Your First Addiction: The Science Behind How TV Rots Your Brain

Cole Saladino/Thrillist
Cole Saladino/Thrillist

You’ve probably heard it since you were a kid who watched five straight hours of cartoons on Saturday mornings: TV rots your brain. Parents and mental health experts have been wary of television since its creation, but with the explosion of Netflix, on-demand shows, and mobile access, TV has left the living room and infiltrated virtually every aspect of your daily life. What does that mean for your brain?

Since the word “binge” no longer refers exclusively to drugs and alcohol, it’s time to take another look at what TV’s really doing to your health.

Flickr/Tilman Zitzmann

Your parents might have been too late

By the time your parents were telling you that TV will rot your brain, it may have already been too late (whoops). In 2001, the American Academy of Pediatrics released a policy statement outlining the seemingly endless dangers of media exposure to infants and toddlers. Among the potentially long-term risks backed by 46 scientific studies are delayed language development and slow cognitive processing.

As if cognitive destruction isn’t scary enough, a recent study revealed that excessive TV can actually increase the gray matter of a child’s brain. This sounds pretty awesome until you find out it comes with a decrease in IQ. Womp womp. On the flip side, a separate study revealed that reading has the opposite effect, so go ahead and pat yourself on the back for making it this far into an internet article.

TV: your first addiction

Dr. Steven Sussman, Professor of Preventative Medicine and Psychology at USC, adds that TV is especially dangerous for kids since it can easily become their (see: your) “first addiction.” So if you’ve ever jokingly called TV your drug of choice, you’re making less of a joke than you might think. 

Among Dr. Sussman’s research is a comprehensive review of behavioral addictions, with TV making the top of the list. Just like that sweet angel dust, watching TV can release a flood of endorphins, seducing you into blissful submission, and leaving you hungry for more the moment you stop. Like any good addiction, your brain forgets how to operate without the drug -- you’ll always need just one more hit of Kimmy Schmidt before you go to bed.

Motion Picture Corporation of America

Keeping you engaged

The enemy of television programmers is a universal human experience: boredom. Advertisers get around this by employing rapid-fire scene changes, humor, and non sequiturs to keep your brain engaged. 

Masterful directors also know exactly how to get inside your head, and techniques like rapid-fire scene changes might reduce your ability to concentrate, which in turn can have a negative effect on your impulse control. And with reduced impulse control… well, you can see where this is going.

Designed for binging

Gone are the days of setting up your VCR, praying to the TV gods that your VHS tape would kick in at the right time to record your favorite show. The designers of entire-season releases would never do that to you. They know that instant gratification is what gets you hooked. Even if you’re not quite addicted by episode three, that “auto-play next episode” sure does make it easy to move on to episode four… and five… and 12.

The kicker here isn’t exactly what you’re watching, but how long: More than 60% of Netflix users have admitted to binging (seems low!), with 73% being proud of it. Several studies have noted the substantial health risks in watching TV more than an hour a day, and most people passed that mark about three Master Chefs ago. Add the general health risks of sitting too much, and that binge you desperately needed after a long day of work becomes pretty dicey for your health. 

Flickr/David Bruce

Life imitating art imitating life

Perhaps the most dystopian feature of the television-viewing experience is that once you’re tuned in to the screen, and the real world is tuned out, your brain can’t tell the difference between the two. Even when you’re chest-deep in pillows and a Snuggie, your brain thinks you’re in danger when Daredevil is about to get his ass kicked. Stress hormones rush through your body, but have no healthy outlet since you’re not using them in a fight (Dr. Who debates don’t count). Long-term exposure to these hormones can cause memory loss and weight gain, so you’ll be fat and forgetful without even trying.

When your brain isn’t stressed out with Daredevil, it’s literally befriending Joey and Chandler. Studies have shown that our bodies release oxytocin, the hormone for empathy and attachment, even when watching a fictional story onscreen. TV can even instill a sense of belonging with our favorite characters even when we logically know they’re fake.

All those TV friends sound nice! So what’s the problem? Well, they’re fake, but feelings of attachment can lead to more TV time, which perpetuates depression and increases aggression. As a kicker, a 30-year examination of television habits showed that happy people tend to watch less of it. Maybe it’s because they’re not mourning the loss of loved ones every time a show is canceled.

Flickr/Steven Straiton

A view of the world in pixels

Your brain isn’t just hit by the content on TV, but by its very construction. What appears to be solid on your screen is actually a construct of thousands of flashing and flickering pixels. Your eyes and brain can’t see this, but they can sure as hell feel it. Your headache and blurred vision might be less about Jon Snow’s death (lies!), and more about the five hours of binging leading up to it.

And if you have been consuming pixels at all hours through your TV, phone, and tablet, the sun never sets on your eyes. As poetic as this might sound, it’s actually disrupting your sleep and destroying your brain. Watching screens prevents melatonin -- the hormonal harbinger of deep sleep -- from entering your tired brain. Sleep deprivation can lead to pretty much any health risk you can imagine, not to mention the fact that it turns you into an asshole. Maybe now’s a good time to hit pause before you’re terrorizing your coworkers tomorrow.

So what are you supposed to do, live in a world without TV? At the root of all of these studies lies a common theme: the dose makes the poison. Obviously TV is one of the great pleasures of modern life, and it’s not going anywhere. But there’s enough modern science to show that too much of it might be rotting your brain in more ways than one… maybe just hit “stop” instead of waiting for the auto-play to kick in.

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Nicholas Knock is a freelance writer for Thrillist who hasn’t watched Game of Thrones, so don’t spoil it for him. You can follow him on Twitter @nickaknock.