Television and Non-Chemical Addictions

by Lew Mills, PhD, MFT

Soon after dinner, usually, the addict starts his pattern of using. From that moment until bedtime, he is mostly out of communication with his wife and family. He might even stay up later to use. When he stops, he feels worse than before he started, even though he says he uses it to help him relax. What is his drug of choice?

It's not even a chemical. He is an addicted television viewer. Here's how a report by Robert Kubey and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in the February, 2002 edition of Scientific American explains it:

"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 often 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; and reporting withdrawal symptoms when one stops using it."

Now I have to admit that there probably are people who really can watch just one show. Maybe for some people it is a harmless diversion. But for many pwADHD (people with ADHD), the first show is simply the gateway into a string of hours in front of the television. They may protest that it is a harmless diversion, even as it sucks endless hours out of their lives.

As a conservative estimate, Americans watch over three hours a day. I suspect that the pwADHD are watching even more. Why? It is probably not a conscious and purposeful choice. Like many unproductive ADHD habits, television is an unplanned time-destroyer. It sneaks up. Sometimes people realize that, in fact, it is having a negative influence, but they cannot manage to cut back their TV time.

The content of TV is a separate question. Many viewers watch shows which they admit they do not like. Then there is the question of commercialism and anti-intellectualism that TV might encourage. And need we mention the routine violence and soulless sexuality? But aside from that, the mere fact of television being television is potentially addicting and time-destructive. Television operates in much the same way that chemicals do. It alters the brain. At first, like a drug, it really is relaxing. But with more watching it becomes a hook which hurts to stop using. After hours of watching television, many people feel quite a bit worse than when they started. I have to underline that I do not believe that television causes ADHD. But ADHD makes people more prone to television addiction in the same way that it makes people more vulnerable to other addictions.

What are the remedies if you do decide that television is having a negative impact? The usual approaches are problematic for the pwADHD (person with ADHD). Typical advice includes exercising willpower and self-discipline. This is a good idea, but I will forgive you if that advice seems to have limited usefulness. Television seems to create a state of mind that particularly resists mindful choice-making. It exacerbates the inability to direct oneself, augmenting ADHD symptoms.

The strategies that make the most sense are similar to those that work with chemical addictions. First, it is important to admit that it has gotten out of control. Without that acknowledgment, you'll be pulled into endless struggles with futile demonstrations of willpower, (or actually lack thereof). The shame and exasperation of repeatedly failing at "having willpower" are counterproductive.

Becoming conscious of the problem and its ramifications is critical. Many people have not really noticed the negative effects that television is having on them. The fact that television "use" is so ubiquitous makes it harder to notice and acknowledge the downside. Exercises like the national TV-Turnoff Week can be a good rallying point against the predominant cultural view of television as "normal" behavior. It is helpful to see that others acknowledge how television can be negative.

Wise veterans of recovery programs will tell you that you can't have the first drink. Once you are drinking, your ability to control your subsequent behavior is compromised. Furthermore, you have compromised some of the self-respect and self-confidence that could help you stop. It is often necessary to insist on total abstinence, at least temporarily. It is folly to keep paying the cable bill for just a few favorite programs. You really need to learn to build your life around something else. For many people, it will take a determined period of "sobriety" to get a toehold against television's appeal.

Another lesson from the world of chemical addictions is to use your friends. The support of others is invaluable in getting a grip on your uncontrolled behaviors. You will not likely find 12 step groups about television addiction. But try to surround yourself with people who support your efforts to stay away from the television.

I suppose it would be fair to say that I am picking on television, when there are equally noxious non-chemical addictions that deserve the same treatment. That's true. There are people discussing gambling, sexual behavior, and even shopping in equivalent terms. Internet addiction has gotten even more press than television addiction. And the little games they put in cell phones can be a huge waste of time. Particularly for the pwADHD, there are countless ways we can get sucked into allowing a behavior to hijack our brains and steal our time and attention.

My hope is to raise awareness of this possible area of trouble. It is not my intention to come off as a fringe moralist who is merely overreacting to our culture's favorite recreational activity. If you can find nothing wrong with the amount and kind of television that you watch, maybe there is nothing wrong with it. But if you do see a glimmer of trouble in your tube-time, I hope this gives you the courage to address it more openly, and maybe make the changes that you would like to make.



Any passive form of entertainment that is so incredibly mind numbing that it sucks the intelligence from the listener or viewer; ultimately over time reducing (or limiting) them to a simplistic proto-human mental state, incapable of cognition or rational thought.


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