Pat was a lonely divorcee, an “empty nester” with children grown and gone—and she was hooked. Planted motionless in her favorite overstuffed recliner, she was held hostage by her television. “I was trying to escape my feelings of loneliness,” she confided, “and I turned to the TV. My habit grew until I would surf the channels, not to find my favorite program, but just to find something—anything!—to watch on the tube. Many times, I would wake up in the wee hours of the morning, having fallen asleep in front of the TV. I often watched things I never would have bought a book to read about, and I was really embarrassed about it.”
But Pat isn’t alone in her habit. Ninety-nine percent of households in America own a television—more than have refrigerators or indoor plumbing. Americans spend half their free time watching TV. In the average American home, TVs are on for seven hours a day, with daily individual viewing for adults topping four hours. That’s twenty-eight hours a week, or two months of nonstop television viewing per year.
American youngsters, on average, spend more time watching television than any activity besides sleeping. Researcher and psychologist Dr. Jane Healy notes that “by ages three to five—the height of the brain’s critical period for cognitive development— estimates place viewing time of the average child at twenty-eight hours a week. Average time for elementary students runs at about twenty-five hours a week, and for high-schoolers, twenty-eight hours a week, approximately six times the hours spent doing homework.” When television time is combined with playing videogames, many teens are spending thirty-five to fifty-five hours in front of the television or game station every week.
TV’s Effect on the Brain
Considering these statistics, it’s sobering to learn that television can have a hypnotic, and possibly addictive, effect on any brain—old or young. One researcher wrote: “Excessive cravings do not necessarily involve physical substances. . . . Most of the criteria of substance dependence can apply to people who watch a lot of television.”
Although people report feeling more relaxed and passive while watching television, once the set is turned off, their sense of relaxation turns off too. Unfortunately, their feelings of passivity and lowered alertness remain. While activities that challenge the brain expand the number and strength of neural connections devoted to that activity, some viewers say television has somehow “absorbed or sucked their energy, leaving them depleted.” Pat’s TV habit left her too tired and depressed to engage in other activities.
One reason for this is that TV, for the most part, is a passive activity for the brain. As Jeff Victoroff, MD, author of Saving Your Brain, notes: “Here’s where we come to the crucial point about mental stimulation and the brain: passive experience does little for the adult brain. To keep the brain learning and growing, we need to generate active responses to cognitive challenges.” Put simply: TV does little or nothing for brain growth.
But according to neurology researcher Dr. Antonio Domasio, TV does do something for the brain: It increases the risk of emotional neutrality because the brain is barraged with too much input. This happens because the information center of the brain receives and processes data at a much faster pace than the emotional center does.
On the news, for instance, it’s not uncommon to see horrific scenes of brutality and bloodshed while basketball scores and stock market figures run simultaneously at the bottom of the screen. “The image of an event or a person can appear in a flash,” Domasio says, “but it takes seconds to make an emotional marking which means that you could potentially become ethically less grounded. You’d be in an emotionally neutral world.”
Victoroff agrees: “Things are shown one after another. No matter how terrifying, images are shown so briefly that we have no time to sense emotionally the horror of a particular event.”
The Ratings Game
In his book, Still Bored in a Culture of Entertainment, psychiatrist Richard Winter cites another potent pitfall of television viewing. The ultimate goal of TV programs is ratings: Ratings attract advertisers, and advertisers bring revenue. So, bottom line, TV is about advertising, not information, and entertainment is the means to accomplish the all-important end—advertising revenue.
As a result, by the age of 20, many viewers have seen more than one million commercials. And what do they learn from these commercials? “Children learn that they are the most important person in the universe,” Winter writes, “that impulses should not be denied, that pain should not be tolerated and that the cure for any kind of pain is a product. They learn a weird mix of dissatisfaction and entitlement. With the message of ads, we are socializing our children to be self-centered, impulsive, and addicted.”
Author Henry Lebalme agrees: “Oddly, this overload of stimulation, information, advertising, and entertainment has produced an unexpected result: boredom. When stimulation comes at us from every side, we reach a point where we cannot respond with much depth to anything. . . . We tend to become unable to discriminate and choose from among the many options. The result is that we shut down our attention to everything.”
But that’s not the only aspect of television that affects the attention of children and adults. The ability to pay attention and focus on a task is an internal choice. But television artificially manipulates the brain into paying attention by violating certain of its natural defenses with flashing images, sudden closeups, and invasive sounds (called saliency). These all alert the novelty, reward, and fear centers of the brain of impending danger. And that keeps you watching—it forces you to pay attention—whether you want to or not, which may contribute to hyperactivity, frustration, and irritability.
Television, when rightly used, can be a source of education, information, entertainment, and even relaxation. Good programs are produced on science, history, nature, religion, art, and human interest. These types of programs can provide a nice occasional diversion and stimulate interest in a new area of study. But higher learning takes place as a result of active mental exertion, which television generally does not stimulate.
This is the trap that Pat found herself in. She recognized that her dependence on television was robbing her of needed social connections and was leaving her more depressed and fatigued as a result. She attended a Living Free seminar on how to break free from behavioral addictions and found positive tools for breaking out of the cycle she was in.
“I went to the seminar and purchased the book Living Free because I knew I needed help. After implementing the spiritual and lifestyle tools in the program, I now feel I have a life again. I enjoy gardening and walking; I have more time to read good books, visit my neighbors and get involved in community projects—I feel that I’m growing spiritually stronger and am more able to handle life’s daily problems without resorting to easy escapes. I take better care of my health, and finally enjoy life again.” (Pat’s testimony and picture are featured in Living Free.)
Instead of TV
What are some alternatives to TV? Getting together with friends and family in positive social gatherings boosts brain hormones associated with well-being and happiness.
Engaging in some challenging new task, project, or hobby increases overall problem-solving ability and creates novelty in a positive way. Outdoor exercise, whether in the form of gardening, hiking, bicycling, or some other physical activity, has a powerful mood-boosting effect.
Playing with pets, enjoying downtime, and connecting with those in need are all ways to give the brain as well as social networks a positive boost. Challenging the brain by reading inspiring and mentally challenging books increases the brain’s ability to solve problems and handle stress.
Taking time to nourish the brain with plenty of fresh fruits, whole grains, vegetables, beans, and nuts provides nutrition that is essential for balancing mood, curbing cravings, and boosting brain power. Replacing caffeinated drinks, alcohol, and nicotine with water and healthy beverages increases mental and physical endurance while eliminating the extreme highs and lows associated with those substances.
But most importantly, the Bible teaches that God is a personal and steadfast Friend “who sticks closer than a brother,” and His presence, power, and plan for living are available to every person who turns to Him for help in times of need.
How much is too much?
In August 1999, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) issued guidelines recommending that children under the age of 2 watch no television or screen entertainment at all. For children over the age of 2 parents need to exert caution, such as setting limits on TV viewing, helping children develop media literacy skills to question, analyze, and evaluate TV messages, and taking an active role in their children’s TV viewing . The AAP also recommends children of all ages should never have a television in their bedroom due to television’s ablity to negatively affect early brain development.
Studies such as the one led by pediatric researcher, Dimitri Christakis, MD, MPH, at the Seattle Children’s Hospital,* have revealed that each hour of television watched per day at ages 1–3 increases the risk of attention problems, such as ADHD, by almost 10 percent at age 7, despite the content of the television programs.