Is Television Addictive? Psychologists Say It Can Be

Astounding Amounts

Robert Kubey and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, professors at Rutgers University and Claremont Graduate University respectively, said just that in the February issue of the respected science magazine.

The pair wrote, “Excessive cravings do not necessarily involve physical substances. Gambling can become compulsive; sex can become obsessive. One activity, however, stands out for its prominence and ubiquity — the world’s most popular leisure pastime, television.”

Kubey and Csikszentmihalyi said the phrase “TV addiction,” while imprecise, nevertheless captures the essence of a very real phenomenon.


In fact, the researchers said, the definition used by mental health professionals to define substance addiction could easily apply to many TV watchers: “spending a great deal of time using the substance; 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; reporting withdrawal symptoms when one stops using it.”

All available evidence indicates that Americans watch an astounding amount of television. “On average, individuals in the industrialized world devote three hours a day to the pursuit — fully half of their leisure time,” Kubey and Csikszentmihalyi said. “At this rate, someone who lives to 75 would spend nine years in front of the tube.”

Moreover, the pair said a large portion of the American viewing public feels it is watching too much television. Kubey and Csikszentmihalyi cite Gallup polls conducted in 1992 and 1999 in which 40% of adult respondents and 70% of teenagers said they watch an excessive amount of TV.

Kubey and Csikszentmihalyi added, “To some researchers, the most convincing parallel between TV and addictive drugs is that people experience withdrawal symptoms when they cut back on viewing.”

While such evidence is still fairly anecdotal rather than clinical, the pair said research shows that families who tried to quit or who were forced to abstain because of a broken TV set initially, at least in the first week, showed signs of withdrawal — anxiety, irritability, quarreling, and even physical fighting. After this period of adjustment, however, families returned to a more normal sense of interpersonal interaction.

Glued to the Tube

What is it about television that is so attractive in the first place? Most parents have probably had the experience of walking into the TV room and informing the children that supper is ready, only to discover that their mesmerized offspring hadn’t even heard a word. Even for adults, however, a TV set that is turned on is difficult to ignore.

Kubey and Csikszentmihalyi believe that humans have a normal, natural impulse to focus on bright and lively stimuli. They said clinical observation of infants shows that they will turn their heads 180 degrees to simply catch a glimpse of bright sunlight.

Called the “orienting response,” Kubey and Csikszentmihalyi describe this reaction as “our instinctive visual or auditory reaction to any sudden or novel stimulus.” While they couch their explanation in evolutionary terms, they nevertheless make the compelling case that, as a result of this orienting response, “The brain focuses its attention on gathering more information while the rest of the body quiets.”

The authors cite the work of Stanford University’s Byron Reeves and University of Missouri’s Esther Thorson, who in a 1986 study examined the effects of television programming’s lively features — i.e., quick cuts and edits, zooming in and out, panning from side to side, etc.

By studying the activity of the brain while viewing, Reeves and Thorson discovered that these features of TV programming did, in fact, result in the triggering of this orienting response. “It is the form, not the content, of television that is unique,” Reeves and Thorson said.

That may explain why people will watch shows they admit are nothing more than intellectual drivel, because the enjoyment comes from the visual buffet of quickly shifting, exciting images, rather than stimulating content.

This also helps explain, Kubey and Csikszentmihalyi suggest, why TV viewers often say, “If a television is on, I just can’t keep my eyes off it,” or “I don’t want to watch as much as I do, but I can’t help it.”

Illusory Benefits

For an addiction to take hold, of course, a person who uses a substance or pursues an experience must obtain some sort of pleasure from it. Does television provide the viewer with that sense of pleasure — especially enough to lead him or her to keep coming back for more?

To actually gauge a viewer’s reaction to television, Kubey and Csikszentmihalyi conducted an experiment in which participants carried a beeper, and were randomly contacted by the researchers throughout the day. When the individual heard the beep, he immediately wrote down the activities in which he was engaged, as well as how he was feeling at the time.

According to the Scientific American article, people who watched TV did say the experience relaxed them. The researchers said other studies confirm this initial benefit from television, as determined by measurements of decreased brain wave activity and an increased sense of passivity.

However, Kubey and Csikszentmihalyi said, “What is more surprising is that the sense of relaxation ended 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.”

This is an unusual result when studying the impact of other leisure activities. People who read, play sports, or invest time in a favorite hobby also felt relaxed, but Kubey and Csikszentmihalyi said people participating in these other activities afterwards “report improvements in mood.” In contrast, research reveals that “[a]fter watching TV, people’s moods are about the same or worse than before.”

The pair stated that this rapid dissipation of TV’s benefit is akin to the addictive power of habit-forming drugs. They said drugs whose effects wear off slowly are not as addictive as those which wear off quickly. That’s because the addict is more aware of the sudden disappearance of the pleasurable feeling with the latter type of drug.

The person who may be addicted to the sense of relaxation that comes from viewing TV may also react in this manner. “Similarly [to the effect of addictive drugs], viewers’ vague learned sense that they will feel less relaxed if they stop viewing may be a significant factor in not turning the set off. Viewing begets more viewing,” they said.

In a similar fashion, just like drug addiction seems subject to a law of diminishing returns, so does watching TV. The researchers found that “people watch a great deal longer than they plan to, even though prolonged viewing is less rewarding…. [T]he longer people sat in front of the set, the less satisfaction they said they derived from it.”

While Kubey and Csikszentmihalyi state clearly that television addiction is not a universally accepted phenomenon in the mental health field, they conclude: “In its easy provision of relaxation and escape, television can be beneficial in limited doses. Yet 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.”

(This article courtesy of Agape Press.)

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