All those reality shows and Netflix marathons could have a bigger impact on you than you thought. (Photo: ABC)
After a long day at work, perhaps the idea of a perfect evening involves sitting on the sofa and enjoying some mindless TV. Sometimes a solid session on the couch (for just the cost of a monthly cable or Hulu Plus subscription!) is all you need to beat those winter doldrums, help you forget about the day’s stressors, or even provide an opportunity to reconnect with friends (The Bachelor fans, we’re looking at you and that wine and fantasy league you’re unabashedly part of).
But what effect does this kind of viewing actually have on the brain and a person’s psychological well-being? Is mindless TV really harmless TV?
A 2012 study in the journal Mass Communication and Science found that the more people believe in portrayals of romance shown on TV, the less committed they are to their own relationship. Furthermore, the study showed that the more people believe in the magical romance as seen on TV (Lorelei and Luke on Gilmore Girls, anyone? Just us?), the more a person believes their IRL relationship is costing them their own time and freedom — and, perhaps most troubling, the more physically unattractive they suddenly find their own partner.
“The big problem with TV is the potential opportunity cost,” Art Markman, PhD, a psychologist with the University of Texas, tells Yahoo Health. “Whenever you spend any resource (time, money, or energy) on something, that resource isn’t available for anything else. So, each hour you spend watching mindless TV is an hour when you could have deepened your relationships with other people, learned a musical instrument, or gotten some exercise.”
And speaking of exercise, all that sitting during a solid binge-watching marathon (generally thought to be watching two to six episodes of one program at a time) is not without potential side effects for your physical health. Current research shows that prolonged periods of sitting — whether at a desk at work or in front of the TV at night — is linked to a significant increase in risk for heart disease.
A 2011 study out of the University of South Carolina showed that men who spent more than 23 hours a week being sedentary had a 64 percent greater risk of death from heart disease, compared with men who were sedentary fewer than 11 hours a week. Regular exercise had little effect to counterbalance these extended stationary periods. Likewise, a 2008 Australian study found that “[t]otal sedentary (absence of whole-body movement) time is associated with obesity, abnormal glucose metabolism, and the metabolic syndrome.”
And then there’s also the new study from researchers at the University of Texas at Austin, showing that binge-watching TV is associated with feelings of loneliness and depression.
Not to mention, says Markman, that the content of whatever you’re watching could have varying effects. “[T]he weight of evidence suggests that watching violent television can increase a person’s level of aggression (if not violence) and watching bad behaviors like smoking can make those behaviors seem more attractive,” he says. Increased exposure to media violence does correlate to increased violent behavior in real life. Other “side effects” of TV violence can include antisocial behavior, desensitization towards violence, and lack of sympathy toward those hurt by violence.
And a 2013 study out of Japan shows some of the first indications that TV watching actually physically changes the structure of the brain itself in children, specifically the medial prefontal cortex, the visual cortex, and the hypothalamus. These are the parts of the brain that control, respectively, the contextualizing of future and still unknown experiences with past experiences; visual and spatial orientation and color; and regulation of hormonal function — all systems that one would, ideally, hope to have functioning to the best of their biological abilities.
The study showed, however, that these changes seem to increase brain volume by increasing gray matter — the more TV children watched, the more gray matter they had. But not all volume is created equal; as The Washington Post put it, such activity, which is still being investigated, could “make the developing brain too fat” (as opposed to extra brawny, if you will).
But just like with all other vices, moderation seems to be key. “At the end of the day, you may not have a lot of mental energy to focus on anything, and so a little relaxation is good,” says Markman. “And mindless TV is not a bad way to relax. In fact, if you watch programs that your friends are also watching, it gives you topics of conversation for the next day.” The important thing, Markman says, is to pay attention to the amount of time you spend watching TV — and to make sure it’s not getting in the way of other activities that could enrich your life. “When you find that there are goals you wish you could achieve that you are not fulfilling, it is time to shut off the TV and engage with your life,” he says.
And so, #BachelorNation, your Monday night habit seems safe enough for now: Just be sure to keep believing that no one finds love on reality TV and avert your eyes during paintball shoot-outs in a faux-zombie apocalypse, and you — and your brain — should be good to go.