Viewing begets more viewing:
January 18, 2002 12:39 AM   Subscribe

Viewing begets more viewing: A Scientific American article exploring television addiction, its effects on the mind, and its similarity to other addictions. It raises the interesting question: Do people turn to TV because of boredom and loneliness, or does TV viewing make people more susceptible to boredom and loneliness?
posted by Doug (24 comments total)
*shrugs shoulders*
posted by Frasermoo at 1:16 AM on January 18, 2002

I've lived without TV for three years, and I'm getting by quite well without it. However, by substituting it with weblogging and reading other weblogs (including MeFi), I think I've managed to achieve just about the same level of inactivity.

Were I to be offered free cable this moment, I think ... I would turn it down. In my un-TV'd state, I'm not sure I could handle that much input all at once. All those channels...

/me wipes drool from chin.
posted by brownpau at 1:47 AM on January 18, 2002

I prefer beer as my recreational drug
posted by Eirixon at 1:50 AM on January 18, 2002

From the article:

'The amount of time people spend watching television is astonishing. On average, individuals in the industrialized world devote three hours a day to the pursuit--fully half of their leisure time, and more than on any single activity save work and sleep. At this rate, someone who lives to 75 would spend nine years in front of the tube. '

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.

Very interesting article, thanks Doug.

In response to your question - television both causes boredom loneliness and is seen as a respite from it. Kind of a self fulfilling prophesy.
Terrence McKenna once observed that in Philip K Dick's 'The Man in the High Castle' (I think, or maybe 'Flow My Tears') when the Nazis win the war, the Japanese flood the US with marijuana, to keep the population apathetic. McKenna observes that the popularity of TV after the second world war made a much more effective job of stupifying the population.

Further development of this idea:

'If we argue that the consciousness altering effects of drugs are
what makes them immoral, what about sugar? It gives you a charge of
energy, stimulating the brain. What about sleep? It depresses the normal
conscious brainwave pattern, and introduces two totally new types of
brainwaves. How about television? It alters consciousness, and it
distorts peoples' views of the real world in a far more long-term manner
than any chemical'

In the past we have may have spent the evenings around a fire, discussing and telling stories. Staring at a fire is very enticing (I believe the most popular tv programme in the US on xmas day last year was a three hour broadcast of a log fire), so staring at a fire which also tells stories could be easy to fall into as a habit for human beings. That's my theory, in addition to the 'orienting response' theory in the SciAm article.
posted by asok at 3:33 AM on January 18, 2002

Do people turn to TV because of boredom and loneliness, or does TV viewing make people more susceptible to boredom and loneliness?

I found the article very interesting and, as it applies to me, quite true.

I very rarely watch television but, when I do, I'm hooked. All the pretty colours, interesting pictures of faraway places, fictionalized human situations - it is addictive, specially if you've got someone to discuss it with.

On the few occasions I've watched on my own, I'm still fascinated and write down whatever occurs but, when I get up, I feel very empty and the notes, at second glance, are all worthless.

Perhaps it's the feeling that TV is "company" - people talking, laughing, doing stuff - when you're actually alone.

All other shows - whether sports events or the theatre - are somehow made fuller by the fact that you're watching with other people.

So your reactions have an echo and other spectators' reactions keep bouncing off you, giving you a sense of identity in participation which is not entirely virtual.

In any case, I think it's crucial to consider whether you're watching TV alone(or in silence, with others not really present)or answering back, as it were.

That would help explain, perhaps, the multiplier effect on one's boredom or loneliness.
posted by MiguelCardoso at 3:48 AM on January 18, 2002

brownpau: Do you really think that you have as much mental inactivity from internetting as from televisioning? Physical inactivity, yes, but mental? I don't think internetting is going to contribute to Alzheimer's in the way that televisioning does.
posted by kv at 4:07 AM on January 18, 2002

Doug: Fascinating article--thanks for the link!

An article in the New Yorker years ago alerted me to the ever-increasing number of "technical events" during television programs. (It may have been written by Jerry Mander, author of "Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television.") For half a century, television has been a major part of American home life, yet its effects on people are too rarely reported. How much does Attention Deficit Disorder derive from the typical American's lifelong, heavy exposure to the flickering screen? Even parents who restrict TV-watching often rely on videotapes as electronic babysitters to occupy their children.
posted by Carol Anne at 5:49 AM on January 18, 2002

Dang, this is interesting.

Last night, as Joshua played with toys and I sat in the other room reading a book, my wife called from the den, "So, are you being antisocial again?" "No," I replied, "I just want to get away from the TV." "All right, I'll turn it off if you'll come sit in here with us." So I went into the den with Lisa and Joshua, sat, and we just...made small talk. No TV to compete with or to succumb to. It was very nice.

My wife couldn't understand how I can't carry on a conversation in the room when she's got the TV going. To me, it's such a distraction that it transcends the very notion; it's a black hole for my attention. I try to talk with my wife and I'm only half listening to her because I realize I'm looking at Jennifer Anniston instead. It really bothers me.

I like TV better when there's something on that I, or we, make a specific plan to watch and enjoy (together) -- otherwise, it's just noise filling up a void. Even relatively educational stuff like Discovery Channel is the equivalent of idly flipping through a magazine to kill time.
posted by alumshubby at 6:19 AM on January 18, 2002

I agree with you alumshubby. I cannot have a conversation in a room with the TV on either.

We shut off the cable more than 3 years ago and things have been much better since. Our children now find things to do with their time by themselves. They are not used to being fed their entertainment by something that they do not control.

I get things done at night instead of watching inane shit like "The Drew Carey Show".
posted by MaddCutty at 8:01 AM on January 18, 2002

Early one Sunday morning I was sitting in my rocking chair with Nevada in my lap, watching CBS Sunday Morning with Charles Osgood. When they did the obligatory nature segment--that time with bald eagles congregating in winter to feed on salmon in the Skagit River--I felt claws digging into my legs. I glanced down to see Nevada staring wideyed at an eagle flying across the screen and sputtering that 'killing bite' meow--now when she sits in my lap, she's always facing the TV and watching...
posted by y2karl at 9:11 AM on January 18, 2002

well said, Miguel and alumshubby.

I can't do anything but watch when a TV is on. I have great will power when it comes to smoking, drinking, drugs (I used to smoke cigarettes on weekends, I drink when I go to parties or out with friends, but never think of it otherwise, etc) but I've always said, I can understand addiction because of my relationship to TV. If I turn it on, it usually stays on until I go to sleep.

I have a tiny little antenna driven box that hadn't been used for ages until Sept 11 (though I was dating someone with cable until last Spring). Recently I've gotten addicted again though - made sure to be home by 8 yesterday to catch "friends"! Ridiculous, I know. I don't even enjoy it much; I just feel compelled to "find out what happens". Biggest problem for me is channel 11 repeats from 11-2am.

I definitely wouldn't get cable but i wonder if TiVo might actually help me - if I knew I had it on tape, I wouldn't have to watch it right away, and I might realize I don't need to watch it at all... like that 3 minute wait that ends nicotine cravings. (I'm not actually going to make that investment at this point - it's just a thought).
posted by mdn at 10:17 AM on January 18, 2002

My mother cannot not have the TV on. There have been times when my sister and I have gone back to the family home, traveling cross-country in the process, and my mother will still keep the TV on the entire time we're with my parents. The entire time--dinner, Christmas morning, important conversations, whenever.

Sometimes we've succeded in getting her to turn it off -- for a moment. Then she starts to jiggle her leg, her conversation gets vague, she keeps sneaking glances back at the TV screen. After about two minutes she always turns it on again -- "just in the background" -- and we don't object.

I really hate to sound like one of those raving moralists about TV, so I usually stay quiet. But: Turn the effin thing off. Stay away from it for a while -- like two months. Then, I promise you, you will realize what the thing is and what it does. It's very nasty.

America used to have fraternal organizations, union halls, social clubs, amateur baseball teams, political picnics, social-welfare societies and (for kids) streets and shops where we had daily social interactions, with a chance of engendering a sense of community. Now we have TV. Pathetic.
posted by argybarg at 10:36 AM on January 18, 2002

I just spent a month with no cable, and we get really bad reception with the antenna. It was really refreshing not to have all those channels to surf. I could watch a bit of morning pseudo-news while drinking the all-important 1st cup-o-joe, and watch West Wing if I was home on Wed. evening.

But being without an Internet connection, to say nothing of my cablemodem, while I visited family for the holidays, now, that was nasty.
posted by theora55 at 11:40 AM on January 18, 2002

My favorite recent quote about TV, in this age of the channel changer, comes from Bill Bryson. He said Americans don't watch it "to see what is on, [we] watch it to see what else is on."

If you do stop watching for a few months, and then come upon a TV show again, it's like a physical assault. The constant flashing of images, the noise, the inanity -- it's hard to take. But unless you run away, before long you're used to it once again.

We didn't get a TV until I was 7, whereupon I wasted many many many hours, but over the last 15 years I've almost given it up entirely. (Since my son was born, and I started reading a lot about the physical and mental effects of TV, we won't have one in the house.)

It's far more interesting to use up my precious free hours reading MeFi. Which, as a bonus (and although it's often hilarious), doesn't include a fake laugh track.
posted by LeLiLo at 11:45 AM on January 18, 2002

rodii, don't you know friends don't let friends watch Friends?
The Simpsons?--well, that's a cultural necessity.
Other than that, I hear ya... But what about my kitty?
posted by y2karl at 2:03 PM on January 18, 2002

At&t just cut off my free cable. *sniff*, tough love...
posted by roboto at 4:45 PM on January 18, 2002

Very interesting. A few comments:

For some reason, when the group gathers in the living room to watch a program that's utterly uninteresting to me, and I pick up a book, that's anti-social.

My sister doesn't like "The Simpsons" because it teaches her daughter (2 yo) bad manners. But for my kids (upcoming) I'd like to ban all TV news and newsmagazines (local news, entertainment tonight, dateline, etc). Get your news from radio and the print media. That TV news looks nutritious but is just empty calories.

You ever notice that it's easier to tune out comedies, dramas and nighttime talk shows, compared to news and daytime talk shows (Oprah, etc)? I think it's because the former are talking to each other, but the latter are talking to *you*, on the other side of the screen, and the phrasing and intonation is set up to keep engaging your attention.
posted by kurumi at 5:52 PM on January 18, 2002

c'mon, ain't nobody going to celebrate, defend even, my addiction of choice? i'm argybarg's mom and proud of it. when i'm home it's on. if i'm actually looking at it, the picture-in-picture is on. the only time my son and i sit together quietly and "be in the moment" is during the simpsons repeat at 6pm, it's my favorite time of the day.

whats wrong with Attention Deficit Disorder? i call it multi-tasking. my father is a very smart man, but he will never grok even the most basic computer concepts. a tool that does the thinking for you is beyond him. me, well i've seen little tiny ppl from countless real and imagined cultures telling me what's what from behind a glass screen all my life. using this tool is intuitive to me, and my son's life will be 100x more wired than mine. is this solely b/c of TV? obviously not. but is it a coincidence that my generation (from mid-to-late baby boomers on) was raised on TV and now shrinks the earth onto a computer chip? just as obviously not.

sure it's an addiction--with all the negative connotations of the word--but all this anti-TV crap i'm reading here ... (** grows bored with this line of thought **) ... why it's, it's terrorism dammit. an assult on my primary values.
posted by danOstuporStar at 6:26 PM on January 18, 2002

I was hermitted (don't know if that's a word or not) against my will last year for four months. I unplugged the TV and printed off a copy of the top 100 fiction books of the 20th century. Didn't read them straight through (C'mon, who can read Ulysses and then move onto Finnegan's Wake?), but did read a shitload of them. My nights seemed longer and far more interesting. Now my roommates always have it on (no cable though) and while I will take time out to watch Blind Date (sort of like anthropology...) and the Simpsons, I usually sneak away with my books. Or sit on the porch and drink heavily. Learned both as a hermit, I guess.
posted by hellinskira at 7:00 PM on January 18, 2002

I think the question is not so much "How much TV are you watching?" as it is "What are you watching?"

I love television. Since my job partially requires monitoring several networks, there are six on in my office all the time. One is always tuned to CNBC, one is always on CNN, one is always on the Weather Channel, and one is on FOX news. With this job, it's absolutely necessary to be able to pull in information from multiple sources at the same time, so the "TV in the background" thing doesn't bother me a bit when I get home.

As I think about it more, though, I realize I'm not necessarily a TV junkie as much as an information junkie. My bookmarks here at home and at work are filled with links to news sites. I subscribe to more magazines and newspapers than any ten of my friends put together. If the Dish Network offered a package of nothing but news channels, I'd sign up, then buy multiple receivers and dishes so I could watch all the channels at once.

If I ever decided to take Provigil I'd probably spend the extra waking time trying to find more ways to get information into my brain.

Maybe I should change my nickname to Johnny5. More input!
posted by mr_crash_davis at 7:21 PM on January 18, 2002

Before anyone points it out, yes, I realize I said six TVs are on and then only named four networks. The other two vary.

Sometimes it's best to be proactive.
posted by mr_crash_davis at 7:24 PM on January 18, 2002

I don't know whether I can really add to any understanding of TV addiction, but it hits close to home for me. There was no TV in the house in my early childhood until I was about 14, after which I watched way too much of it for years afterward--flash forward to the present: the TV is on if my wife is home and awake, but it's very seldom that I'll willingly sit through a program. If it isn't good enough to really hook my interest, I'll be bored and itching to find something to read (mainly on the Web, of course). Meanwhile my Significant Other surfs DirecTV channels like I surf the Web (only much faster--damn 56k!).
Just a few weeks ago, our TV gave up the ghost one evening, and it was she who made a quick trip to Wal Mart for a replacement. But--maybe this is some clue--reading always came easily to me, whereas the concept of "reading for pleasure" is foreign to a lot of people to whom reading is something to do only if you must. I read a lot when I was a kid, with no TV to watch--but TV seemed so cool and dynamic compared to books. Now I know too well the desire to put a size-10 through the picture tube.
(cue up Zappa's I'm the Slime (oozin' out from your TV set)
posted by StOne at 11:12 PM on January 18, 2002

If my TV died I would definitely not run out for a new one; not sure I could defend ever spending money on a television (I inherited the one I have from an ex-roommate). And usually I do prefer reading, but if I get lazy and turn the TV on, I get hooked, and honestly find it incredibly difficult to then turn it off.

There is also something about knowing that something is "happening" at a particular moment, that you could miss it. I would never rent a DVD set of Friends or ER, but I feel compelled to watch it if it's on (I have rented DVD sets of the Sopranos, though). I always feel better afterwards if I do something else instead, but it's easier to watch TV.
posted by mdn at 12:13 PM on January 19, 2002

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