TV Hurts Mental Health
If you turn on the TV to relax after a long day, you may want to re-think your strategy. This is especially true at the moment, while we wind up the end of a particularly stressful and divisive presidential campaign. But it’s also true during more “normal” times. While settling in for some Walking Dead or American Idol may seem fairly harmless, it just might be another stressor in an already stressful world.
Society has always had a love/hate relationship with television. Even as we tune in for the next installment of our favorite show, we’ve blamed TV for a variety of ills from short attention spans to violence to obesity. And while science has mixed opinions on the truth of these claims, recent research is beginning to back up what many of us who’ve cut the cord already knew: watching TV can stress you out. Here’s why.
It teaches you to be afraid
Most “entertainment” shows fit into a handful of categories including crime dramas, sitcoms, “reality” shows, and adult cartoons. And while we may feel like they’re nothing more than entertainment, when we watch them we absorb some very powerful messages. Every single show we watch teaches some kind of lesson, whether we realize it or not—and the message is seldom positive.
Television tells us that the world is a very, very scary place, and that there’s a serial killer/rapist/child molester or other bad guy behind every bush, tree, and lamppost, just waiting to pounce. It’s a message that gets internalized and colors our thoughts and actions; while we may not think about it consciously, it’s always there in the back of our minds.
Television also tells us that everyone is out to get us, and that in order to get ahead we need to be constantly vigilant and ready to attack or defend ourselves, psychologically if not physically.
It only reports the bad news
When it comes to negativity, the news beats every other category. The old newspaper adage of “if it bleeds, it leads” is unfortunately true, and while good things happen every day in every city in the country, they seldom make it to the news. Instead we get a steady diet of gloom and doom, crime and disaster and controversy.
Like crime dramas, the news teaches us that the world is a frightening place, and that we’re lucky to make it through each day unscathed. And unlike dramas, we know that the news is real, so it affects us even more profoundly. Watching a crime drama in which a murder occurs is stressful if we’re involved with the characters, but we know it’s only fiction. Watching a newscast which covers a murder has an even greater emotional impact—even if it happened on the other side of the country.
You get emotionally invested in imaginary people—and you feel their pain
You only have to read an online discussion of “Game of Thrones” to see how emotionally invested we can become in fictional characters. While this can be a good thing in some ways, it can also have a real, physical effect on our stress levels when we see characters in stressful situations on the screen.
A recent study published in the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology found that watching other people in stressful situations—even strangers viewed on videotape—raised the levels of cortisol, a stress hormone, for more than one-quarter of the subjects. So if you’re tuning in to anything heavier than Dora the Explorer, you might just be adding to your stress.
Advertising gives you unrealistic expectations
Broadcast TV is little more than a vehicle for advertising, and advertising has one goal: to get you to buy things. How? By convincing you that you need a product. Television advertising, which takes up about 15 minutes of every hour of programming, relies on making you unhappy with what you have. It tells you you’re not good enough, that you need a product to make things better…and it works. Advertising creates a constant low-grade level of dissatisfaction with the way things are, which translates to low-grade stress.
If the very idea of turning off your TV stresses you out, then there’s a good chance that’s exactly what you need to do. But don’t panic—start small. Choose one night to be your TV-free night, and do something else instead. Read a book. Go out. Play a board game of visit with friends. Take up a hobby. But whatever you do, leave the tube off. You might be surprised how much better you feel on TV-free days.
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