Alice,

I have a slight problem with becoming obsessed with shows. It first started with Buffy the Vampire slayer when I was around the age of ten. I would buy all the cards, all the DVD seasons. I’d cut out every photo and buy all the soundtracks and books (including the books that have the scripts in them). It moved to Gilmore Girls, then Charmed, and then Grey’s Anatomy. Right now my current obsession is Glee. I am now 19 years old. I can’t wait to watch the show. Many fans are like this, I’m sure. But I get jealous and upset by the relationships that they have that I don’t have. And I’ve also always wanted to be in that field of work, but I gave up at the age of thirteen. Is there a reason people become insanely obsessed with shows?? Isn’t it also a part of some kind of disease or disorder? Thanks.

Dear Reader,

TV and TV culture have become pretty much ubiquitous in American life. With the advent of affordable online-streaming and recording services, many people have near-constant access to their favorite shows with the press of a button or the click of a mouse. With great power, however, comes great responsibility: it’s definitely possible to watch too much TV. Unfortunately, in extreme cases, a person can actually become addicted and be unable to control their viewing habits and related behaviors. The good news is that there are plenty of strategies that might help you dial down your connections with TV shows — these include things like monitoring how much and how often you watch, substituting your TV time with other equally pleasurable pastimes, setting goals to not purchase items related to shows you enjoy, and reaching out to your community or a professional for help.

Heavy TV consumption can be unhealthy for a number of reasons, both psychological and physiological. For example, constant exposure to TV might cause a person to develop unchecked biases, decreased attention span, or have distorted ideas about realistic body image or relationship dynamics. Remember that a lot of TV is scripted, and all TV has a limited viewing lens that, while appealing enough to draw large fan bases, doesn’t always accurately depict reality. Spending time away from the screen can help you challenge some of those constructed realities and re-center. In terms of physical health, studies have shown that increased TV time also means less time spent being physically active — which might also mean a higher risk for poor health markers such as heart disease, diabetes, hypertension, or depression.

Frequent TV-binging can also offer a distraction that, when too prolonged, might cause difficulty at school, work, or in your personal life. For example, spending too much money on show-related items or subscriptions could interfere with your ability to pay for necessities like rent or food. Additionally, if you’re trying to set health goals for being more active or getting more sleep, the amount of time you spend in front of the TV could hinder your progress. When these difficulties become particularly distressing but the individual is still compelled to continue watching, it may warrant a visit with a mental health provider. The American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) characterizes individuals with TV addiction as:

  • Needing to spend more and more time watching TV to achieve a desired emotional effect (whether that's to feel happier, more relaxed, etc.) 
  • Feeling the urge to continue watching TV, even when they try to stop — these urges may also be accompanied by withdrawal-like symptoms such as anxiety, irritability, or longing
  • Being unsuccessful when trying to cut down on TV viewing, or feeling unable to control how often or how long they watch TV
  • Making significant changes to their routine to either better enable their behavior or recover from its effects — for example, some people may start requesting to work from home more often (either to watch more TV or to sleep in later after a long night of binging) or only choose to go to bars or restaurants that have TV access
  • Frequently foregoing social, occupational, or recreational activities (like birthday parties, networking events, or other personal hobbies) to make time for their TV habit

However, keep in mind that TV addiction can only be diagnosed by a mental health professional and you don’t necessarily have to be diagnosed with the condition to feel like your TV habits are negatively affecting your life.

Reader, you also ask if there’s a particular reason why some people get hooked on TV shows. While the reasons may vary between individuals, some viewers may find shows engaging because they allow viewers to live vicariously through the characters’ experiences. It could be especially exciting if the experiences are related to the viewer's personal interests, values, or aspirations.  While immersed in the episode, you might be able to share in the heartbreak of their trials but also the celebration of their successes. But keep in mind that the characters and their stories are often fictional and designed to tug at your heartstrings and to keep you coming back for more — so a little bit of fandom is probably normal and even expected of popular shows. It might help to remind yourself of this fact every now and then.

Reader, you also mention that sometimes you feel envious of the relationships between the characters that you feel you don’t have in your own life. Have you considered the possibility that your television habit might be interfering with opportunities to engage with your friends and family? Not only does your television time limit your ability to interact with your family and friends, but it may also make it difficult to establish healthy relationships. Off-screen interactions often don’t reflect what you see in TV shows. Real relationships take time, effort, and patience to develop things like intimacy, loyalty, and mutual support. And in TV-relationships these efforts are usually compressed into just a few episodes. Spending some more time with the people you care about could be a great way to start making and strengthening those personal ties.

Having a hard time cutting back on the TV-time? You may consider trying some of the following:

  • Keep a log. Track how many hours of TV you watch every day, how you feel before you grab the remote, and how you feel after you shut off the screen. You may be surprised by how much time you’re actually spending in front of the screen — as a gauge, watching just two hours of television a day adds up to spending an entire month of every year glued to the tube.
  • Remember your favorite non-TV activities. Do you enjoy reading, playing sports, or hanging out with friends? Try posting a list of your favorite activities in a place where you'll see it (like on the refrigerator) to remind you of choices when you feel the itch to pick up the remote. You mentioned your interest in showbiz; perhaps you can look into taking some film or dance classes, voice lessons, or auditioning for a play.
  • Take a TV breather. Try abstaining from TV for one week or however long you’re comfortable. Fill the time that you would usually use to watch your favorite shows with some of the non-television activities you listed. You can try taking a walk, making dinner with a friend, going to the gym, or picking up an entirely new hobby! This may also be a good opportunity to go out and meet new people with whom you have common interests. 
  • Set reminders. You might want to consider using some of the parental control options that may be available (depending on your service or provider) to help remind you of your new goals. If you watch a lot of TV on your phone, apps are also available that help to track and limit how often you're on your phone and what you use it for. 
  • Set spending goals. Create a monthly or even yearly budget for the amount of money you can spend on show-related items, online-streaming subscriptions, etc. and stick with it.

And finally, remember that it's okay to ask for help. Changing habits is no easy feat — and you don’t have to do it alone. Reach out to friends and family who can help support you by giving you a distraction or gently reminding you when you’re going over the time limits you’ve set for yourself. If you find that after trying to cut back, you’re still distressed about your TV habits, it might be worth talking with a mental health provider who can give you more advice and support you as you move forward. Bringing your TV log to the appointment can be a great way to open up that conversation. 

Alice!

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