The Symptoms and Risks of Television Addiction

Is television or screen addiction real? This is a complicated, hotly debated question. Officially, if you go by the disorders listed in the latest Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, fifth edition (DSM-5), the "bible" of recognized mental health conditions, the answer is no. However, countless researchers (and laypeople alike) view screentime overuse as a looming crisis.

While scientists and psychologists wrestle over exactly what qualifies as an addiction or disorder, the fallout of TV and screen overuse is plain for most of us (experts, doctors, parents, and teachers included) to see. So, even though TV addiction has not yet made the list, there is still plenty of reason to work toward a healthier relationship with your screens.

Rear view of a couple watching TV
skynesher​ / Getty Images

History

The idea of television addiction is nothing new and predates the explosion in media and screens of recent years. Worry over too much TV has been conceptualized and discussed since the 1970s, well before 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. 

Much of the research on screentime has been devoted to its impact on children but, as we all are aware, adults are also prone to overuse.

Screen-Overload

Doctors, teachers, counselors, parents, and even kids are growingly concerned as the quantity of content, types of available media, proliferation of electronic devices, and time spent on screens all soar. According to data in Common Sense Media's 2019 "The Common Sense Census: Media Use by Tweens and Teens," the average teen spends 7 hours, 22 minutes on screens daily—not including for school or homework.

Time in front of screens is up significantly from the last survey in 2015, which is even more alarming when you consider that the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends significantly less screentime than kids are getting.

In 2001, the AAP, citing concerns over possible links of excess screentime to aggressive behavior, poor body image, obesity, and decreased school performance, set a guideline of two hours of screentime maximum for children aged 2 and older and no screens for those under 2. In 2016, those guidelines were reduced to one hour for children aged 2 to 5, and more open-ended "consistent limits" were recommended for kids 6 and up, along with the advice to implement age-appropriate supervision and to teach children media-savvy skills.

Clearly, today's children are far surpassing the recommended limits. Smartphone ownership has also increased sharply with 69% of 12-year-olds now having a phone in their pockets, compared with just 41% in 2015. Today, nearly 90% of high schoolers and over 50% of 11-year-olds are smartphone owners as well.

When TV and Screentime Is a Problem

As we all know, if you have a smartphone (or any other electronic device), you also have the potential for 24-hour access to television and other content via streaming. While overuse is all too common, the relative ability or inability to self-regulate viewing time and choosing screentime to the exclusion of other activities is a key indicator of a problem.

Common Sense Media research found that tweens and teens spend the majority of their screentime binge-watching TV and videos, with YouTube and Netflix topping the most used content providers. After TV, the most frequent electronic activities among teens are gaming and social media.

According to 2019 Common Sense Media data, teens spend 39% of their over 7 daily screentime hours watching TV and videos, 22% devoted to gaming, and 16% to social media. This adds up to over 5.5 hours total and nearly 3 hours a day watching content. Tweens, who average just under 5 hours of daily screen time, allot 53% of their media time to TV and videos, 31% to gaming, and 4% to social media.

Symptoms

When TV addiction was first 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 who consider themselves addicted to television are more generally unhappy, anxious, and withdrawn than other people who watch television. These people use television watching to distract themselves from negative moods, worries and fears, and boredom. They are also somewhat more likely to be solitary and hostile and to withdraw from or have difficulty maintaining social connections with others, although it is unclear whether there is a causal link between these personality characteristics and addiction.

More recently, research shows there is a growing popular trend toward binge-watching television in our culture, which may be exacerbating television addiction. Characteristics that have been associated with self-identified TV addiction are binge-watching, susceptibility to boredom, and the use of TV to fill time. The TV (whether streaming on a device or watching on a traditional TV) is used as a way to avoid rather than seek out stimulation. In addition, people who become addicted to TV tend to have poor attention and self-control, feel guilty about wasting time, and are prone to daydreams involving fear of failure.

The Research Lag

One reason TV or screen addiction isn't considered a true addiction is a lack of sufficient research and the fact that many symptoms of overuse have been normalized. Most of us partake in some of these behaviors to some degree, from spending a weekend binge-watching our favorite show to winding down with a few hours on Facebook, YouTube, or game consoles. Everywhere we look people are staring at screens and, if not, are holding them in their hands, pockets, or bags.

However, while the research data hasn't caught up quite yet to our rapidly changing media and screen landscape, it will soon. Many studies are now in the works that should shed light on the impact all this screentime is having and whether obsessive behaviors around TV watching, social media, gaming, and/or any other electronically-based activity should be classified as true addictions. Regardless, there is a vast agreement that chronic TV watching and screen overuse is a problem.

One pertinent study is the National Institute on Drug Abuse's ongoing, large scale Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development (ABCD Study) project. The ABCD Study, which began in 2016, is following nearly 12,000 youth over 10 years to determine the effects of screentime on brain development, among other social and environmental factors.

The one electronic activity addiction that has gained official legitimacy is gaming addiction, which was listed as a potential disorder in need of further research in the DSM-5.

Risks

Alarmingly, rates of many mental health concerns, from attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) to suicide, are also on the rise—and some wonder if this may be, in part, related to skyrocketing screentime. In fact, a 2018 study in Pediatrics, found a link between screentime, quantity of sleep, and impulsivity-related disorders. These findings echo what many parents and experts see as a link between screens and the exacerbation of ADHD symptoms and other behavioral and mental health issues in children.

Research has also revealed disturbing evidence that excessive TV watching is associated with a shorter lifespan. Those in the highest risk category watched an average of six hours of television a day and had a lifespan nearly five years shorter than people who did not watch TV. But does TV itself cause a shorter lifespan? Perhaps not. The study’s authors have stated that the results may be caused by other factors strongly associated with excessive TV watching such as overeating, lack of exercise, and depression.

Indeed, there are multiple addictive behaviors that lend themselves to hours of TV watching. Marijuana addiction and heroin addiction both tend to lead to hours of inactivity, often in front of screens. People with chronic pain who are reliant on painkillers are often limited in their mobility so they 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.

Television may be addictive, along with other forms of media, such as video game addiction, internet addiction, cybersex, and smartphone addiction. Still, 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 and substance addictions.

Treatment

So, what can we do to offset the danger of too much TV and electronic device usage? Whether or not TV or screen overuse is technically an addiction, we can take steps to reduce its effects. Many parents have intuitively recognized the need to monitor and manage their kids' screen time, long before the rise of the internet—and getting back to the time before the internet can be key to shaking its allure.

Experts suggest the most effective methods for countering screen overuse are removing access to devices, logging use to build awareness and accountability, utilizing screentime apps that will track and limit access, and replacing electronic leisure time with old school activities, such as board games, exercise, and family (device-free) meals. Parents can also model good screentime self-control by limiting their own use. Cognitive behavioral therapy may also help for those who feel they need more intensive help.

If you or a loved one are struggling with substance use or addiction, contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 for information on support and treatment facilities in your area.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

A Word From Verywell

While we await more concrete data on TV and screen overuse to emerge from ongoing research studies, what is certain is that screentime is on the rise and there is increasing concern over "addictive" screen behaviors in both children and adults. Many parents worry that their children are guinea pigs as the impacts of this untested influx of high tech gadgets, social media, and pervasive screens play out in real-time before research on possible detrimental effects can be fully vetted.

Luckily, screens don't have to take over and control our lives. While it is certainly a challenge, we have the tools to reduce screentime in our lives simply by limiting access, building awareness, and swapping virtual actives for ones done in the real world.

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