Have you ever wondered what is going on in your brain when you watch TV? For example, why binge-watching a favourite series or even just randomly clicking on your YouTube feed can feel like such a welcome break? Your eyes might get tired and your head feel heavy, but you could still continue hours more in front of the screen—something that rarely happens when, say, you’re reading a book.
My personal experience has been that, in spite of how tired I feel, if I can’t do anything—literally nothing other than perhaps falling asleep—still I can watch a film or whatever YouTube would throw my way and enjoy it, too. When on multiple occasions this turned out to be the case, it dawned on me: if my brain is so dead tired that I can’t think about a school problem, study, or even read for fun, how mindless should watching TV be that, regardless of the situation I am in, I can still do it without any resistance from my brain?
An overwhelming number of studies agree that passive screen time (by which we mean watching TV and other types of screen viewing as well as playing video games that require no physical activity) can “rot your brain,” as the saying goes. This can be a result of its direct effect on the brain as one recent article published in Nature stated: “[w]atching television for more than 3.5 hours per day,” in adults older than 50 years old, “is associated with a dose-response decline in verbal memory over the following six years, independent of confounding variables.… television viewing for more than 3.5 hours per day is related to cognitive decline.”
Alternatively, watching TV can indirectly affect the brain through “lack of physical activity and intellectual pursuits,” which can have “obvious physical and cognitive consequences.” It’s easy to see how this indirect effect through “lack of physical activity” is actually bound up with an overall adverse effect on health, leading to an increase in “risk of death from heart disease, strokes and even cancer.”
There’s some fMRI evidence to the contrary, indicating that—provided we accept the underlying theory which takes “more blood” to stand for “more activity”—watching TV induces a lot of neural activity in one’s brain. But why, going back to my personal experience, watching TV feels so mindless, so relaxing, and a seemingly good way to decompress? One answer is to call into question the evidence or the theory, of course, but, be that as it may, the better way to counterbalance the increased blood flow activity phenomenon is to pin the good, relaxed feeling post-TV watching on “the chemicals being released in our brain” such as dopamine which is associated with enjoyable activities.
Should dopamine be the missing link, the big picture remains as grim: your brain is still “rotting,” so to speak, in other ways; your body, through lack of physical activity, is turning into a ticking bomb as you age; but hormones trick you into thinking that nothing is amiss and still keep you glued to your screens. To put it another way, fMRI evidence actually exacerbates the previous findings instead of ameliorating them.
Conclusion: When (Not) to Watch TV
Given what we have seen so far, it’s sensible to err on the side of personal experience and the received wisdom that less screen viewing is physically and mentally better for our health. On the other hand, for a good deal of preventive behaviour to be effective we need to not stray too far from the golden mean. In other words, with phenomena such as watching TV which can be harmful in high doses but perhaps even useful when kept to a reasonable limit, it just makes more sense to know where to set the limit and when to engage in that behaviour.
The study published in Nature cited earlier takes 3.5 hours in adults 50+ years old as the cut-off number associated with cognitive decline. Other age groups would obviously have their own limits. But even for the age group of the study, i.e. people 50 or older, that does not mean if their passive screen time is 3 hours and 29 minutes everyday, they’d be fine! Firstly, this would obviously vary from individual to individual. Secondly, if you want to be on the safe side, it just makes a whole lot of sense to stay away as far from that boundary as possible.
But the more important question is when to spend your precious little time as passive screen time. From the case I have made so far, I think it shouldn’t be too controversial to conclude that we had better reserve most types of screen viewing for our downtime when we are ready to unwind and decompress. Personally I would find it a waste of time if in the prime of my day I decided to crash on my couch and start watching a film! Even clicking on your YouTube feed or, far worse, checking TikTok can become addictive so you shouldn’t think of them as totally innocuous habits when you’re waiting in a queue during your lunch break.
Therefore, let’s go over some practical steps:
- Leave (if possible) all passive screen time for your downtime.
- Beware of binge-watching short videos on social media feed during your breaks as these enticing and seemingly harmless clips are highly addictive.
- Before starting your screen-viewing time, see if you can set a limit on how much time you need to decompress—sometimes you’re too tired for such a question to even stand a chance, but do what you can to stay in control.
- Also, try to make a list of the shows and programmes which you find not only entertaining but also useful on some level beforehand—your (preferably long-term) interests can help to define what ‘useful’ means to you. You can even improve your social media feed, such as YouTube recommendations, by following good-quality channels, users, &c.
- Set reminders, digital or analogue (e.g. by posting a sign next to your TV), and, when it’s time to let go, do your best to break the spell of whatever it is you’re watching. It might be inconvenient the first few times, but you’ll love the sense of control before long. Practice makes perfect, and this is a regimen you won’t regret.