and thoughts. Titchener believed that the complex world was made clear in the brain through an ordered thought process that included a vast array of individual parts.
Related to this is John Anderson's Adaptive Control of Thought (ACT) model. The ACT model breaks down elements of thought into nodes. These nodes contain a person's concepts and propositions and are put together in a person's head in order to make sense of the world. Anderson's model says that when people think of the past (long term memory), they recall the essence of the experience and fill in the details with nodes of memory.
Breaking a television addiction involves replacing the virtual TV experience with real experiences. This is a choice. Choosing not to watch television and deciding to do something else with one's time and money is not life changing, only experience changing. Moderate and heavy TV watchers are creating nodes of experience in the mind filled with images and lifestyles proposed by the world of television. The addiction of watching TV is not physical, but behavioral. Moving away from the addiction requires the physical acts of turning off the tube and walking away from the set, but the choice is entirely cognitive.
The chart below is The Kaufman Spectrum of Television
Addiction and is intended to assist those who wish to escape from grasp of
television. The spectrum shows four phases and by moving up or down the scale
one can alter viewing habits:
The Phase 3 viewer is the addicted viewer. This is someone who rejects opportunities for interpersonal or active experiences and instead chooses to watch TV. In terms of one's cognitive development, this could be viewed as a harmful mode of activity. If we consider the ACT theory, one cannot truly make sense of the world without previous experiences (nodes of thought) with which the mind can call upon. If one's previous experiences are someone else's, such as the characters portrayed on the TV screen, then what is established as real life parallels life on the TV screen. Reality TV is NOT reality. Television only mimics reality and in most cases portrays the world in wild exaggerations.
The Kaufman Spectrum is used by changing behavior to move between phases. Moving from Phase 3 down to Phases 2 or 1 requires not only watching less TV, but also replacing virtual televised experiences with real ones. Moving between phases requires discipline and effort. Finding activities to replace television is not difficult, what is difficult is making the switch from inaction to action. One must choose to interact with other people and explore the unknown.
A moderate or heavy watcher will probably never move down to Phase 0 and totally remove him/herself from the experience of television. After many years of TV viewing, "going cold turkey" is not realistic. However, it is possible to fill TV time with other activities and use the TV as a tool for relaxation rather than continue the subservience to habit.
"I'd like to say I'd gone totally TV-free but it's not the case," explains Alan, a self-proclaimed TV addict in the UK who runs a web blog describing his experience abandoning his TV-filled life. "But, then saying that, I think I've found a comfortable middle ground where I am in charge and I don't need to be completely free of it. I know that sounds like an addict talking but I honestly think I've broken free of the chains of television which is great.
"I no longer have it on just for noise and I watch only the odd couple of hours a week when my girlfriend is over . . . During the weekend we don't watch telly as we go cycling and walking a lot. Plus, she has a horse to look after which takes some time. . . I make a point of not watching the news in the morning as I can listen to that in the car radio during the commute. When I get home I avoid sitting down on the sofa and instead I'll put on the radio, cook some dinner then work on the computer or go out with friends. Towards the end of the evening I still avoid turning on the telly and go to bed to read a book. These aren't really conscious decisions anymore.... I just have no inclination to turn on the television," he says.
"So, in a nutshell, I control the telly, not the other way around," says Alan. "If it does go on because my girlfriend wants to watch something specific then I turn it off again straight after... there's always something better to do. It doesn't tempt me any more and it's no threat to my free time or sanity. I'm free!!"
Clearly, Alan has found that having a rich and fulfilling life does not require spending hours and hours in front of the TV. Giving up television will sometimes require fighting a battle against boredom. Boredom is the mental state of suffering from lack of interesting stimuli. For moderate or heavy viewers, watching television is a popular activity because 'there is nothing else to do.' An extremely bored person can also acquire a general sense of dissatisfaction with life and then withdrawal from the world around them. Boredom also involves a lack of involvement with others and a dampening of interpersonal relationships.
“There are several things that lead us to the conclusion that entertainment television is lethal to social connection," explains Harvard professor Robert Putnam in a radio interview after the release of his book, "Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community."
"Part of it is the more entertainment television you watch, the less civically engaged you are. People watch Friends rather than having friends. And of course, you don’t know which caused which, whether people decided to drop out and were left with television or they started watching television and then dropped out. The circumstantial evidence is pretty clear that television is actually the cause of this. There was a really fascinating study in a couple of towns in Canada were the sociologists got to the towns before television did and they were able to do before and after measurements of the effects of television -- and as I would have expected, once television arrived in these towns, civic activity slumped substantially.” [NPR, All Things Considered, May 31, 2000]
Breaking the television addiction requires making a choice. The famous Ellen Parr quote goes: "The cure for boredom is curiosity. There is no cure for curiosity." Watching TV fills the mind with the images and creativity of others . . . not watching TV fills the mind with freedom.
© 2005 by Ron Kaufman @ TurnOffYourTV.com
Beattie, Geoffrey Ph.D. and Dr. Heather Shovelton. "Making Thought Visible: The New Psychology of Body Language." Department of Psychology, The University of Manchester, Manchester, UK. 2003.
Esslin, Martin. "The Age of Television." Transaction Publishers. 1982, 2002.
Kubey, Robert. "Television Dependence, Diagnosis, and Prevention." Associate Professor, Department of Journalism & Media Studies. Rutgers University, New Brunswick, New Jersey. 1996.
Kubey, Robert and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. "Television Addiction Is No Mere Metaphor." Scientific American. February 2002.
Mander, Jerry. "Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television." 1978.