Television Addiction – Just Say “Off”

I was trained at a young age to worship television.

It was the center of our home, akin to a shrine. From within the wooden box, a powerful force seemed to pull our small family of three toward it. Our day didn’t begin before the set was turned on, and no one went to bed until it was turned off. The compelling need to constantly watch left me laying on the floor for hours, leaning first on one arm, then the other, until my elbows formed nearly permanent impressions of broadloom fibers. Rather than be interrupted by meals, we simply adapted by eating on wobbly trays.

Our devotion to this electronic Mecca increased in the fall, when the coveted issue of TV Guide’s Fall Preview appeared in the mailbox. Gone were the reruns of summer. Now we could reunite with the virtual characters that seemed as much a part of my family as the panting dog beside me.

Not until I grew older did I recognize our family and in particular, my mother’s love of television was a little unusual. As my social life extended beyond home, I found friends and other activities to fill my time. Then one night as my teenaged mind was wandering, my mother began a conversation about some people I had never heard of before. Seeming concerned about their well being, I tried to take a more active interest, and pressed her for further details. Suddenly I realized the "friends" she was talking about were TV sitcom characters. Somehow television had become an extension of her reality.

I was convinced my mother harbored a television addiction. Despite her denial that she really didn’t watch that much TV, she could never cut back her viewing. How could she live not knowing what was happening on her daytime dramas? Would Starsky and Hutch survive another crook?

As the years passed, she turned down more and more outside invitations in favor of a night at home with the tube. As her life became more reclusive, the TV literally became larger. Diabetes dimmed her eyesight, so she bought a 64-inch screen.

Perhaps you’ve wondered if someone in your family is watching an unhealthy amount of TV. Maybe its something you are concerned about in your own life. But is television addiction a real ailment?

Certainly alcohol, smoking and gambling can cause additions. Many psychiatrists are even recognizing that sexual obsessions can be classified this way. But can something as innocent as turning on the TV be as destructive as these habits?

Last year two researchers, Robert Kubey and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, reported their findings on the concept of television addiction.. In their article appearing in Scientific American, they explain the characteristics of all dependency disorders include:
Using something more often than you intend to.
Spending a great deal of time using it.
Giving up important social, family, or occupational activities to use it.
Thinking about reducing your use or making repeated unsuccessful attempts to cut back.

They suggest that all of these identifying traits can be applied to people who watch a lot of television.

Other discoveries led the pair to see parallels between compulsive viewing habits and the use of habitual drugs. For instance, at the start of a viewing session, participants tended to feel relaxed. This gave them the false sense that television can make them happier. That reward made them want more.

However, after turning the TV off, those involved in the study reported feeling like television “sucked out their energy” and made it difficult to concentrate on tasks. Others reported feeling unhappy. In contrast, similar sedentary activities such as reading and hobbies didn’t have this same aftereffect.

Most parents won’t be a bit surprised by these findings. Ever notice how an overdose of Saturday morning cartoons leaves everyone feeling grumpy? And the same holds true even if the content of the programming isn’t objectionable. Long sessions of quality television can still leave viewers with these same symptoms.

Doctors are reporting a similar trend in their offices. Dr. Peter Nieman, a pediatrician and spokesperson for the Canadian Pediatric Society, commented during a recent conversation on how many of the obese and depressed children he sees frequently share a similar habit: High amounts of television viewing, with video game playing being a close second.

This past week, my sweet mother passed away. I loved her dearly, yet as I have reflected on her life, I can’t help but be somewhat saddened by the many things she often said she wanted to do, but never did. And I mourn for those valuable years that were lost to the television.

With summer approaching, now may be a good time to look at your family’s viewing habits. Perhaps it’s time to start weaning off that media dependency by substituting new activities. Certainly if you find yourself or your children putting off important life events to accommodate television, video games, or other media, you should reconsider your use of this “drug of the new millennium.”

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