What is television addiction?

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No agreed upon definition exists for television addiction because there are no clear criteria on what constitutes normal versus problematic television watching. Experts have relied on self-reports from television viewers who typically report that they watch television to help them cope with negative and dysphoric mood states, loneliness, extreme anger, and social anxiety. Self-identified addicts look forward to television viewing because it imposes stability on an otherwise imbalanced mental state.
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Television addiction is not listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) because of the range of factors that complicate a definition. A significant effort was made in the early 1990s not only to solidify a meaningful definition but also to better identify health and safety concerns associated with excessive television viewing.

Surveying the available literature on this topic reveals a fascinating archive of how modern society has changed through the years. For instance, the most relevant books and journal articles on the topic of television addiction were published between 1986 and 1991; the research emphasis then shifted to issues of definition and the development of empirical methods that would better identify how, why, and when television viewing becomes an addiction.

The twenty-first century has seen television addiction research neglected for research on Internet, video gaming, and social media addictions and for psychological and sociological inquiry into how attitudes about addiction are shaped by television. Also, later research has focused on comorbid factors related to the health and safety of children (for example, obesity, smoking, alcohol use, underlying depression, and social anxiety) who watch excessive amounts of television. All of these factors have led to a neglect of the question of whether television addiction is real.

Excessive television viewing can have deleterious effects on one’s psychological and physical health, but it need not, and there is a growing body of research that suggests that television can be instructive, can provide needed escape, and can help children reach certain developmental milestones. Taken together though, several decades of research has not moved experts much closer to better understanding the dynamics of television addiction. Still, few people question that excessive television viewing can be problematic, particularly if persons find themselves unable to control or simply reduce their viewing habits.

No great concern has accompanied the inability to define television addiction. Rather than debate what number of hours and functional limitations define television addiction, research has taken up the task of exploring related pathogenic effects (physical and psychopathological) and of more methodically investigating the underlying psychological dynamics common to excessive television viewership.


Research into television addiction is plagued by the ubiquity of the self-report. The more serious attempts to create structured assessment protocol that differentiate normal versus problematic viewing have relied solely on persons self-referring and self-identifying as television addicts. This challenges both the validity and the reliability of television addiction research.

Still, much has been learned from researchers who have tried to create these assessment tools. Specifically, participant pools that self-identify as television addicts have opened the door to understanding many other psychological factors that contribute to excessive viewing.

It is not uncommon for people to report immediate relief in much the same way that substance abusers experience instant gratification after use, though a similar parallel emerges. The longer someone watches television the less likely it is that he or she continues to derive enjoyment from it. Whereas self-described television addicts report feeling immediately more relaxed after immersing themselves in television viewing, they also report feeling less stimulated over time (and oftentimes report feeling more emotionally and cognitively depleted).

People who experience social anxiety (or related loneliness) also may find themselves with decreasing levels of frustration tolerance over time, specifically with their own self-representations. Put another way, without the stimulation that television offers, addicts will experience increased frustration trying to cope with their own interpersonal and intrapersonal conflicts. As such, it becomes increasingly more difficult to understand and work through existing patterns of negative thoughts.


Behavioral addictions such as television addiction may receive more discussion in future revised editions of the DSM. Still, other prevalent behavioral addictions, such as Internet, texting, and video gaming addictions, may not be considered at all. Given the already strong foundation of research into many of these areas since about 2005, it is likely that revisions of the DSM will more carefully consider the range of issues common to these behavioral addictions.

Television addiction specifically has been neglected alongside issues related to Internet addiction and social media addiction. A cursory literature review indicates as much. Instead, focus has shifted toward the various health, safety, and psychological factors (such as underlying depression and anxiety) that conjoin with excessive television viewing. Furthermore, ongoing research is examining the role that substance-based addictions can have in perpetuating behavioral addictions, while related sociological research is examining the culture of reality television and how television, in general, shapes attitudes about addiction.

Efforts to define and discern television addiction from comorbid issues have largely abated. As a result, research paradigms have shifted toward the meaningful inclusion of television viewing into the analysis of other public health concerns and substance-based addictions.


Bryant, J., and D. Zillmann, eds. Perspectives on Media Effects. Hillsdale: Erlbaum, 1986. Print.

Condry, J. The Psychology of Television. Hillsdale: Erlbaum, 1989. Print.

Hollen, Kathryn H. “Television Addiction.” Encyclopedia of Addictions. Westport: Greenwood, 2009. Print.

Horvath, Cary W. “Measuring Television Addiction.” Journal of Broadcasting and Electronic Media 48 (2004): 378–98. Print.

Kubey, R. W. “Television Dependence, Diagnosis, and Prevention.” Tuning In to Young Viewers: Social Science Perspectives on Television. Ed. Tannis M. MacBeth. 1999. Thousand Oaks: Sage, 2013. Digital file.

Mcllwraith, R. D. “‘I’m Addicted to Television’: The Personality, Imagination, and TV Watching Patterns of Self-Identified TV Addicts.” Journal of Broadcasting and Electronic Media 42 (1998): 371–86. Print.

Mcllwraith, R. D., et al. “Television Addiction: Theories and Data behind the Ubiquitous Metaphor.” American Behavioral Scientist 35 (1991): 104–21. Print.

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