The Symptoms and Risks of Television Addiction

TV addict escapes in to fantasy world
Television addiction can be an escape into a fantasy world. Alex Gumerov/Getty Images

Television addiction has been conceptualized and discussed since the 1970s, so it pre-dated some of the behavioral addictions that have since overtaken it in terms of scientific research and widespread acceptance, such as internet addiction. Although early research into TV addiction was limited, the concept of TV addiction was relatively well accepted by parents, educators, and journalists, as television watching became more common, particularly among children Parents have intuitively known and discussed the need to monitor and manage their kids' screen time, long before the rise of the internet. More recent surveys have shown that there is a widespread public acceptance that television is addictive.


When TV addiction was studied in the 1970s, it was described as paralleling five of the seven DSM criteria used for diagnosing substance dependence. People who were addicted to television spent large amounts of their time watching it; they watched TV longer or more often than they intended; they made repeated unsuccessful efforts to cut down their TV watching; they withdrew from or gave up important social, family, or occupational activities in order to watch television; and they reported "withdrawal"-like symptoms of subjective discomfort when deprived of TV.

Studies conducted with self-identified TV addicts have shown that those considering themselves addicted to television were more generally unhappy, anxious, and withdrawn than other people who watch television, and used television watching to distract themselves from negative moods, worries and fears, and from boredom. They may be somewhat more likely to be solitary, hostile, and lacking the capacity for or interest in social connections with others, although it is unclear whether there is a causal link between these personality characteristics and addiction.

Other characteristics that have been associated with self-identified TV addiction are susceptibility to boredom and the use of TV to fill time. The TV is used as a way to avoid rather than seek out stimulation. In addition, people who become addicted to TV have poor attentional control, guilt, and are prone to daydreams involving fear of failure.


Research has revealed disturbing evidence that excessive TV watching is associated with a shorter lifespan. Those in the highest risk category watched an average of 6 hours of television a day and had a lifespan nearly 5 years shorter than people who did not watch TV.

But does TV itself cause the shorter lifespan? Perhaps not. The study’s authors have stated that the results may be caused by something else associated with excessive TV watching, such as overeating, lack of exercise, or depression.

Indeed, there are several addictive behaviors that lend themselves to hours of TV watching. Marijuana addiction and heroin addiction both tend to lead to many hours of sitting around doing nothing. People with chronic pain who are hooked on painkillers are often limited in their mobility so can’t get out and about. And while the focus of research into shopping addiction tends to be retail stores and online shopping, it may neglect one of the most compulsive scenarios for the shopaholic — the shopping channel.

TV may well be addictive, along with other forms of media, such as video game addiction, internet addiction, cybersex, and even smartphone addiction. And while it is quite possible that TV itself may be addictive, it seems likely that it co-exists with many other addictions that feed off the isolation that is felt by people with numerous other behavioral addictions and substance addictions.

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