Television is terrible for you. Haven’t you heard?
That’s why you might feel a secret thrill when you overhear co-workers discussing a TV show that you missed, because, of course, you were busy reading last night. Or, more commonly, why you feel a twinge of guilt when you hit “play next.”
Either way, that emotional response is tied to the narrative that TV is bad for you. And the research feeds that narrative—it might even have birthed it.
Here’s what the scientific literature tells us: We know that watching more TV increases obesity risk in children and that watching more TV can increase our chance of developing life-threatening illnesses. We’ve learned that watching violent television can desensitize kids to violence. We don’t dispute these things. There are real reasons “the idiot box” has become a central metaphor for an escapist, death-denying, sedentary, maybe-even-honest-to-goodness decadent Western lifestyle.
But just because something can be bad for us doesn’t mean it can’t also be good for us. When watching TV, several unique conditions—what you’re watching, and when, where, and why, and who with, and how much—all add up to different psychosocial, physiological, and emotional health effects. We’re only now beginning to learn how good or bad they all are.
Dr. Robin Nabi is a professor of media effects and health communication at the University of California at Santa Barbara, and she’s one of a growing group of researchers who seem to say, sure, media consumption can contribute to negative health outcomes. But that’s not the whole story.
We always seem to start from this place of, ‘How could this cause problems?’ rather than this place of, ‘How can this be wonderful?’
In their research, Nabi and her colleagues ask what a healthy media diet looks like “so we can maximize the benefits and minimize the costs, physiologically and emotionally,” she tells HealthyWay.
To be clear, no one is suggesting you drop everything and binge the entirety of Netflix tomorrow.
Binging on anything, as the term implies, is probably not great for your health. We just don’t want the pervasive, ambient guilt we often attach to TV viewing to deprive you of the true comfort you might find in a few episodes of your favorite show.
“We’re not saying, ‘Oh, you should watch 8 hours of television a day. You’ll be healthier,'” Nabi explains. “It’s more … your media diet can contribute to your health just like the food you eat can contribute to your health … We’re just starting to scratch the surface of that question.”
The relationship between media and well-being is a newish sub-sub-(maybe sub)-field of research, but already a couple things are clear: Our relationship to television doesn’t operate along a binary, good/bad dynamic, and it’s probably alright to let go and enjoy the occasional evening with the remote—especially when you’re stressed out, or worse. The evidence is slowly amassing.
So, while the researchers work on the details of a truly healthy media diet, be kind to yourself when you feel like relaxing in front of the screen. Here are a few reasons you shouldn’t feel guilty for watching television:
1. If you watch TV to relieve stress, you are certainly not alone.
Who uses media (including, for our purposes, television) to cope with stress? At least two groups, according to Nabi and colleagues’ recent published research in the field. They asked 421 undergraduate college students and 102 survivors of breast cancer to describe the coping mechanisms they used to handle stress over the previous four weeks.
The responses featured the range you’d expect. People listed exercise, talking to or being with friends or family, deep breathing, yoga, prayer. They listed sleep and food and going to therapy. Some threw themselves into work or school, while others—amazingly few—chose unhealthy behaviors such as substance abuse.
Among both groups, though, “media use” was in the top five coping strategies listed without any prompting from the researchers whatsoever. In both groups, people used media more often than religion to cope with stress. To be clear, the researchers didn’t code responses for specific types of media, so we don’t know who was going to the IMAX theater and who was playing video games. But if you choose to watch TV to deal with a stressful moment, this study suggests you’ll find yourself in plenty of company.
2. There’s some physiological evidence that TV can reduce stress levels.
If watching television actually helps to reduce stress, you’d assume that people who use media effectively, from a physiological perspective, would have lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol. That was the idea behind one of Nabi’s and colleagues’ earlier studies.
“What we did was measure people’s stress hormones … before and then while they were watching different types of media,” Nabi says.
The research team found that women who watched more television had lower cortisol levels than those who reported less time spent viewing. (Note that, perplexingly, men did not show the same relationship between TV and cortisol.)
“Now, we can’t necessarily make a causal argument because of the nature of our data collection,” Nabi says. “But it does suggest there is some relationship there.”
And there seems to be something to it—in the American Psychology Association’s 2017 “Stress in America” survey, 33 percent of men and 39 percent of women said that they watch television to manage their stress.
Of course, researchers are stuck with statistical analysis. We’re free to be a bit more anecdotal, so we put the question to you: Do you feel less stressed out when you watch television? And if so, why feel bad about that?
3. Our cultural narrative about TV viewership still skews negative.
The evidence against television has been piling up since the first twist of the knob—and really, this happens with any new medium. Anyone who heard Plato argue that poetry has no place in the ideal society, or noticed that Madame Bovary is a novel about the dangers of novels, or read Dr. Fredric Wertham’s 1950s arguments against comic books, could have predicted this.
As human beings, we tend to orient more towards negative than towards the positive, because those are the things that are threatening.
“Concern on the part of the public and Congress about the harmful influence of media violence on children dates back to the 1950s and 1960s, and remains strong today,” Dr. Dale Kunkel told the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation in 2007. “The legitimacy of that concern is corroborated by extensive scientific research that has accumulated over the past 40 years.”
Kunkel’s right. But we have over 40 years of evidence that he’s right. What, in the obsessive search for the negatives, have we missed? What else can we discover about our consumption of media—and television in particular?
“We always seem to start from this place of, ‘How could this cause problems?’ rather than this place of, ‘How can this be wonderful?'” says Nabi. Media researchers are just beginning to look at the second question, and the fact that it took this long probably shouldn’t surprise anyone, either.
In studying the media—and, one assumes, pretty much anything else—there are two forces that push researchers toward negative questions, Nabi says, rather than toward questions that could reveal as-yet-uncovered positive health effects.
“One is, as human beings, we tend to orient more towards negative than towards the positive, because those are the things that are threatening,” she says. “So when there’s something new, we go, ‘Uh oh, how could this be a danger?'”
The second reason reflects a similar dynamic, but this time on the part of the forces that hold the university’s purse strings.
“That’s where the [research] funding comes from,” Nabi says. “People don’t say, ‘Hey, let’s study the good stuff.’ They go, ‘Could this be bad? How might this be damaging to kids? We need to find out.'”
In the end, if they’re not careful, the zeitgeist and the researchers end up in the same place. “Watching TV is for slobs,” says the cultural narrative. Then, when we watch TV, we’re left to conclude that we are slobs. Like the images flickering on the screen, though, this is just a story.
4. TV can be a social experience.
If you want to know what a society values, look at what they say about raising their kids. In our case, that means a quick peek through some top mommy blogs. “The Hook: How to Get Kids Reading,” blares a recent headline from MomBlogSociety. “How to get kids excited about reading,” CoolMomPicks promises to reveal. “Creative Ways to Foster a Love of Reading in Your Kids,” says ScaryMommy.
Guess how many pieces about getting kids to look at screens you’ll find on these blogs. And while we’re the first to champion the power of the written word (pow!), why must it come at the expense of another way to consume a story?
“Parents, a lot, are like, ‘Oh, I feel so terrible. I’m the worst mom. I just put my kid in front of the iPad,'” Nabi says. “Well, it’s not the iPad, necessarily. It’s the amount of time [kids] use it, and it’s what they’re actually doing on it.”
Novels have their strengths. So do television shows. For example, television—like film, theater, opera before it—can be a shared experience. You join your friends for movie night. You and a spouse cuddle during a favorite show. Your mother, your father, your child, your cat: You don’t always watch alone.
“Fundamentally, it doesn’t matter how technologically sophisticated we become; emotional connectivity remains a core part of being human,” Drs. Shoba Sreenivisan and Linda E. Weinberg wrote for Psychology Today. “We need each other—maybe not in the ways that characterized us evolutionarily, but for a need that remains essential for psychological survival.”
5. Sometimes, TV is the only social experience you’re capable of.
The value of TV as a social experience is thrown into high relief in cases of illness or despair or even during end-of-life care. There are times you don’t want to talk or aggressively socialize, and further, there are times that you simply cannot. Group television viewing offers what must be the best way to be together without having to fill the silence.
“If you could use [television] in a way that helps to build these social connections, and these bonds, then that could actually lead to longer-term stress relief,” Nabi says. “There’s evidence that social support and social connections aid in dealing with stress, in mitigating the negative effects of stress on health when someone is already dealing with, particularly, a health challenge.”
I’ll Go First: TV Has Helped
I have mourned deaths and nursed broken hearts and had run-of-the-mill rotten days by the hundreds. But I had, and have, a cure. No, not a cure—there is no cure—but a balm—and it is there for me, right there on the DVD shelf where it’s stood since, well, since people used to buy DVDs and put them on shelves. It is called Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
For you it might be Empire or Macgyver or Keeping Up with the Kardashians. Maybe it’s the Harry Potter movies or the works of Terrence Malick. Maybe it’s Family Matters, maybe Game of Thrones. The point is, maybe you can identify. Maybe you depend on television and film to be an emotional release valve the way we do. And maybe it’s time to stand up and be counted—without the guilt.
Nabi doesn’t dispute the research on the downsides of media use, she assures us. “It is real, but there are silver linings here, too. And it might not just be silver linings,” she says. “It might be sunshine and rainbows.”