Everyone loves to settle down and watch their favourite show. The Only Way is Essex, Made in Chelsea, Strictly Come Dancing and Downton Abbey; some of the most popular shows on UK TV at the moment, all good clean fun right? Research even shows watching a funny programme (participants in the study watched episodes of The Simpsons!) activates brain areas like the insular cortex and amygdala, meaning it has a relaxing effect and balances out your mood. But here is where it gets interesting. The positive effects I’ve just mentioned are mostly short term, and when it comes to the long term effects of TV viewing; research paints a much darker picture. You’ve heard of people referring to TV as the idiot box and your mother may often have said it will rot your brain. Surprisingly, in this case, the research tends to agree with your mother!
Researchers are only just beginning to understand the effect television has on a person and the brain, and what they’ve found so far sure isn’t good. A book I would highly recommend on this topic is Remotely Controlled by Dr. Aric Sigman. It is a thorough examination of the research into the effect of television on one’s brain, thoughts and development, as well as physical and mental health. One of the reviews for the book on Amazon.co.uk puts it nicely by saying: “If you care about mental health, turn off the TV and read this book. Then tell anyone you care about to read it, especially if they have children”. Let’s look at what some research has found…
In 1969, Herbert Krugman conducted an experiment (reported in 1971) to examine a person’s brainwaves (to do with the brain’s electrical activity) when they were watching something on TV. There are various types of brain waves but there were two types in focus in this experiment, Alpha (linked to relaxed states, mediation and increased suggestibility) and Beta (linked to logical and critical thinking). What they found was within one minute of watching TV, your mind begins to operate on the Alpha wave level, a state similar to being under hypnosis. When people in the study stopped watching TV and read a magazine, their brainwaves changed to Beta waves. This means when watching TV, you are in a form of ‘mind fog’, just a blank and empty nothingness. This why “researchers have said that watching television is similar to staring at a blank wall for several hours”. Further, studies show that excessive time spent in the Alpha wave state can cause unfocused daydreaming and may lead to difficulty concentrating. Television images are not an unbroken stream as they may seem, but a series of images displayed in rapid succession that are just too quick for your eye to register them as many images being shown per second. It this flicker of images that causes your brain to enter an Alpha state, like a hypnotist with a swinging pocket watch putting you into a trance. So there is nothing you can really do to stop it, it is a natural consequence and inevitability of watching TV.
So you’ve started watching TV, your brain is in the Alpha state, your critical thinking and logical thought is mostly off, and your suggestibility is high. But still, you are not just going to keep watching a barely moving scene for 30 minutes, so the programmes need to keep you looking at the screen somehow. The way this is accomplished by TV is quite simple. When the camera angle changes in a show, this is called a scene change or a cut. These cuts in TV shows take advantage of an inbuilt biological response in humans, called the orienting response. This results in your attention being immediately drawn to a change in the environment, and you can’t control this as it is an inbuilt, evolutionarily significant, response. So for TV shows, the constant cuts are used to keep you fixated on the screen, you can’t help but look. To illustrate this concept, here is a clip from a show from the 1950’s. How many times does the scene change in the first minute of the clip? 3 times. An average of every 20 seconds. Now let’s compare that to a modern show, The Only Way Is Essex. The scene changes 29 times in the first minute, an average of around every 2 seconds. Further, try looking away but keeping the screen in your peripheral vision. Every time the scene changes, you’ll have an urge to look and you most likely will (when you are not aware of it, like when you are watching TV on a normal day, due to being in an Alpha state). This is your basic biology being used against you, to keep you staring at a screen.
A summary of the effects of TV on the brain can be found in this article, which reports information from the book mentioned earlier, Remotely Controlled. For me personally, the most shocking piece of research mentioned in the article is this: “Television watching is the only adult pastime from ages of 20 to 60 positively linked to developing Alzheimers”.
Dr Dimitri Christakis has conducted quite a bit of research exploring the effect of television on children and concentration, and he explained some of it in this eye opening TED talk. You don’t need to be watching TV for very long each day for it to have a negative effect either. An Iowa State University study found that kids who watch TV for more than two hours per day are twice as likely to be diagnosed with attention problems. Generally, the research suggests there is a strong link between ADHD/ADD and excessive television watching, possibly due to the rapid pace of TV (frequent cuts) and the Alpha state induced by TV. However, it is necessary to keep in mind that just watching TV does not cause ADHD/ADD. It is more likely that it increases the risk of developing the conditions, as there are many factors which contribute to such disorders.
Won’t somebody think of the children?!
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) believe the negative effect of watching TV can be so severe for young children, that they recommend children under the age of 2 don’t watch TV at all. Take a look at the short report they published in 2011, it’s quite a shocker! They acknowledge more research needs to be done in the area but they suggest exposing children under the age of 2 to television could result in: disruptions in sleep patterns, expressive language delays and possibly developmental problems. How many people do you know whose kids watch endless hours of TV in their younger years? Each extra hour that kids watch increases their chance of developing depressive symptoms by young adulthood by about 8 percent. And the evidence suggesting a negative effect of television on kids just keeps on piling up. France has even banned TV shows being aimed at kids younger than 3, due to the concern about the effect of TV on children!
Aspiration, Loneliness and Depression…
“The remarkable thing about television is that it permits several million people to laugh at the same joke and still feel lonely” – T.S. Eliot
The best explanation regarding the notion of television affecting your aspirations comes from Charlie Brooker in his series, ‘How TV Ruined Your Life’ (watch it all!). This is only a short clip (WARNING: strong language), but he explains it much better than I can. For a deeper look at the concept, here is a full episode examining aspirational TV.
The concept of ‘Aspirational’ TV is used by TV executives in commissioning briefs for shows. The thinking goes, if you watch the glittering world, you’ll feel like you are part of it. This is the world of aspirational television, ‘aspirational’ being a wildly popular term in TV-land. It’s a world in which the majority of people are thin, attractive, witty, sassy, funny, thoughtful and fun-loving, and enjoy a life of cocktails, d*** and shoes. [changes to scene from ‘Sex and the City’]…The basic theory behind aspirational programming is that if you watch beautiful fun-loving people on TV, you’ll somehow feel like they’re your friends…
And that is what scientific research has found too. These relationships and bonds that we form with TV characters, actually can drive away feelings of loneliness and rejection, by giving the viewer a sense of belonging. This is what is known as the social surrogacy hypothesis. The researchers go on to pose an interesting question, which has a yet unknown answer: do we form relationships with TV characters to suppress the need for human interaction or do we do it to actually fulfil that need? More research is certainly needed. TV may make you feel like you have a sense of belonging and give you some happiness, but the effect is only short term. In the long term, things look very different. The more TV you watch, the unhappier you are. This is the case even after taking into account one’s education, income, age and marital status. Interestingly, the people who reported being happiest in the study were the ones who were involved more in social activities, religion and newspaper reading.
What I have just described is a tiny overview of the effect TV can have on a person, there is so much more out there. Who knew TV could be so bad for you! So are you going to do anything about it? What CAN you do about it? I would suggest take the advice of Howard Beale from the Oscar winning 1976 film, Network: switch off your television. April 29 – May 5 2013 is Screen Free Week, which encourages people not to watch TV or at least restrict their viewing for a week. But who says you have to wait till then? Switch off for a while and see how it goes. Instead, why not try and do things which involve your higher brain wave states like reading (not from a screen) or writing. Try going for a walk, sit quietly and be mindful for a little while, learn a skill, find a hobby, talk to friends and be social or just do some exercise. Anything is better for you than watching TV (well, unless you happen to be watching a Professor Brian Cox or David Attenborough programme, or QI).
So to give the briefest summary, watching TV for long periods is bad for your mind in many ways and switching it off is much better for your mental health. I’ll sign off with this 4 minute animated video: Dollface. It quite aptly sums up what I have been exploring in this post, in a beautifully simplistic and poignant manner. Switch off the TV and switch on your mind.
What do you think?
What is your opinion on all of this? We want to know, comment below! Or even better, write a response and send it to us!
Want to know more?
1) A tonne of articles and research about television and the effect it has on a person.
2) An exploration of a documentary called The Tube. “Journalist Peter Entell and actor Luc Mariot travel to three continents to uncover the history of television and its effects on the human brain. The focus of their research is to study the effect of television regardless of the content.”
3) The classic book 4 Arguments for The Elimination of Television was one of the first to bring the workings and effect of Television to light.
4) Are we amusing ourselves to death? Neil Postman wrote a classic media critique, called Amusing Ourselves to Death in 1985. It explores the ideas of two classic books, George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. Both of these stories describe future societies where people are essentially controlled by authority and the government. In one, they are controlled overtly and with the use of pain (Orwell). In the other, they are controlled subtly without being aware of it, through the pleasure of materialism e.g. drugs, gossip, sex, entertainment etc (Huxley). Rather than thinking there must be more to life than this, the characters in Huxley’s world happily live in a state of non-existence, due to the doping effect of the materialism. Huxley feared that what we love, will ultimately ruin us. Postman argues in his book that we are now in the world proposed by Huxley, being manipulated and controlled without knowing it, and loving every second due to the fact we are entertained. A nice summary of the societies described by Orwell and Huxley, as illustrated by Postman, are presented in this comic strip over at HighExistence. I highly recommend reading all 3 books. For those with a keen interest, check out this interview with Neil Postman: Part 1 and Part 2.
There is a lot more out there on this topic, so if you are interested, start from the links in this article and work your way outwards. Google searching will reveal a lot more information about things such as the role of television networks (and their relentless quest for viewers at any cost), the roots and influence of advertising in modern TV and the mental disorders and societal changes that have occurred in remote cultures since the introduction of television.