Excerpted from:


From the co-author of: Television and the Quality of Life: How Viewing Shapes Everyday Experience

Television Dependence, Diagnosis, and Prevention:

Robert Kubey

Associate Professor, Department of Journalism & Media Studies

Rutgers University, New Brunswick, New Jersey 08903

In Tuning In To Young Viewers: Social Science Perspectives on Television, edited

by Tannis M.Williams, Sage, 1996.


The diagnostic criteria for substance dependence used by psychologists and psychiatrists are applied to known features of habitual television viewing behavior. The case is made that for some persons, television viewing habits may constitute psychological dependence. Methods aimed at controlling media habits are offered as is advice for those responsible for children. Consideration is also given to contemporary challenges posed by media violence, pornography, and computer and videogame habits. A section on media education is included. Portions of this article were originally presented at the 98th annual meeting of American Psychological Association, Boston, August 1990. At that time, diagnostic criteria as covered in D.S.M.III-R (1987) were applied.

Acknowledgements: I wish to thank Hartmut Mokros, Ph.D. and James Hutchinson, M.D., for their helpful suggestions on elements of this chapter.

In this chapter, I first examine what is known about psychological dependence on television, applying the psychiatric criteria used in diagnosing substance dependencies to viewing habits. The chapter then turns to concerns about how people can gain greater control over their viewing, with specific attention to the concerns of those responsible for children.

Because media violence is so often the focus of society's concerns about the non-discriminant and unsupervised use of television by children, I also offer observations on this topic. The chapter next considers the positive potentials posed by video and computer games but also why use of these new media can be habit forming. Finally, the long-standing controversy over the effects of pornography is addressed, as is the question of whether there is such a thing as pornography addiction. New concerns about interactive erotica are raised. In light of the foregoing, at the conclusion of the chapter I briefly consider the value of formal media education.

Television Dependence

Many people today believe that television viewing can be addictive. Although only 2 percent and 12.5 percent of adults in two separate surveys believed that they were addicted, 65 to 70 percent believed that others were addicted (McIlwraith, 1990; McIlwraith, Smith, Kubey, & Alexander, 1991; Smith, 1986).

Although it is tempting to use the term "addiction" when referring to individuals who report upwards of 60 hours of viewing each week, the term connotes different things to different people. It seems likely that less confusion will result if we are more careful in the words we choose.

Indeed, the prime diagnostic manual used by psychotherapists throughout North America, the American Psychiatric Association's (1994) Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition, (D.S.M.-IV), does not use the term "addiction," nor did its previous edition published in 1987. Instead, the committees that wrote D.S.M. preferred the term "substance dependence" to conceptualize what others might call addiction. Still, there remain researchers and clinicians who use the term "addiction," especially with regard to pornography. As a result, in the pages ahead I will use that term from time to time.

How the Viewing Habit is Formed

Before launching into a more general discussion of television dependence, I want to recount some of the relevant findings I have reported in earlier research using the Experience Sampling Method (ESM). Since the mid-1970s, my colleagues and I have used this method to study how people use and experience television as well as other media.

The ESM involves having research subjects report what they are doing, and how they are feeling, each time they are signalled with a radio controlled beeper. Each respondent typically is signalled six to eight times each day, from morning till night, for a week. The timing of the signals is predetermined by the research team to occur at random intervals, and participants do not know when to expect a signal. The research has enabled us to study television viewing along with other daily activities as they naturally occur.

In addition to the beepers, participants also carry a small booklet of self-report forms. After each signal, the individual stops to fill out a short report form telling us how he or she felt on a number of standard psychological measures of mood and mental activity. The ESM has already proved useful in the diagnosis and understanding of psychopathologies such as the eating disorders bulimia and anorexia (Johnson & Larson, 1982; Larson & Johnson, 1985), drug and  alcohol abuse (Larson, Csikszentmihalyi, & Freeman, 1984), schizophrenia (deVries, Delespaul, Dijkman, Theunissen, 1986), and multiple personality disorder (Lowenstein, Hamilton, Alagana, Reid, & de Vries, 1987).

With the ESM we have found that television viewing typically involves less concentration and alertness--and is experienced more passively--than almost all other daily activities, except when people report "doing nothing" (Csikszentmihalyi & Kubey, 1981; Kubey, 1984; Kubey & Csikszentmihalyi, 1990a). These very basic findings have held up for people from ages 10 to 82 and from people studied in the United States, Canada, West Germany, and Italy.

The main positive experience people report when viewing is relaxation, but the relaxed and passive bodily and mental states associated with viewing may also make it difficult for many people to turn the set off. Furthermore, the passive viewing state doesn't stop once people turn off the set--it can "spill over" into how they feel afterward. Most viewers continue to feel relaxed regardless of how long they view but some report less satisfaction and greater difficulty concentrating the longer they view (Kubey, 1984; Kubey & Csikszentmihalyi, 1990a).

The spillover effect suggests that viewing can inculcate passivity in some viewers, at least in the short term, and it appears that many viewers find it more difficult to turn off the set the longer they view. Activities that might have seemed simple to do at 6:00 pm begin to appear more formidable as the viewer becomes accustomed to spending time passively. 1

The mood modulating and psychological coping features of television use are evidenced in ESM studies by the fact that people who report feeling significantly worse early in the afternoon are more likely to report later the same day that they watched a lot of television, whereas people who report feeling better in the afternoon are more likely later that day to report a light night of viewing (Kubey, 1984; Kubey & Csikszentmihalyi, 1990b). That people use television to escape negative and unpleasant moods has been shown by others as well (Steiner, 1963; Schallow & McIlwraith, 1986-87). In fact, adults who called themselves "TV addicts" were also significantly more likely than "nonaddicted" viewers to report using television to cope with negative moods such as loneliness, sadness, anxiety, and anger (McIlwraith, 1990).

Television has been found to distract viewers from the negative thinking and rumination that can contribute to unpleasant mood states (Bryant & Zillmann, 1984; McIlwraith & Schallow, 1983; Singer, 1980; Singer & Singer, 1983). And viewing appears to be particularly effective in reducing normal stress and mild tension (Milkman & Sunderwirth, 1987). The distraction function of TV has even been found to reduce patients' reports of pain during dental procedures (Seyrek, Corah, & Pace, 1984).

Self-labelled "addicts" say they are particularly likely to use television when they have nothing to do and to fill open time (McIlwraith, 1990). By comparison with light viewers who watch less than two hours a day, heavy viewers (more than four hours) generally report feeling worse when alone and when in unstructured situations such as waiting in line or when "between" activities (Kubey, 1986).

These findings suggest a possible dependence on the medium for filling the voids that accompany solitude or open time.  Sensation-seeking and avoidance of unpleasant thoughts, memories, and emotions have also been theorized to be at play. Eysenck (1978), for example, theorized that extraverts would become dependent on television because of a low tolerance for boredom and a need to increase arousal. One interpretation is that viewing is simply symptomatic, that is, people who feel anxious when alone or in unstructured situations will gravitate to television in order to feel less anxious and alone and more psychologically structured. Put another way, people use television to distract themselves from their negative ruminations and mood states by letting the medium help structure their attention.

In one way, the effect may not be very different from the immediate, positive change in mood observed in an infant when his or her attention is suddenly structured by the sound and sight of a shaking rattle.

In both the United States (Smith, 1986) and Canada (McIlwraith, 1990) researchers have studied self-labelled "TV addicts." In both studies they scored significantly higher than viewers who described themselves as "nonaddicted" on measures of mindwandering, distractibility, boredom, and unfocused daydreaming (from the Poor Attentional Control scale of the Short Imaginal Processes Inventory, a relatively simple paper and pencil psychological measurement instrument). This suggests the possibility of a vicious circle wherein the experience of negative moods and thoughts when alone and when unstructured may interact with the ease with which people can quickly escape these feelings by viewing (Kubey, 1986). As a result of many hours spent viewing television over many years, some people may become unpractised in spending time alone, entertaining themselves, or even in directing their own attention (Harrison & Williams, 1986; Kubey, 1986; Kubey, 1990a; Singer & Singer, 1983).

Many hours spent watching television each day over many years may also decrease tolerance of the self. Conceivably, lonely people who are generally more inclined to use television in the first place may, in turn, become even more uncomfortable when alone and left without the quasi-social experience the medium offers. As Harrison and Williams (1986) put it, constant use of television "seems unlikely to encourage the ability to tolerate aloneness with one's thoughts and ideas" (p. 125). Heavy viewers do tend to have more time on their hands, typically spending more time alone than light viewers.

Among the demographic groups with more heavy viewers in their ranks are the old, the unemployed, and persons recently divorced or separated (Huston, et al., 1992; Kubey, 1980; Kubey & Csikszentmihalyi, 1990a; Smith, 1986; Steiner, 1963; Williams, 1986).

In short, a television viewing habit may be self-perpetuating. Viewing may lead to more viewing and may elicit what has been called "attentional inertia," i.e., "the longer people look at television, the greater is the probability that they will continue to look" (Anderson, Alwitt, Lorch & Levin, 1979, p. 339). Discomfort in noncommitted, or solitary time, can lead to viewing, but after years of such behavior and a thousand hours or more of viewing each year, it seems quite possible that an ingrained television habit could cause some people to feel uncomfortable when left with "nothing to do," or alone, and not viewing (Kubey, 1986).

Not only does television viewing relax people, anecdotal reports indicate that it relaxes them quickly. Within moments of sitting or lying down and pushing a TV set's power button, many viewers report feeling more relaxed than they did before. And because the reinforcement of relaxation occurs quickly, people readily learn to associate viewing with relaxation. The association is then repeatedly reinforced (operant conditioning) because although the quality of other emotional and mental states may deteriorate somewhat, viewers remain relaxed throughout viewing (Kubey, 1984; Kubey & Csikszentmihalyi, 1990a). The habit is readily formed, but can be very difficult to break (Daley, 1977; Winick, 1988).

Let's consider drug use for a possible analogy. "The attribute of a drug that most contributes to its abuse liability is not its ability to produce tolerance or physical dependence but rather its ability to reinforce the drug-taking behaviors" (Swonger & Constantine, 1976, p. 235). This is why both the speed of a drug's effect and how quickly it leaves the body can be critical factors as to whether or not dependence occurs. It's important to note that reinforcement needn't be experienced consciously for it to be effective.

It may prove instructive to consider the induction of relaxation with two common tranquilizers (benzodiazepines), Valium (diazepam) and Tranxene (clorazepate). The time it takes for Valium to take effect and actually reduce anxiety is shorter than for Tranxene. It is in part because of the fast relief from tension provided by Valium that some people are at greater risk of developing a substance dependence with it than with Tranxene. Some physicians prescribe Tranxene precisely for this reason. In other words, if a person is rewarded with a significant change in mood shortly after taking a substance, it is more likely that the person will use the substance frequently than if it were slower acting.

By the same token, some tranquilizers and anti-depressants whose "half-lives" are very short--the drug leaves the body rapidly relative to other drugs--can also be more habit forming precisely because the patient is more likely to be aware that the drug's effects are wearing off. When the return to feeling badly is rapid, the tendency to turn to the drug for relief once again can be greater than if its effects were to wear off more gradually.

Returning to television's effects, the relaxation effect appears to be most noticeable when the viewer is viewing, not afterward--we found little evidence that people feel better or more relaxed after viewing (Kubey, 1984; Kubey & Csikszentmihalyi, 1990a). Thus, the change in mood that one experiences from the time of viewing to when one suddenly stops viewing may be abrupt, perhaps more comparable to the effect of drugs that wear off quickly than slowly. These principles may be involved in the development of some television dependencies.

Viewing also begets more viewing because one must generally keep watching in order to keep feeling relaxed (Kubey, 1984; Kubey & Csikszentmihalyi, 1990a). A kind of psychological and physical intertia may develop. Although paying the bills might not have seemed difficult immediately after dinner, after two or three hours spent with TV, viewers become accustomed to having their experience effortlessly and passively structured. Getting up and taking on a more demanding task may begin to seem more formidable. 2

Relative to the other possible means available to bring about distraction and relaxation, television is among the quickest, and certainly among the cheapest.

And unlike conversation or games, one does not need anyone else to watch TV. Indeed, in many western, developed nations television is readily and instantly available 24 hours a day. Nowadays, with well over 30 cable channels available to most North American households, one can almost always find something of interest to view. Self-control over one's viewing may have become more of a challenge for many than it was in the not so distant past (Kubey, 1990a).

Applying D.S.M.-IV Substance Dependence Criteria

Using the American Psychiatric Association's (1994) diagnostic and statistical manual (D.S.M.-IV) as a guide for making a diagnosis of television dependence is instructive. Indeed, Dr. Allen J. Frances, who oversaw the most recent revision of the manual concluded that "Under the broader definition, many kinds of compulsive behavior could be considered addictive, including obsessive sex or compulsive television viewing (italics added)" (Goleman, 1990, p. C8).

D.S.M.-IV lists seven possible criteria for making a diagnosis of substance dependence (pp. 176-181). Three must apply in order to make a diagnosis of "dependence." Diagnosis also involves a time dimension: D.S.M.-IV states that "dependence is defined as a cluster of three or more of the symptoms listed below occurring at any time in the same 12-month period" (p. 176).

In considering these criteria and the relevant literature on television viewing, five of the seven diagnostic criteria would appear to be applicable to television viewing and its concomitant behaviors and effects. The two D.S.M.-IV criteria that I believe do not readily apply to television viewing habits, or are less applicable, are reported first.

Less Applicable Criteria

1. #1 in D.S.M.: "Tolerance, as defined by either of the following: (a) a need for markedly increased amounts of the substance to achieve intoxication or desired effect" or "(b) markedly diminished effect with continued use of the same amount of the substance" (p. 181).

Even here, however, it is noteworthy that we have found that viewers obtain the benefit of relaxation when they are viewing. It is for this reason, among others, that we have hypothesized that viewing often continues for as long as it does. Heavier viewers also enjoy their viewing less on average than do light viewers (Kubey, 1984; Kubey & Csikszentmentmihalyi, 1990a).

2. #7 in D.S.M.: "The substance use is continued despite knowledge of having a persistent or recurrent physical or psychological problem that is likely to have been caused or exacerbated by the substance" (p. 181).

As will be noted below, there may be a small percentage of people for whom this criterion could be applied, but the use of the word "knowledge" demands awareness, and awareness of having a significant physical or psychological problem due to TV use is probably rare. Still, it is almost certainly the case that some individuals recognize that their television viewing habit interferes with their social relations, level of physical exercise, or work habits. In these instances, television, could be seen as exacerbating physical or psychological problems.

There is evidence that children and adolescents who view a great deal of television tend to be more obese than those who view less, (Dietz & Gortmaker, 1985; Taras, Sallis, Patterson, Nader, & Nelson, 1989). 3

There is also new research suggesting that a child's metabolism slows down when watching television. Furthermore, consumption of "junk food" among adult self-labeled TV addicts is higher than for "non-addicts" (McIlwraith, 1990). Some people also report feeling more passive after viewing than before they began, and this passivity may decrease the likelihood that viewers will become involved in more active and potentially rewarding activities (Kubey, 1984; Kubey & Csikszentmihalyi, 1990a; Kubey, 1990a).

Applicable Criteria

Now let us turn to the more relevant diagnostic criteria. As with those above, I have used the exact language of D.S.M.-IV. Each criterion is followed by observations regarding how known television behaviors are related.

1. #3 in D.S.M.: "The substance is often taken in larger amounts or over a longer period than was intended" (p. 181).

It is common for viewers of all ages to report sitting down to watch just one program but to end up watching much more than planned. Thus, this diagnostic criterion may fit many viewers. In a Gallup Poll, 42% of the 1,241 U.S. adults who were surveyed reported that

they "spent too much time watching television" (Gallup & Newport, 1990).

Mander (1978) reported that some of the typical viewers he interviewed said things such as, "If a television is on, I just can't keep my eyes off it" and "I don't want to watch as much as I do but I can't help it. It makes me watch it" (p. 158).

Reknowned psychologists Milton Rosenberg (1978) and Percy Tannenbaum (1980) have each reported on the strong attraction and hold of television in their own lives (for a discussion see Kubey & Csikszentmihalyi, 1990a, p. 38; also Winick, 1988).

Indeed, the viewing habit is so entrenched in many people that the choice to view is made almost automatically (Kubey, 1990a; Williams & Handford, 1986). Once dinner is done--or the dishes washed--many individuals sit down to watch television regardless of what programs are on.

2. #4 in D.S.M.: "There is a persistent desire or unsuccessful efforts to cut down or control substance use" (p. 181).

As noted above, it is common for people to report that they believe they spend too much time viewing. This belief itself appears to be on the rise. The percentage of adults in the United States who felt that they watched too much television in the late 1970s was 31 percent, 11 points lower than the 1990 figure of 42 percent (Gallup & Newport, 1990).

It is also relatively common for people to report that they feel powerless to stop viewing on their own without abandoning the set altogether, or interfering with it electronically (Daley, 1977). Some people have told me that they have given up their cable subscriptions precisely so that they have less choice and will thereby watch less.

And as stated in D.S.M.-IV, technically one need only have a "persistent desire. . . to cut down or control substance use" for the criterion to apply. Presumably, some of the Gallup Poll respondents would qualify.

3. #5 in D.S.M.: "A great deal of time is spent in activities necessary to obtain the substance. . . , use the substance (e.g., chain smoking), or recover from its effects" (p. 181).

Clearly, with the vast majority of Americans spending two to four hours daily with television, or over half of all their leisure time, a great deal of time is spent using television.

4. #6 in D.S.M.: "Important social, occupational, or recreational activities are given up or reduced because of substance use" (p. 181). "The individual may withdraw from family activities and hobbies in order to use the substance in private" (p. 178).

There is a good deal of research that shows that television can bring family members together, but also that it can reduce familial contact (Bronfenbrenner, 1973; Kubey, 1990b,c; Maccoby, 1951; NIMH, 1982; also Huston & Wright's chapter in this volume). Not a few adults feel neglected by their partners who use television heavily (e.g., so called "football widows"). People have reported to me that they feel that they must regularly compete with television personalities for the attention of family members (Kubey, 1994).

Many people also use television (not to mention other media) purposely to avoid contact with their family. Particularly disturbing is the suggestion that some children may be emotionally, and perhaps even physically, neglected because their caregivers are too engaged in television programs to attend to their needs (Desmond, Singer, & Singer, 1989; Shanahan & Morgan, 1988).

With regard to recreation, some viewers will necessarily engage less in other activities if they are spending three, four, or more hours each day watching television. For example, Williams and Handford (1986) found that adolescents and adults participated much less in community activities and sports when TV was available than when it was not (see Williams' chapter in this volume).

As for occupational activities, there undoubtedly are people who bring work home from the office but do not do as much (or perhaps a lower quality job) than they might because of a television habit that is not under control.

5. #2 in D.S.M.: "withdrawal, as manifested by either of the following: (a) the characteristic withdrawal syndrome for the substance" or "(b) the same (or a closely related) substance is taken to relieve or avoid withdrawal symptoms" (p. 181). Withdrawal includes "a maladaptive behavioral change" and it is noted that "withdrawal symptoms vary greatly" (p. 178).

This criterion is a bit more difficult to apply to television viewing behaviors because we are largely limited to anecdotal reports and a small number of social science studies of withdrawal-like

symptoms. 4

Still, such reports are not hard to find. Steiner (1963), for example, presents individuals' reports of a variety of behaviors of psychological interest that occurred following the loss of a television set due to a technological malfunction. Here are three examples: "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" (p. 99). In her informal interviews, Winn has presented many similar anecdotes (1977, pp. 21-22).

Today, such reports are less frequent, in part because many homes have more than one set. To be completely without a television set today is unusual, which is perhaps still another sign of how entrenched television viewing has become.

Nonetheless, Winick (1988) offers a valuable review of studies of families whose television sets were in repair. He writes: The first 3 or 4 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, and established expectations for the behavior of other household members were not met. People living alone tended to be bored and irritated. Over four-fifths of the respondents reported moderate to severe dislocations during this period. . . . The fifth to eighth day represented, in many cases, some form of readjustment to the new situation. By the second week, a move toward adaptation to the situation was common. (p. 221-222)

Daley (1978) offers a similar account of his family's difficulties stopping viewing, as well as how easily the habit reformed itself after six months of abstinence (pp. 147-148).

A number of newspapers, in the United States and abroad, have offered money as an incentive to get individuals or families to stop viewing television for some limited period of time, often a week or a month (reviewed in Condry, 1989; Kubey & Csikszentmihalyi, 1990a; Winick, 1988). Increased tension among family members has been described and many families could not complete the period of abstinence agreed upon (Ryan, 1974). In a German study it was reported that there was increased verbal and physical fighting after viewing stopped.

If a family has been spending the lion's share of its free time together over a period of years watching television--as is the case for many families today--it may take some days or weeks, or longer, for the family to reconfigure itself around a new set of activities. Particularly because watching television is so easy to do, family members may have become less imaginative about other ways to spend their time together.

In sum, although there is not a great deal of hard empirical evidence, it does seem likely that some individuals--and perhaps entire families--go through something akin to withdrawal if television suddenly disappears. Furthermore, in congruence with section "b" of this criterion, other enjoyable leisure and media activities are typically used to supplant TV viewing for those trying to give it up. It is also interesting to note that television is sometimes used by individuals seeking to withdraw from drugs such as heroin, cocaine, and alcohol as a less harmful means of escape and distraction (personal communication, Dyznskyi, Oct. 20, 1994; Kubey & Csikszentmihalyi, 1990a, p. 184-5).

As can be seen, when DSMIV's diagnostic criteria are applied to television viewing habits a diagnosis of substance dependence can be made for many people. The key missing feature, it would seem, is that we are not accustomed to thinking of television as a substance: it is neither a liquid (alcohol), nor a solid (a pill). Still, the viewing of television does, in some way, involve taking something into the body, even if that something is only light and sound, and even if no residue of the substance can be later found in the body. Though it may not be a substance, millions of people nonetheless believe that they, or people they know, need to gain better control of their use of the medium. It is to that end that we next turn our attention.

Controlling the Television Habit

Although methods to diagnose television dependence have not been established, there are ways that individuals or families can achieve better control of their viewing habits. A few suggestions follow, but I must note that these are commonsense measures and although some have been tried by individuals, none, to my knowledge, has been put to controlled, empirical test. One exception is the introduction of a behavioral approach employing a "token economy" wherein children earn tokens by engaging in non-TV activities that parents wish to encourage. The tokens can then be used to "buy" television time. In one early test, only very limited success in curbing heavy television use among children was achieved (Jason, 1987).

But such an approach raises a new problem. Does making television the  reward--or removal of TV, the punishment--simply increase the general sense among children and adults that television is among the most preferred of activities?

As with other habits and dependencies that people wish to change, it may be most helpful initially for people simply to recognize how much they are viewing, and how frequently or infrequently television provides the rewards and benefits they want to obtain. One way to do this is to keep a diary for a week of all programs viewed. For many, adding up the hours at the end of the week can be quite sobering. Some people may also be assisted by rating the quality of their experience with TV, or how much they enjoyed or learned from various programs. Again, at the end of a week, such a diary may prove illuminating.

Taking stock of how much TV we watch may be especially striking when we consider that North Americans have an average of 5.5 hours of free time each day (Robinson, 1989) and typically view TV for more than three hours each day. In short, for most people, more than half of all free time is spent watching televisions.

Or we could do a little arithmetic. If a person lives to 75 and typically sleeps about eight hours a night, he or she will have lived 50 waking years. If viewing television consumes four hours each day, or 25% of each 16 hour waking day, one can then conclude that 12.5 of the person's 50 waking years will be spent watching television. This may be how some people wish to spend their time, but few people have assessed their viewing habit in these terms.

But it is rarely enough merely to raise awareness of how much we are viewing. It is also important to exercise will power and to find other activities to supplant the time with television.

With regard to will, it may not really be quite as difficult as it sometimes seems simply to turn off the set. Viewers often know that a particular program or movie-of-the-week is not very good within the first few minutes, but instead of switching off the set, they view for the full two hours--perhaps with some minor interest in whether it was the yogurt store manager or the aerobics instructor who committed the murder--and then feel cheated and contemptuous of themselves for having "wasted" their time.

We may be able to effectively reduce our viewing by becoming more cognizant early on that sometimes we are not really missing so much after all. Five or ten minutes after turning off an only somewhat gripping mystery story, we rarely care any longer what was going to happen. 5

As for supplanting television viewing with other activities, generating a list of enjoyable and/or constructive activities that can be done in or around the home may prove helpful. The list might be posted on the refrigerator, or even on the TV set. Using such a list of enjoyable leisure activities has proved effective for patients suffering from mild depressive episodes (Lewinsohn, 1974).

Instead of reflexively going to the television as soon as dinner is done, those interested in reducing their viewing can go to the list to help remind themselves of other activities--calling a friend, writing a letter, reading, playing cards or a board-game, paying the bills, working on a computer, polishing shoes--that might be done instead of watching TV. The idea is to break the repetitive, habitual, and self-perpetuating nature of the habit.

Of course, it must be noted that television producers are masters at finding clever ways to get people to view longer than they had originally intended. New stories are "teased" in the preceding hours with titillating suggestions that spike viewer interest and increase the possibility that we will view beyond the single program that we may have planned to watch.

Using a television guide can also be helpful in cutting down on TV viewing. We can choose which programs to watch ahead of time and then watch only those programs preselected, slotting other activities between the shows we don't want to miss. A VCR can also be effective in time-shifting. (Actually, many viewers never return to some of the material they've taped, which is itself an indication that viewing those programs was not so critical after all.) The VCR also permits viewers to speed-search through unwanted material.

One viewer who likes sketch comedy reports that by taping his favorite comedy program, "Saturday Night Live", and by then eliminating the opening monologue, the musical guests, all of the ads, and the sketches that he can tell aren't gelling from their inception, he can reduce what was once a ninety minute experience to one that takes as little as 20 minutes.

Or for a small charge ($8-12), anyone can set up their own mini-film festival at home, renting films by a favorite director, thereby making the experience a more personally active one by stopping and studying particular scenes. Such a use of the VCR might actually increase one's total time with TV, while making a much more discriminating and rewarding viewing experience possible.

Altering viewing habits can be particularly difficult in families because, as with so many other features of family life, television viewing is often systemic in nature. As with couples who smoke and wish to quit, reduction of television viewing is likely to go more smoothly if family members work together and decide jointly to get their habit under control.

One frequent choice of those wishing to reduce their viewing is to go "cold turkey." Indeed, the fact that many people choose this approach is another way in which television dependency is similar to substance dependencies. Quite a few people have told me that if they own a television, viewing soon begins to dominate family life and that the only way they can get things under control is to remove the set altogether, or to cancel their cable subscription.

Daley's (1978, p. 147-148) experiences in trying to curtail his family's viewing may prove interesting for some readers. There is also a book on the subject, Breaking the TV Habit by Joan Wilkins (1982). And there are now also special electronic switches that can be attached to a television set permitting only those members of the household who have a code number or combination to "unlock" the set. Some people consider this to be an extreme approach. Others find it an easy way for parents to control their children's viewing.

Nowadays, many new television sets include design features that make it possible to block out particular channels. Recently, members of the U.S. Congress and Senate have advocated the development of a "V chip", a microchip built-in to new television sets, that would permit caregivers to block the reception of any program with a high violence rating. Of course, such a development is contingent on the television industry rating such programs and encoding them with the appropriate readable violence code.


1. This is not to say that viewers don't also view television in a more active frame of mind, from time to time, but our research shows that viewers generally report feeling passive when viewing. For most viewers, active viewing moments are infrequent by comparison (Csikszentmihalyi & Kubey, 1981; Kubey, in press,

a). There are some researchers who conclude that viewers, especially young children, are not passive when they view and that children do not adopt the "zombie-like" expression often described by parents and depicted in comics.

However, much of this research is done in laboratories where people may well engage in a more active form of viewing than in the comfort and familiarity of their own homes. The experimental viewer often anticipates that they will be tested after viewing, and they often are. The same problem of distorting results can occur when people are asked by researchers to carefully describe what a particular program means to them, or why they watch it. As pointed out by Ang (1985) and others, it is possible that in both experimental and field research, the phenomenon under study--audience activity or a retrospective assessment of one's thinking processes during viewing--is confounded by the very methods used.

Because all of our ESM studies have not singled television out from other daily activities and because we ask only for very simple affective and cognitive assessments, we are confident that the same influences do not pertain.

2. Indeed, research going back nearly three decades in the United States, England, and Japan has demonstrated that TV viewing passivity often is associated with mild feelings of guilt and self-contempt (Bower, 1973; Furu, 1971; Himmelweit & Swift, 1976; Steiner, 1963)--especially among more affluent and educated viewers.

3. According to Robinson et al. (1993), however, in some cases this relationship may be extremely weak at best, and causal inferences may not be warranted.

4. It's interesting to note that there are very few reports of patients' television viewing habits in the clinical literature, yet some psychotherapists have told me that difficulty limiting viewing (or more frequently, limiting their partner's or children's viewing) is sometimes raised by patients in therapy. More frequently, patients in psychotherapy compare their own experiences, feelings, and ideas to those of particular characters in television programs they watch. This is particularly likely to occur at moments of intense emotion in therapy (James Hutchinson, M.D., personal communication, February 1994). Such a phenomenon may be rather benign, but it may also indicate externalization, i.e., avoiding and defending against fully experiencing and taking ownership of uncomfortable thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.

5. However, Tannenbaum (1980) showed that suspense plots can indeed be gripping. Under experimental conditions he found that some viewers will go to considerable lengths to see how a suspenseful story turns out.

6. People in both groups are randomly assigned to these two treatment conditions. Most of this research has been done with college students, but the researchers have also occasionally expanded their research to community samples.


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