Jewish World Review Jan. 25, 2002 / 12 Shevat, 5762
Figure it out in your head -- how many hours will the television set, or sets, in your home have been on?
This is a heavy sports weekend, so the number may be higher than usual. But even if you're not a sports fan, what do you think your cumulative TV hours will be?
All right. Now ask yourself this:
Do you think you're an addict?
Serious question -- do you think you're addicted to television?
I bring this up because the respected journal Scientific American is about to go to press with its new issue, in which a seemingly legitimate case will be made that the television habit in the United States mirrors classic addictions, and should be regarded as such. This is not some lightweight article reaching for wry laughs -- it's a sober look at what its authors believe is a sober concern.
Robert Kubey, director of the Center for Media Studies at Rutgers University, and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a professor of psychology at Claremont Graduate University, begin their co-authored piece with this proposition:
"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."
With that, the authors set up their response to the reaction many people may have when confronted with the thesis that television viewing is an addiction. What a crock, people may say -- now we're heading one more step down the path toward classifying every frequent human activity as an addiction. Alcohol, all right; drugs, yes; gambling, probably so. . . .
But what's next? Is eating going to be called an addiction, because all of us do it every day? Is drinking water going to be moved into the addiction category?
Kubey and Csikszentmihalyi base much of their theory on the answers to such questions. Yes, people eat and drink water every day -- but, as with the fisherman's lure and the mousetrap's cheese, we eat food and we imbibe water because "at least . . . they look like sustenance."
Television is different. Watching TV per se, the authors say, is not automatically problematic: "Television can teach and amuse; it can reach aesthetic heights; it can provide much-needed distraction and escape." But -- and here is the key:
"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. . . .
"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 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. . . ."
I spoke with professor Kubey, and asked him why people should be expected to be concerned about something they take for granted and do not consider harmful. He said that the answer is as close as your pocket calculator.
"Let's say that the average human lifespan is roughly 75 years," he said. "And let's say, for the sake of this discussion, that a person sleeps eight hours a night. And let's say that the average person watches three hours of television a day."
Do the math. In 75 years on Earth, a person will spend a third of that -- 25 years -- sleeping. Which gives the person 50 waking years. And if a person watches television for three hours a day. . . .
"That comes out to about nine years," Kubey said. "And the question you have to ask yourself is: If I'm going to be awake for a total of 50 years during my lifetime, do I really want to spend nine of those years sitting in front of a TV set? And that's for the person who watches three hours a day. There are people who watch for six hours a day, off and on. They will have spent 18 of their 50 waking years watching TV."
Professors Kubey and Csikszentmihalyi develop several postulates about how the addicting quality of television derives more from the colorful visual images and constant scene-shifts than from the specific content of the programming: "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."
But whatever you may think of that, consider -- during this weekend of non-stop televised sports events -- this:
"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. . . . (W)hen the set is turned off . . . the feelings of passivity and lowered alertness continue."
How much television will you watch this weekend?
Your nine-year march continues. . . .