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 aurally 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:
- "I feel hypnotized when I watch television."
- "Television sucks my energy."
- "I feel like it's brainwashing me."
- "I feel like a vegetable when I'm stuck there at the tube."
- "Television spaces me out."
- "My kids look like zombies when they're watching."
- "I feel mesmerized by it."
- "If a television is on, I just can't keep my eyes off it."
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 leisure time 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.
"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.
Breaking the addiction
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 television addict 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.
A moderate or heavy watcher will probably never move down to 0 viewing 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.
“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.