TV Addiction: The Reality Of Watching Too Much TV And How To Overcome It

Watching TV or binging on a show can be a good way to decompress, but watching too much, too often is a recipe for disaster.
wellness . 13 min read
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Woman hugging her television
Kay hugging her TV

We live in a time when we consume content constantly and with the number of devices out there, the opportunities for this are endless. While there is no shortage of medium through which this content is delivered, there is none as enthralling as the TV binge.

Some people may plan a day to decompress by knocking out a season of the latest Netflix hit or catching up on half a season of one of their regular programs. No harm, no foul, this is what they have planned for, and they go on with their regular lives once they’ve finished.

Then there are some of us who make a few to several hours of TV each day part of the norm, binging season after season, series after series, with no end in sight. Despite the fact that time is passing around us and life continues happening, we remain parked in front of the TV while neglecting more fruitful pursuits. We remain captivated by the story that is playing out in front of us, lost in a fantasy rather than living in the real world.

I’m on the heels of a 3-series TV bender and I feel exhausted. The series of choice in this debacle was The Vampire Diaries, New Girl, and The Americans. They all offered something different and even though I started each with the best of intentions, I’ve finished all three in roughly two months. The saddest part is that it isn’t even the first time I’ve watched New Girl, and it’s not the second either. And this was all while keeping up with my regularly scheduled network television series too. There are about 15 of those.

This harrowing reality of the last two months has brought my priorities, really my lack of priorities, into sharper focus. I know I am not alone.  

TV binging has roots in other addictive behaviors. 

While television addiction isn’t a formally recognized condition, watching too much television has similarities with other disorders we are familiar with. I spent some time flipping through the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders and here are some parallels I found:

  • Binge-Eating: a feeling that one cannot stop or control what or how much one is consuming
  • Alcohol/Stimulant Use Disorders: a persistent desire or unsuccessful efforts to cut down or control use, recurrent use resulting in failure to fulfill major role obligations, and giving up or reducing other activities because of use

I do not point this out to minimize what anybody who suffers from these disorders is going through or to draw inappropriate comparisons to those conditions that are traditionally very serious with something that hasn’t gained any traction as a recognizable condition, but rather to bring perspective to those who do not find the draw of endless TV watching appealing. As a person who has also done a fair amount of binge-eating and participated in some hefty alcohol abuse, too much TV seems like a natural fit with other disorders that involve over-consumption, and it warrants being looked at more seriously.  

Addicts experience their actions as stemming from compulsion rather than choice.

-The Complete Family Guide To Addiction

Think about it, when watching a show via streaming service, the next episode in the series typically loads automatically, the choice here would be to exit out of the app and stop watching. How many times have you said “just one more” only for that one to end and you remain entranced as the next episode begins to play? Then it’s “just one more” again and this can go on for hours. Before you know it, you’ve got a couple of hours to sleep before work, school, or whatever other responsibility you have the next day.

Addiction is marked by the struggle for control.

-Thinking Simply About Addiction

Here’s an example from just this week. With a trip coming up this weekend and a list of things to accomplish this past Sunday, I felt a break was warranted after I checked one item off. Two episodes of Fear the Walking Dead and a two-hour movie later, nothing else had been accomplished. This isn’t the first time something like that has happened either. I cannot even count the number of times I have sat watching TV and in my mind, I am telling myself to just shut it off and get on with the other things that need to be done. I’ve thought about the future regrets especially since I’ve had them before, and yet I do not budge.

There is something sad about being consciously aware of not wanting to do something, but doing it anyway. You start to wonder if other areas of your life may be lacking by searching for a sense of fulfillment from reality not your own. It starts to affect your relationships, your mood, and your well-being.

The effects of Television on your Health. 

Screen time. We can’t hear enough about it these days. Phones, tablets, computers, TVs. We’re staring into the bright abyss pretty much constantly. We wake up and check our phones, we work on computers all day, and at the end of the night, we relax in front of the TV.

1. Binge-watching a show releases dopamine in your brain. 

The list of things that can cause dopamine to be released in the brain could go on forever – running, dogs, drugs, alcohol, crafting, eating, and even hugs. Dopamine stimulants span a vast spectrum and television is one of those things that gives us the quick release of the feel-good hormones we crave as humans.

Dopamine is directly related to how we feel pleasure and television is an easy way to keep a steady supply flowing. As we continue to watch, we remain feeling good. Once we turn the TV off, we can be left feeling a bit drained as we start coming down from that high.

2. Re-watching the same shows can be a symptom of anxiety. 

We’re drawn into storylines because our brain processes them as if we are actually living them. We laugh, we cry, we feel the angst and heartbreak. We even get mad when something happens that we don’t like. With the autoload feature counting down the seconds till the next episode starts we don’t even have to decide if we’re going to continue watching. The streaming platform does it for us, almost like living in the moment.

According to Pamela Rutledge, Media Psychologist, when we are familiar with a show we develop a sense of relationship with the characters so they end up feeling like friends. Especially during the pandemic when we were all craving time with friends and anxiety was sky high, this was a substitute for that in-person experience. Re-watching something we’ve seen before provides comfort for our anxiety because it doesn’t take a lot of energy or overwork our brains following an unknown plot thus allowing for an escape.  

The thing about re-watching shows is you know exactly what is going to happen especially if you are feeling a lack of control over your own life. We have no way of knowing what will happen tomorrow because even the best of plans sometimes get off track. Choices that seem right in the moment can end up being wrong the next day. There is comfort in focusing on something that will have no surprises and plays out exactly as we expect it to. Life is unpredictable, a re-watched TV show is not.

3. Watching too much TV too often can be a sign of depression. 

If you’re watching TV to help yourself feel better or to get lost in the fantasy of the tale playing out in front of you, it could be a sign of depression.

  • Do you feel guilty or have regrets after watching too much TV?
  • Did you neglect other responsibilities?
  • Is TV your way to dissociate from reality?
  • Are you feeling empty now that your most recent TV bender is over?

Using TV as a way to escape from reality is a sign that something may be lacking in your day-to-day life. We get caught up in the fantastical world right in front of us because the mundane goings-on in the real world around us are insufficient. Feelings of loneliness and/or inadequacy can occur and they contribute to depression too.

Loneliness can be the reason you are binge-watching or the cause of it. Too much TV may be isolating you, but if you were already feeling that way prior to binging then it’s likely a coping mechanism.

As for feelings of inadequacy, comparing yourself to fictional characters can and will make you feel like you don’t stack up. Of course, you don’t! These people aren’t real! Their lives have been crafted under ideal circumstances for the story that is being told.

4. Spending too much time in front of the TV can affect you physically. 

Spending days on end parked in front of a TV leads to a sedentary lifestyle, especially because most of us spend our working hours sitting at a desk. TV time is also a prime time to snack, often without realizing how much is being eaten. This combo leads to poor posture and obesity among other things.

Sleep can be affected by television. Since most TV viewing happens at night and we are so engaged with the characters we are watching on TV, we often head to bed worked up about what we just saw. Our brains have been overstimulated by the content so we end up restless. According to WebMD, missing out on sleep can cause us to have accidents, lead to heart problems and high blood pressure, kill our sex drive, and cause weight gain.

Combine the seated lifestyle and lack of rest and you’ve got a recipe for disaster. There are a lot of health problems that overlap between the two and one big whammies that might wake you up – if you experience too much of either or both for too long, all those issues start to compound and it can actually lead to death. 

Woman sitting on the couch with alot of snacks
Kay with a full snack smorgasbord during a TV bender.

Steps you can take to overcome your addiction to television

There is no one size fits all approach to anything in this life. I’ve tried some of these tips in an effort to cut down on TV and the ones I haven’t tried yet are on the list in my war against watching too much TV.

1. Admit to yourself – and someone else if you have to – that you are watching too much TV. You likely already know this, but acknowledgment is the first step to starting to take away its power.

2. Recognize that streaming platforms are enabling your behavior. Whole seasons drop at once and the next episode loads automatically, a combo designed for binging. Limit yourself to a few episodes at a time and stop watching mid-episode to avoid the auto-load after a cliffhanger.

3. Set actual time limits for TV watching and stick to them. You can set a sleep timer on your television for any time of day. Set the timer when you sit down to start watching and when it shuts off, that’s it, you’re done.

4. Examine why you are watching so much TV. Is something lacking in your life, are you avoiding something uncomfortable, or are you hardcore procrastinating? Determine the root of the desire to binge by uncovering the deeper issues.

5. Make a list of all the services you are currently watching on – Here, I’ll help get you started: Hulu, Netflix, Disney+, Prime Video, HBO Max, all the streaming platforms for individual networks, live TV itself, plus anything I missed – and eliminate a few. I’m sure just the thought of this is already causing panic, how will you keep up with a show if you miss the next new episode or season? Revert to #4 and remind yourself of why that is.

6. Don’t start any more new shows!!! Promos are meant to suck you in and keep you hooked, social media tells us what’s trending, and all our friends might be talking about something. I resisted This Is Us and A Million Little Things despite a friend’s best effort to get me to watch them – this was when I had already committed to not watching any new network TV shows which were working well till Rebel came out – I’m sad, but relieved it got canceled after just one season.

7. Get out of your house. You can’t sit in front of the TV if you’re out taking a walk, doing some outdoor activity, or meeting up with friends. Sure, you can stream on a mobile device while out, and if that’s what it takes to get you off the couch initially, then do it, but with the goal in mind that eventually you will put the device down and engage in the present, the real moment you are living in.

8. Face the harsh reality of what you are missing out on. If all you’re doing with your free time is watching TV, there has to be a growing list of things that aren’t getting done – these can be day-to-day responsibilities or new, fun things you want to try. Imagine your future self. What does he/she/them look like if you don’t get out from in front of the thing affectionately referred to as the idiot box?

9. Find a new hobby. There has to be something you’ve always wanted to try. Instead of spending your time watching fictional characters live their best lives, make a plan to put your dream into action. Commit to starting with a few hours a week away from the TV and dedicated to the new hobby – consider it a reward for starting to break your bad habit.

10. Get Active. Whether it’s at the gym, a jog through your neighborhood, or a walk in the park, start doing physical activity. You’ve already done a disservice to your body by spending countless hours on your rear starting in the abyss. Start trying to undo some of that damage immediately.

Remember, you are a work in progress, and we all slip into old habits from time to time. Television is a good way to decompress after a rough day or week, but make sure when you do set aside time for it that you don’t let that turn into weeks or months-long benders of the season after season, show after show.

I don’t need someone to tell me what I already know deep down – I am addicted to TV. I love it. My regular weekly schedule revolves around Chicago Wednesdays and TGIT. The best thing I can say is at least I no longer have to make it home by a certain time to watch shows live. The advent of the DVR has seemed like a lifesaver. I grew up in a time where you couldn’t record TV shows with the click of a few buttons. Back in the day, my dad actually had to pop in a VHS and do it for me on the days I wouldn’t make it home in time. I guess he was my original DVR - Dad Video Recorder ????. I wish I knew then how that was enabling my current reality.

But hey, at least I can admit it, the first step to overcoming the problem is admitting you have one in the first place. I think I’ll go take a walk now.

Woman walking her dog
Kay out for a walk
wellness . 13 min read
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Aspiring content marketer, writing to soothe my soul. Lover of dogs, fiction novels, and a good TV binge.

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