Prolonged TV Watching
How it impacts your physical and mental health
Muhammad Atif Sheikh
While a training session on effective communication skills was being conducted, the participants seemed a bit tired. Upon seeing this, the trainer asked them all to stand and raise their arms parallel to the chest. When everyone did that, the trainer held his left elbow in his right hand and asked the participants to hold their left knee with right hand. No one paid attention to what he had said and almost everyone held his/her left elbow. When asked whether everyone has held his/her left knee, they realized that they have held their elbows instead of knees. This exercise was meant to make the participants realize that how abruptly and instinctually we do what we see rather than what we read or listen to. This was a demonstration that calls our attention to think that when we are blindly following an act being done in front of us, then how and to what extent we will be following, knowingly or unknowingly, the countless things we see on television almost daily.
Television is perhaps the most important invention of the twentieth century. It has emerged globally as the biggest medium of communication and its presence and impacts cannot be denied. It is a very powerful change agent; what we see on it does have deep imprints on our beliefs, attitudes and demeanour. No doubt, TV has gained the status of a member of family in almost all societies of the world. With all its beneficial as well as harmful effects, it is now a part of our social lives and everyone watches television keenly and with great interest.
But, why do they do so? Why people spend a lot of time watching TV? And, most importantly, is it good for them? These questions are of vital importance especially when it comes to effects of watching TV o physical and mental health. Although there are a number of theories in media studies to answer this question; two of them are very important: Uses and gratifications theory and Cultivation theory.
The former, i.e. Uses and gratifications theory, asserts that people use media to gratify specific wants and needs. It relies on two principles: media users are active in their selection of the media they consume, and they are aware of their reasons for selecting different media options.
Cultivation theory is related to long-term effects of watching TV. The primary proposition of this theory states that the more time people spend ‘living’ in the television world, the more likely they are to believe social reality aligns with reality portrayed on television.
How much TV does an individual watch?
The global average of time a person spends watching television is 2 hours and 55 minutes. In other words, people watch television for three and a half days per month on a stretch. It also means that an individual watches TV continuously for 1064 hours and 35 minutes in a year – almost one and a half month.
How much TV does a Pakistani watch in his whole life?
The data suggest that a television viewer in Pakistan spends, on average, 2 hours daily watching television (117 minutes). It comes to be 730 hours a year. Since life expectancy in Pakistan according to World Bank figures is 67 years, a Pakistani viewer spends 48910 hours of his life watching TV. There are 24 hours in a day and 8760 in a year, so an average Pakistani viewer watches television for more than five and a half years of his life.
Effects of watching television on mental health
While discussing the effects of watching television on mental health,
Dr Ghulam Rasool, professor of psychiatry and head of Mental Health Department at Bolan Medical College Quetta, says, “Watching TV is an entertainment and it gives you information and knowledge and enlightens you on educational content and other cultures. So, its importance cannot be denied. In fact, it is a good way to boost your mental health because inspirational, entertaining and comic TV programmes provide a relief from stress anxiety and depression. However, taking care of what you watch on TV is and for how much time is very important because there is a flood of information around us – both positive and negative contents. So, if we do not take care in this regard, research has established that the chances of premature death would increase. It may also cause various ailments; it can reduce your IQ level, can cause dementia and can reduce or even eliminate your ability to concentrate and focus. This also hampers your analytical abilities and harms your social life. This may also cause stress, anxiety and depression.
Watching TV has harmful effects particularly on mental health of children as doing so excessively can hamper their mental growth. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends that children younger than age 2 years should not watch any TV; however, some screen time can be allowed but with a parent or caregiver. Since initial years of a child are crucial to his mental growth, they should be allowed to watch programmes that may keep them mentally agile. Watching television excessively will adversely impact a child’s abilities of naturally learning like discovering things, interacting with others and learning from the environment. In addition, the process of learning of language and speech may also stop, their memory may get affected and they may fall prey to dyslexia.
Moreover, children do imitate in real life the things they see in dramas or films while watching TV. So, excessive screen time, particularly violent images can make them violent and offensive. And, it may prove life-threatening to them. Further elaborating on the effects of watching TV in mental health, Dr Ghulam Rasool says that as soon as we start watching TV, our brain goes into a hypnotic state within moments due to which access to subconscious becomes easier. An example of it is that people easily fall asleep while watching television. Your mind slips into the hypnotic trance state within thirty seconds, or three minutes at most, of watching TV. This lowers your brainwaves to a lower ‘alpha state’ commonly associated with meditation and deep relaxation. This is believed to be caused by the screen flicker and explains why you feel sleepy while watching TV.
Television can reduce your ability to think critically. When you watch TV, brain activity switches from the left side of your brain (responsible for logical thought and critical analysis) to the right side. This is significant because the right side of the brain tends not to critically analyze incoming information. Instead, it uses an emotional response which results in little or no analysis of the information. In other words, it’s as if someone is telling you something and you believe what they say without doing any research of your own. For this reason, people who watch a lot of TV tend to have a very inaccurate and unrealistic view of reality.
Explaining another aspect, Dr Ghulam Rasool says, “TV can create both a physical and psychological addiction. Watching TV causes the body to release chemicals which make it feel good. These are endorphins, a natural sedative with properties similar to opiates like morphine and heroin. It is, therefore, not only possible, but probable, to become physically addicted to television watching. This ensures constant daily exposure, a critical factor needed to program the mind. A person who is unable to view his/her favourite television program is likely to display withdrawal symptoms similar to those of a drug addict. They may become angry, anxious and go to great lengths to see their program.” He further says, “Your brain is more active when you are sleeping than when you are watching television. Since the health of your brain is largely determined by how much you actively use it, watching too much television can therefore have a detrimental effect on the health of your brain. One of the reasons why brain activity is so low when watching television is because you don’t really have to do any thinking. When you read for example, you have to mentally create images of what you are reading.”
So, in this state of affairs, should we stop watching TV? Dr Ghulam Rasool said, “As I said earlier, TV is a big source of entertainment and you cannot stay away from it. I personally watch news, films, dramas and talk shows but I do so moderately because there’s nothing wrong with watching TV as long as you do it in moderation. Then, how can we maintain a balance between watching TV and our mental health? To answer this question, he said that one of the best things that you can do is to read for at least 30-60 minutes every day. Reading is exercise for the brain, just like how running is exercise for the body. Learning a foreign language is also extremely beneficial for the brain, as is exercise in general. Finally, limit the amount of TV that you watch to one or two days a week, and spend the rest of your time engaging in activities which will provide long-term benefit to your life, such as working on the achievement of your personal goals.
Effects on Physical wellbeing
Dr Waqas Ashraf is a renowned consultant in Interventional Orthopaedic & Pain Management. On the issue of curbing or minimizing detrimental effects of watching TV opines that there is no harm in watching TV but the real problem is binge-watching. The more time you spend watching television, the greater your risk may be for blood clots, as the circulation of blood to your legs is impeded. And, when try to stand, you feel numbness in your legs and it may take some seconds to stand on your feet. Moreover, sitting for a prolonged time may also cause your blood to clot and can also shrink your lung capacity to get oxygen. Prolonged sitting curves your spine into a C-shape, and keeping it that way too long can cause cramped and aching muscles and smushed organs.
Furthermore, binge-watching means less physical activity and it may make you obese, and you may also fall prey to diabetes and cardiac complications. A US study has found that for every two hours of TV you watch a day, you’re 23 percent more likely to become obese and 14 percent more likely to develop diabetes. It may also affect your eye-sight and can also make you hearing impaired. Dr Waqas suggests that you need not stop watching television but avoid binge-watching and to it in moderation.
Proper ways to watch television
Since television is a widespread and influential visual medium, therefore the body organ that is most related to it is our eyes. The way we watch television and the time we spend on that surely affects our eyes. Renowned ophthalmologist (eye-specialist) Dr Shahzad Saeed says that Eye care professionals recommend sitting approximately eight to ten feet away from the TV screen. The general rule of thumb is to be at least 5 times the distance from the screen as the screen is wide. For example, if your television is 32 inches wide, the optimal viewing distance is 160 inches or about 13 feet. Besides viewing distance, the position of your television in relation to where you are sitting is also important for preventing eye strain. Try to position your TV at eye level or lower to prevent straining your vertical eye muscles or your neck. Constantly forcing your eyes to look up will eventually cause the eye muscles to fatigue. Experts have devised a helpful trick called the 20-20-20 rule: Every 20 minutes, look at something 20 feet away for 20 seconds. It will keep your ability to focus intact and will be an exercise for your eyes. Moreover, do blink regularly. Humans normally blink every five seconds. When staring at screens, this period is increased to 12 seconds. Blinking seldom often results in dry, tired, itchy and burning eyes. Regular blinking would prevent your eyes from drying out.
If you experience the symptoms of eye strain after watching television, Dr Shahzad suggested that should: Gently massage the eyes; apply a warm cloth to the eye area; get enough sleep at night to allow your eyes time to recuperate; and invest in a bigger television to reduce eye strain from focusing.
And, the last thing – perhaps the most important as well – Dr Shahzad recommends is that while watching television or working on a computer screen, you should drink a lot of water as it will compel you to go to toilet more frequently and by this way your eyes will get a break and your body will get activity.