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[Nettime-ro] FW: <nettime> [Television Addiction]
Alexandru Patatics on Sat, 26 Jan 2002 17:20:08 +0100 (CET)

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[Nettime-ro] FW: <nettime> [Television Addiction]


Television Addiction
                      By Robert Kubey and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

Perhaps the most ironic aspect of the struggle for survival is how easily
organisms can be harmed by that which they desire. The trout is caught by
the fisherman's lure, the mouse by cheese. But at least those creatures
have the excuse that bait and cheese look like sustenance.  Humans seldom
have that consolation. The temptations that can disrupt their lives are
often pure indulgences. No one has to drink alcohol, for example. Realizing
when a diversion has gotten out of control is one of the great challenges
of life.  Excessive cravings do not necessarily involve physical
substances. Gambling can become compulsive; sex can become obsessive. One
activity, however, stands out for its prominence and ubiquity--the world's
most popular leisure pastime, television. Most people admit to having a
love-hate relationship with it. They complain about the "boob tube" and
"couch potatoes," then they settle into their sofas and grab the remote
control.  Parents commonly fret about their children's viewing (if not
their own). Even researchers who study TV for a living marvel at the
medium's hold on them personally. Percy Tannenbaum of the University of
California at Berkeley has written:

     "Among life's more embarrassing moments have been countless occasions
     when I am engaged in conversation in a room while a TV set is on, and I
     cannot for the life of me stop from periodically glancing over to the
     screen. This occurs not only during dull conversations but during
     reasonably interesting ones just as well."

Scientists have been studying the effects of television for decades,
generally focusing on whether watching violence on TV correlates with being
violent in real life [see "The Effects of Observing Violence," by Leonard
Berkowitz; Scientific American, February 1964; and "Communication and
Social Environment," by George Gerbner; September 1972]. Less attention has
been paid to the basic allure of the small screen--the medium, as opposed
to the message.

The term "TV addiction" is imprecise and laden with value judgments, but it
captures the essence of a very real phenomenon. Psychologists and
psychiatrists formally define substance dependence as a disorder
characterized by criteria that  include spending a great deal of time using
the substance; using it more often than one intends; thinking about
reducing use or making repeated unsuccessful efforts to reduce use; giving
up important social, family or occupational activities to use it; and
reporting withdrawal symptoms when one stops using it. All these criteria
can apply to people who watch a lot of television. That does not mean that
watching television, per se, is problematic. Television can teach and
amuse; it can reach aesthetic heights; it can provide much needed
distraction and escape. The difficulty arises when people strongly sense
that they ought not to watch as much as they do and yet find themselves
strangely unable to reduce their viewing. Some knowledge of how the medium
exerts its pull may help heavy viewers gain better control over their

A Body at Rest Tends to Stay at Rest

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. To some commentators, this
devotion means simply that people enjoy TV and make a conscious decision to
watch it. But if that is the whole story, why do so many people experience
misgivings about how much they view? In Gallup polls in 1992 and 1999, two
out of five adult respondents and seven out of 10 teenagers said they spent
too much time watching TV. Other surveys have consistently shown that
roughly 10 percent of adults call themselves TV addicts.

To study people's reactions to TV, researchers have undertaken laboratory
experiments in which they have monitored the brain waves (using an
electroencephalograph, or EEG), skin resistance or heart rate of people
watching television. To track behavior and emotion in the normal course of
life, as opposed to the artificial conditions of the lab, we have used the
Experience Sampling Method (ESM). Participants carried a beeper, and we
signaled them six to eight times a day, at random, over the period of a
week; whenever they heard the beep, they wrote down what they were doing
and how they were feeling using a standardized scorecard.  As one might
expect, people who were watching TV when we beeped them reported feeling
relaxed and passive. The EEG studies similarly show less mental
stimulation, as measured by alpha brain-wave production, during viewing
than during reading.

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.

Within moments of sitting or lying down and pushing the "power" button,
viewers report feeling more relaxed. Because the relaxation occurs quickly,
people are conditioned to associate viewing with rest and lack of tension.
The association is  positively reinforced because viewers remain relaxed
throughout viewing, and it is negatively reinforced via the stress and
dysphoric rumination that occurs once the screen goes blank again.

Habit-forming drugs work in similar ways. A tranquilizer that leaves the
body rapidly is much more likely to cause dependence than one that leaves
the body slowly, precisely because the user is more aware that the drug's
effects are wearing off.  Similarly, viewers' vague learned sense that they
will feel less relaxed if they stop viewing may be a significant factor in
not turning the set off. Viewing begets more viewing.

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). For some,
a twinge of unease or guilt that they aren't doing something more
productive may also accompany and depreciate the enjoyment of prolonged
viewing. Researchers in Japan, the U.K. and the U.S. have found that this
guilt occurs much more among middle-class viewers than among less affluent

Grabbing Your Attention

What is it about TV that has such a hold on us? In part, the attraction
seems to spring from our biological "orienting response." First described
by Ivan Pavlov in 1927, the orienting response is our instinctive visual or
auditory reaction to any sudden or novel stimulus. It is part of our
evolutionary heritage, a built-in sensitivity to movement and potential
predatory threats. Typical orienting reactions include dilation of the
blood vessels to the brain, slowing of the heart, and constriction of blood
vessels to major muscle groups. Alpha waves are blocked for a few seconds
before returning to their baseline level, which is determined by the
general level of mental arousal. The brain focuses its attention on
gathering more information while the rest of the body quiets.

In 1986 Byron Reeves of Stanford University, Esther Thorson of the
University of Missouri and their colleagues began to study whether the
simple formal features of television--cuts, edits, zooms, pans, sudden
noises--activate the orienting response, thereby keeping attention on the
screen.  By watching how brain waves were affected by formal features, the
researchers concluded that these stylistic tricks can indeed trigger
involuntary responses and "derive their attentional value through the
evolutionary significance of detecting movement.... It is the form, not the
content, of television that is unique."

The orienting response may partly explain common viewer remarks such as:
"If a television is on, I just can't keep my eyes off it," "I don't want to
watch as much as I do, but I can't help it," and "I feel hypnotized when I
watch television." In the years since Reeves and Thorson published their
pioneering work, researchers have delved deeper. Annie Lang's research team
at Indiana University has shown that heart rate decreases for four to six
seconds after an orienting stimulus. In ads, action sequences and music
videos, formal features frequently come at a rate of one per second, thus
activating the orienting response continuously.

Lang and her colleagues have also investigated whether formal features
affect people's memory of what they have seen. In one of their studies,
participants watched a program and then filled out a score sheet.
Increasing the frequency of edits--defined here as a change from one camera
angle to another in the same visual scene--improved memory recognition,
presumably because it focused attention on the screen. Increasing the
frequency of cuts--changes to a new visual scene--had a similar effect but
only up to a point.  If the number of cuts exceeded 10 in two minutes,
recognition dropped off sharply.

Producers of educational television for children have found that formal
features can help learning. But increasing the rate of cuts and edits
eventually overloads the brain. Music videos and commercials that use rapid
intercutting of unrelated scenes are designed to hold attention more than
they are to convey information. People may remember the name of the product
or band, but the details of the ad itself float in one ear and out the
other. The orienting response is overworked.  Viewers still attend to the
screen, but they feel tired and worn out, with little compensating
psychological reward. Our ESM findings show much the same thing.

Sometimes the memory of the product is very subtle.  Many ads today are
deliberately oblique: they have an engaging story line, but it is hard to
tell what they are trying to sell. Afterward you may not remember the
product consciously. Yet advertisers believe that if they have gotten your
attention, when you later go to the store you will feel better or more
comfortable with a given product because you have a vague recollection of
having heard of it.

The natural attraction to television's sound and light starts very early in
life. Dafna Lemish of Tel Aviv University has described babies at six to
eight weeks attending to television. We have observed slightly older
infants who, when lying on their backs on the floor, crane their necks
around 180 degrees to catch what light through yonder window breaks. This
inclination suggests how deeply rooted the orienting response is.

"TV Is Part of Them"

That said, we need to be careful about overreacting.  Little evidence
suggests that adults or children should stop watching TV altogether. The
problems come from heavy or prolonged viewing.

The Experience Sampling Method permitted us to look closely at most every
domain of everyday life: working, eating, reading, talking to friends,
playing a sport, and so on. We wondered whether heavy viewers might
experience life differently than light viewers do. Do they dislike being
with people more? Are they more alienated from work? What we found nearly
leaped off the page at us. Heavy viewers report feeling significantly more
anxious and less happy than light viewers do in unstructured situations,
such as doing nothing, daydreaming or waiting in line. The difference
widens when the viewer is alone.

Subsequently, Robert D. McIlwraith of the University of Manitoba
extensively studied those who called themselves TV addicts on surveys. On a
measure called the Short Imaginal Processes Inventory (SIPI), he found that
the self-described addicts are more easily bored and distracted and have
poorer attentional control than the nonaddicts. The addicts said they used
TV to distract themselves from unpleasant thoughts and to fill time. Other
studies over the years have shown that heavy viewers are less likely to
participate in community activities and sports and are more likely to be
obese than moderate viewers or nonviewers.

The question that naturally arises is: In which direction does the
correlation go?  Do people turn to TV because of boredom and loneliness, or
does TV viewing make people more susceptible to boredom and loneliness? We
and most other researchers argue that the former is generally the case, but
it is not a simple case of either/or. Jerome L. and Dorothy Singer of Yale
University, among others, have suggested that more viewing may contribute
to a shorter attention span, diminished self-restraint and less patience
with the normal delays of daily life.  More than 25 years ago psychologist
Tannis M.  MacBeth Williams of the University of British Columbia studied a
mountain community that had no television until cable finally arrived. Over
time, both adults and children in the town became less creative in problem
solving, less able to persevere at tasks, and less tolerant of unstructured

To some researchers, the most convincing parallel between TV and addictive
drugs is that people experience withdrawal symptoms when they cut back on
viewing. Nearly 40 years ago Gary A. Steiner of the University of Chicago
collected fascinating individual accounts of families whose set had
broken--this back in the days when households generally had only one set:
"The family walked around like a chicken without a head." "It was terrible.
We did nothing--my husband and I talked." "Screamed constantly. Children
bothered me, and my nerves were on edge. Tried to interest them in games,
but impossible. TV is part of them."

In experiments, families have volunteered or been paid to stop viewing,
typically for a week or a month. Many could not complete the period of
abstinence. Some fought, verbally and physically. Anecdotal reports from
some families that have tried the annual "TV turn-off" week in the U.S.
tell a similar story.

If a family has been spending the lion's share of its free time watching
television, reconfiguring itself around a new set of activities is no easy
task. Of course, that does not mean it cannot be done or that all families
implode when deprived of their set. In a review of these cold-turkey
studies, Charles Winick of the City University of New York concluded: "The
first three or four days for most persons were the worst, even in many
homes where viewing was minimal and where there were other ongoing
activities. In over half of all the households, during these first few days
of loss, the regular routines were disrupted, family members had
difficulties in dealing with the newly available time, anxiety and
aggressions were expressed.... People living alone tended to be bored and
irritated.... By the second week, a move toward adaptation to the situation
was common." Unfortunately, researchers have yet to flesh out these
anecdotes; no one has systematically gathered statistics on the prevalence
of these withdrawal symptoms.

Even though TV does seem to meet the criteria for substance dependence, not
all researchers would go so far as to call TV addictive. McIlwraith said in
1998 that "displacement of other activities by television may be socially
significant but still fall short of the clinical requirement of significant
impairment." He argued that a new category of "TV addiction" may not be
necessary if heavy viewing stems from conditions such as depression and
social phobia. Nevertheless, whether or not we formally diagnose someone as
TV-dependent, millions of people sense that they cannot readily control the
amount of television they watch.

Slave to the Computer Screen

Although much less research has been done on video games and computer use,
the same principles often apply. The games offer escape and distraction;
players quickly learn that they feel better when playing; and so a kind of
reinforcement loop develops. The obvious difference from television,
however, is the interactivity. Many video and computer games minutely
increase in difficulty along with the increasing ability of the player. One
can search for months to find another tennis or chess player of comparable
ability, but programmed games can immediately provide a near-perfect match
of challenge to skill. They offer the psychic pleasure--what one of us
(Csikszentmihalyi) has called "flow"--that accompanies increased mastery of
most any human endeavor. On the other hand, prolonged activation of the
orienting response can wear players out. Kids report feeling tired, dizzy
and nauseated after long sessions.

In 1997, in the most extreme medium-effects case on record, 700 Japanese
children were rushed to the hospital, many suffering from "optically
stimulated epileptic seizures" caused by viewing bright flashing lights in
a Pokémon video game broadcast on Japanese TV. Seizures and other untoward
effects of video games are significant enough that software companies and
platform manufacturers now routinely include warnings in their instruction
booklets. Parents have reported to us that rapid movement on the screen has
caused motion sickness in their young children after just 15 minutes of
play.  Many youngsters, lacking self-control and experience (and often
supervision), continue to play despite these symptoms.

Lang and Shyam Sundar of Pennsylvania State University have been studying
how people respond to Web sites. Sundar has shown people multiple versions
of the same Web page, identical except for the number of links. Users
reported that more links conferred a greater sense of control and
engagement. At some point, however, the number of links reached saturation,
and adding more of them simply turned people off. As with video games, the
ability of Web sites to hold the user's attention seems to depend less on
formal features than on interactivity.

For growing numbers of people, the life they lead online may often seem
more important, more immediate and more intense than the life they lead
face-to-face. Maintaining control over one's media habits is more of a
challenge today than it has ever been. TV sets and computers are
everywhere. But the small screen and the Internet need not interfere with
the quality of the rest of one's life. In its easy provision of relaxation
and escape, television can be beneficial in limited doses. Yet when the
habit interferes with the ability to grow, to learn new things, to lead an
active life, then it does constitute a kind of dependence and should be
taken seriously.

Further Information:

Television and the Quality of Life: How Viewing
Shapes Everyday Experience. Robert Kubey and Mihaly
Csikszentmihalyi. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1990.

Television Dependence, Diagnosis, and Prevention.
Robert W. Kubey in Tuning in to Young Viewers: Social Science
Perspectives on Television. Edited by Tannis M.
MacBeth. Sage, 1995.

"I'm Addicted to Television": The Personality,
Imagination, and TV Watching Patterns of Self-Identified TV Addicts. Robert
D. McIlwraith in Journal of Broadcasting and
Electronic Media, Vol. 42, No. 3, pages 371--386; Summer 1998.

The Limited Capacity Model of Mediated Message
Processing. Annie Lang in Journal of Communication, Vol. 50, No. 1,
pages 46--70; March 2000.

Internet Use and Collegiate Academic Performance
Decrements: Early Findings. Robert Kubey, Michael J. Lavin and John
R. Barrows in Journal of Communication, Vol. 51, No.
2, pages 366--382; June 2001.

The Authors

mid-1970s at the University of Chicago, where Kubey
began his doctoral studies and where
Csikszentmihalyi served on the faculty. Kubey is now a professor at Rutgers
University and director of the Center for Media
Studies (www.mediastudies.rutgers.edu). His work focuses on the
development of media education around the world. He
has been known to watch television and even to play video games
with his sons, Ben and Daniel. Csikszentmihalyi is
the C. S. and D. J. Davidson Professor of Psychology at Claremont
Graduate University. He is a fellow of the American
Academy of Arts and Sciences. He spends summers writing in the
Bitterroot Mountains of Montana, without newspapers
or TV, hiking with grandchildren and other occasional visitors.

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