According to 2019 research from the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics, Americans spend, on average, a little more than half of their leisure time watching TV.
This is partly because TV’s gotten a lot better in recent years. Fancy cable isn’t as prohibitively expensive as it once was, and you can find just about anything you want on streaming sites. Plus, you aren’t just limited to your TV set anymore. Laptops, phones, and tablets can all get the job done, too.
The evolution of TV has come with some unintended consequences, though. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) didn’t include TV addiction in its fifth edition. However,
Here’s a look at when your TV intake might warrant a closer look and what to do if it feels like too much.
Again, TV addiction isn’t a formally recognized condition. That means there’s no agreed set of symptoms.
Some researchers, however, have developed questionnaires to help identify TV dependence. One of these, published in 2004, uses substance dependence criteria to help measure TV dependence and addiction with statements along the lines of:
- “I feel guilty about watching so much TV.”
- “I get less satisfaction from watching the same amount of TV.”
- “I can’t imagine going without TV.”
Problematic behavior generally interferes with typical daily function, explains Melissa Stringer, a therapist in Sunnyvale, Texas, although specific signs can vary.
For example, the time you spend watching TV might:
- affect your work or studies
- leave you with less time to see family and friends
As with other types of addiction, watching TV can boost dopamine production in your brain. The resulting pleasurable feelings act as a “reward” that makes you want to continue watching TV.
Here are some more specific things to look for.
You regularly watch more TV than you intend to
Night after night, you promise yourself you’ll just watch one episode of something, but you end up watching three or four instead. Or maybe you turn on the TV before starting work and get so distracted you don’t get any work done. This keeps happening, even when you resolve to watch less.
Binge-watching may seem to resemble addictive behaviors, but occasionally watching a lot of TV at once doesn’t necessarily suggest dependency, especially when you intended to watch multiple episodes and don’t feel any distress afterward. Everyone needs to zone out from time to time.
You feel upset when you can’t watch TV
When you don’t watch any TV for a day or two, you might notice some emotional distress, including:
- irritability or crankiness
- intense desire to watch TV
These might improve right away once you start watching TV again.
You watch TV in order to feel better
TV offers distraction and escape. If you’ve had a difficult or stressful day, you might watch something funny to improve your mood, for example.
There’s nothing wrong with occasionally using TV to help relieve or express painful emotions. But problems can develop when TV becomes your primary coping strategy and keeps you from seeking out more productive methods of dealing with distress.
TV can’t help you resolve whatever you’re dealing with. It can help you feel better for a while, but chances are, your improved mood won’t last until you take steps to address any problems.
You develop health concerns
If you watch a lot of TV, you might spend a lot of time sitting and less time being physically active.
Healthcare experts generally recommend adults get at least 2.5 hours of moderate exercise each week.
If your TV viewing has become excessive, you may not have enough time to get in the weekly recommended amount of exercise, which can affect your health over time.
2018 research also links TV addiction to sleep problems. Not getting enough sleep can also take a toll on physical wellness.
You notice problems in your personal relationships
Excessive TV watching can cause damage to your relationships in two key ways.
If you spend your free time watching TV, you probably aren’t spending much time with loved ones. You may have less time for chatting and catching up. What’s more, when you do see them, you might enjoy your time together less if you feel irritable and just want to get back to watching TV.
TV addiction can also affect relationships when you sacrifice relationship maintenance behaviors, like spending quality time with your partner, in favor of watching TV. Your partner or children may comment on your TV viewing or become frustrated when you watch TV.
You have a hard time cutting back
You might feel bad, even guilty, about watching so much TV, since it keeps you from taking care of chores at home, your favorite hobbies, and other things you’d like to do.
Even so, all you want to do after work (sometimes even during work) is watch TV. You feel guilty about having less time for loved ones and yourself, and you’ve even tried to watch less.
Despite your emotional distress, though, you just can’t seem to decrease your viewing time.
There’s no single thing that makes people watch excessive amounts of TV.
For starters, there are plenty of good things about TV. These tend to draw people in. For some, the allure may just be a bit stronger.
- teach you about specific subjects
- offer entertainment
- inform you about current events
- distract you from sad or unpleasant thoughts
- help you connect with family, friends, or others who watch the same shows
It can also help keep you company, in a way. If you spend a lot of time alone, you might turn on the TV to break the silence or ease loneliness, anxiety, or boredom.
Not everyone who watches TV becomes dependent on it, of course. But problematic use, of TV or any substance or behavior, can result when you begin to rely on TV to cope with stress and other distress, Stringer explains.
Some benefits TV provides can increase your desire to keep watching and reinforce problematic viewing patterns. You may also be more likely to turn to media to help you cope with distress if other people in your life do the same.
If you feel like you’re watching too much TV, these strategies might help you kick the habit.
Keep in mind that these tips won’t work overnight. It takes time to change behaviors, so be gentle with yourself and don’t get too discouraged if you slip along the way.
Keep track of how much you watch
To get a better idea of how much TV you usually watch, try keeping a log of the time you spend watching each day.
It also helps to note things like:
- patterns around when you generally watch TV
- mood changes related to TV use
Finding patterns in TV viewing can give you more insight into how it affects your daily life. You can also use these patterns to watch less TV.
For example, if you always turn on the TV right after dinner, you might choose to go for a walk instead.
Explore your reasons for watching TV
Maybe you started watching TV out of boredom. Or you began drifting off to late-night talk shows and now you can’t sleep without the TV on.
Stringer recommends exploring your reasons for watching TV and asking yourself if these reasons align with the ways you really want to spend your time.
Increasing awareness about why you rely on TV can enable you to address and work through challenges that affect you negatively, whether those include:
- persistent sleep issues
- lack of rewarding hobbies
- few fulfilling relationships
Create specific limits around TV time
If you generally watch a lot of TV, you may have a hard time giving it up completely.
Stringer points out that taking a large step away from your baseline may not be the best option when working toward lasting behavioral change. It often helps more to focus on smaller, gradual change.
For example, you might decide to:
- cancel all but one streaming service
- limit viewing to new episodes of your favorite shows
- only watch TV on weekends or when you’re doing something else, like working out
Finding new activities can help you rein in your TV viewing. It’s often easier to break a pattern when you have something else to do with your time.
So after you put down the remote (or hide it), try:
- picking up a book
- enjoying nature by gardening or visiting your local park
- teaching yourself a new language with apps like Duolingo
- coloring or journaling
Connect with others
Using TV to cope with loneliness can prevent you from finding long-term solutions, like making new friends or going on dates.
If you find social interaction difficult, talking to a therapist can help. It’s also perfectly fine to take things slow.
Try starting by replacing an hour of daily TV time with some kind of interaction, such as:
- catching up with loved ones
- spending time in a public place
- participating in a group hobby
Once you become more comfortable in social situations, try increasing the time you spend with others while continuing to decrease TV watching.
It’s also pretty common to watch TV instead of dealing with stress, which could include friendship or relationship issues. Talking about the problem is usually the most beneficial approach.
Talking to a healthcare professional can help if you’re experiencing physical symptoms that seem related to excessive TV use, such as trouble sleeping.
While it’s possible to take steps to address it yourself, cutting back on TV isn’t always easy. If you’re finding it difficult, talking to a therapist can help.
Therapists offer compassion and support without judgment.
They can help you explore:
- strategies to limit viewing
- unwanted emotions related to excessive TV viewing
- more helpful ways to manage and cope with difficult feelings
Consider reaching out if:
- you’re struggling to cut back on TV
- the thought of watching less TV distresses you
- you’re dealing with mood changes, including irritability, depression, or anxiety
- TV viewing has affected your relationships or daily life
There’s nothing wrong with relaxing by catching up on your favorite show or watching an entire season in one weekend. As long as you don’t have trouble taking care of your usual responsibilities and can find time for other leisure activities when you want to, your TV use probably isn’t problematic.
If your viewing seems to have a negative impact on your health or relationships and keeps you from doing things you usually would, it may be time to talk to a therapist, especially if your own efforts to watch less TV are unsuccessful.