Mushy Brains and Shorter Lives: Is TV Really That Bad for You?

by Sheela Doraiswamy on October 22, 2012

The way we watch TV has changed a lot in the past several years. We once had to wait for our favorite shows to air at a certain time and day of the week, could only watch older shows in the form of re-runs, and foreign shows were out of the question unless you were paying for a cable or satellite channel.

Now thanks to DVDs and services like Netflix and Hulu, we can access most of our favorite shows, as well as other great older shows, and even foreign ones, whenever and wherever we want.  For college students, it seems like watching TV shows in one long marathon is the norm now.  And if you’re watching something intense and full of cliff-hangers, it seems natural to want to find out “what happens next” as soon as possible, kind of like this:

If you’re someone who habitually “marathon watches” TV shows, it’s probably been sitting somewhere in the back of your mind that too much TV is “bad for you.” Let’s face it, we TV/movie buffs get kind of a bad rap. Tell someone that you love watching TV, and they probably get an image of you sitting on the couch in a zombie-like trance, letting your mind turn to mush as you become a “couch potato”. Are we really harming ourselves that much?

Let’s take a look at some of the research on mental and physical effects of TV, and find out…

Mental Effects: Does TV “Rot Your Brain?”

Growing up, this was something I heard quite a lot from my parents and teachers. “Don’t watch too much TV- it will rot your brain!” Heck, it’s even something that the TV industry itself mocks-

Putting this in slightly more scientific terms, does TV negatively effect cognition, memory, or overall academic performance?

Short term effects:

A study published in the Journal of Media Psychology looked at the short term effects of watching TV and playing video games on concentration and memory. The purpose of this particularly study was actually to see if there was a difference in effect from a highly stimulating game or movie compared to a not stimulating one. University students were given a test of memory and concentration in four different scenarios– after playing a violent video game (“Doom”), watching a movie adaptation of this game, watching a tennis match, and playing a tennis video game.

Researchers found that both the highly stimulating game and movie resulted in lower test scores than watching the tennis match.

More research needs to be done comparing other genres, however. A tennis match didn’t have much of an effect on test scores, but what about a movie with an actual plot, characters, and such?  Would watching a gripping drama or a comedy effect test scores in the same way?

While we wait for more research on the subject, hopefully you’re at least reconsidering any plans to see the newest Paranormal Activity movie right before your next exam!

Long Term Effects

So that’s the short term, what about long term effects? This is an area that’s still disputed a bit between researchers. An article published in Economics of Education Review looked at whether there was any association between high schooler’s test scores and the amount of time they spent watching TV. This study did find a negative association between amount of TV and test scores, however this does not necessarily mean that TV is causing low test scores. The popular theory to explain this association is more focused on what TV is replacing rather than any cognitive effects of TV itself. In other words, if students are watching lots of TV, this means that they’re probably not spending as much time on things like homework, studying, or reading. The other argument is that perhaps students with less motivation to do well in school are the ones who watch more TV.

Also, when they controlled for factors such as parent’s education status, or looked at the test scores within families, there was no association found between hours of TV watched and test scores.

This is another area that could use some more research, but it seems that as long as TV isn’t replacing homework and study time, at the moment there isn’t much proof that it’s harming your overall performance in school.

Physical Health

So those are the possible effects on mental health…what about physical health? Maybe TV’s not “rotting your brain,” but what about your body?

The article “Visual Voodoo: The Biological Impact of Watching TV” provides a good overview of the studies done on TV and physical health. In particular, it discusses a 26 year study that looked at the amount of time subjects between the ages of 5 and 15 watched TV, and the health outcomes they experienced 26 years later. This study found that kids who watched more than 2 hours a day between the ages of 5 and 15 were more likely to have high cholesterol, reduced fitness, and were at higher risk for diabetes as adults.

These results shouldn’t be too surprising. After all, watching TV is a sedentary activity– most people prefer to sit down on the couch (or even in front of a computer screen) when they watch TV. This means that they’re not getting any physical activity during that time. Too much sedentary activity can increase risk of health outcomes such as diabetes. Another study recently published in BMJ suggests that if adults limit TV watching to less than 2 hours per day,  and limiting sitting down to less than 3 hours a day, life expectancy in the US would increase by about 2 years!

Conclusion:

While there’s still some research to be done as far as the health effects go, it seems that, like many things, TV is best if watched in moderation. The BMJ study recommends less than 2 hours a day. If the health benefits haven’t convinced you to stop “marathon watching” TV shows, maybe the more artistic reasons will. As this author puts it, your TV watching experience will be a lot more rewarding if you watch through the show slowly, which is just another great reason to limit “TV marathons.”

You can also try making TV “less sedentary” by exercising while you watch. For example, try watching TV while you run on a treadmill or ride an exercise bike (I managed to get through all of Downton Abbey this way).

If that’s not an option for you, then next time your favorite show is on, consider trying an “exercise game” like one of these:

30 Rock

The Big Bang Theory

Harry Potter

Community

Doctor Who

TV Commercials

(Feel free to come up with your own for your favorite shows, too!)

 

 

 

 

Margaret October 22, 2012 at 9:52 pm

Sheela,
I liked this topic, but it seems that there really is not that much information in this area. Watching TV does not stimulate the brain, but it also does not seem to “rot” it.
I liked the cute exercises you posted. I used to do all my exercises to T.V shows when I was younger. I did not know that they had actually made programs out of them.

Margaret

Sheela Doraiswamy October 22, 2012 at 10:37 pm

Hi Margaret. Thanks for your comment. I was actually quite surprised how little research there was on this subject. Most of the studies I found relating to cognition had all been done on young children, but my target audience is students and young adults. Hopefully it’s something they’ll do more research on in the future. I’m particularly interested in whether or not specific genres have different effects on the brain
Glad you liked the exercise games. They’re not anything official, just some stuff that fans of those shows have come up with, but I think they’re a pretty cool idea

Andrew Maynard October 23, 2012 at 6:16 am

Sheela,

Slightly off-topic, but your post reminds me of this piece on fears in the 17th century that too much reading would be catastrophic for society!

http://2020science.org/2011/08/03/frying-your-brains-on-information-overload-old-perspectives-on-a-new-issue/

Gaythia Weis October 23, 2012 at 1:40 pm

I think we could combine both the posts of Sheela Doraiswamy and Andrew Maynard by saying that it is sitting down for long periods that is bad for you.
But then, was spending the day hoeing the potato patch really that mentally stimulating?

Revised GRE prep October 24, 2012 at 3:25 pm

Thank goodness I don’t watch so much TV! I used to play a lot of games online though. Maybe you guys could do a study on how gaming affects cognitive abilities? I would really love to read that! I used to scour the internet for articles that affirmed the positive effects of PC gaming, turning a blind eye to all the bad effects. I don’t spend much time gaming or watching TV nowadays, but I would still love to read something on it.

Sheela Doraiswamy October 24, 2012 at 4:15 pm
mike January 30, 2013 at 11:03 am

You can’t get real information here. Just letting you know. I could say T.V helps your brain because of the shows minutes. Well I don”t know that. You just got wrong information. Just a heads up.

Johnny Boy February 3, 2013 at 1:39 am

Couldn’t agree more with mike, whoever wrote this is an idiot. You clearly do not know how to write an article because this gives you absolutely no conclusion.

Slick Rick February 17, 2013 at 1:04 pm

Wow id rather stare at a wall for 5 hours than watch Downton Abbey…..

SPOT O TEA?

WE BRITS CAN REALLY BRING THE DRAMA EH????

BAD TEETH IS FUNNY THAY IS??

Daisy April 3, 2013 at 9:16 am

Researchers are inconclusive to such a broad question, but yes they can break that down and answer what they can. This does have a lot of information. Its saying that she made a personal discovery in that people tend to tell younger kids it will rot their brain so they don’t end up watching it all that time and ignore their school. And television most definitely can be stimulating. It isn’t hard to get yourself thinking with a show or game. You should research a topic your more open about. You have to be ready to change your mind to reliable sources. If not, change your topic. This is jampacked with info.

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