Pressing pause on screen time

Pressing pause on screen time
Watching too much television is a silent problem in Ireland, writes Colm Fitzpatrick

It’s hard not to marvel at today’s technologically advanced world; the fact that we can connect with family and friends from different sides of the planet; find any desired information with a device that fits neatly in our pocket; or order items from abroad to watch them land at our front door the next morning, is simply dumbfounding. We are undoubtedly living in a new era where technology is no longer a commodity but an integral part of our everyday lives. One notable piece of equipment which has stood the test of time, and continues to advance yearly, is the humble television. Invented in 1927, this electronic device now has the capabilities of broadcasting breaking news live, sucking us into gripping movies, and educating us in all matters be it history or science. With the push of a button, the world can enter our home in moving picture form.

While many choose not to own a television, Irish people are particularly susceptible to screen time with it taking up a huge chunk of their day. According to Television Audience Measurement (TAM) Ireland, last year TV consumption had an extremely high daily, weekly and monthly rate, with live television reaching over 80% of Irish adults weekly throughout 2018. The report states: “In the last decade, despite disruption from so many new technologies and video services, TV viewing has remained remarkably resilient and there has been very little change in the amount of time we spend watching Broadcaster content.”

Television has become a key component in our lives, accessible to all ages and all minds. There are clearly numerous benefits to sitting down as a family and watching up-to-date news or informative and entertaining programmes, but there is also a dark side to the picture box.

Television addiction is becoming more prevalent in Ireland, as a greater number of people become glued to seductive series and an endless ream of channels which can be accessed when boredom broaches. The well-known US author David Foster Wallace touched on this topic over a decade ago when he said: “Particularly, when you have a remote control, you go to a different channel. And if you don’t like that channel you can go to a different channel. One of the reasons I can’t own a TV is that I’ve started having this thing where I become convinced there’s something really good on another channel and that I’m missing it.

“So instead of watching, I’m scanning anxiously back and forth for this thing that I think I want and I don’t even know what it is.”

The sheer inundation of watching material available to the viewer makes it very difficult to set down the remote control and take back control.

Unfortunately, given how prevalent the television is in the household and how many people plan their day around their favourite programmes, the seriousness of this problem is either scoffed at or not fully recognised.

“It’s an acceptable form of lifestyle. People go are always talking about TV shows as if it’s normal to spend all those hours watching a box at the weekend,” says psychiatrist Phil Gormley of Walk and Talk Therapy, adding that when people go home in the evenings, mental, spiritual and physical wellbeing should be a priority, rather than resolving to the TV screen.

This modern revolution means that addiction also extends to generations of young people who are technologically agile and can binge-watch season after season in one sitting.”

While Phil explains that we don’t have comprehensive knowledge on how binge-watching has affects our mental health, plenty of studies have shown that this addiction leads to a shorter life-span and increases the likelihood of over-eating and depression. Unless, you’re living with or are close to someone with this addiction, it’s almost impossible identify. Tell-tale signs include a loss of connection with friends and family, prioritising time on the couch over time exercising, and constantly using it as a way of avoiding work or study. When one’s life becomes orientated around the next best series or a fear of missing out on a programme, then the possibility of television addiction is on the cards. The ability for a device at home that can briefly allow us to forget about our real-world problems is an enticing option, and many fall prey to this trap.

“Take for example someone with depression and they watch a lot of TV – you’d be fairly sure that the TV is not helping their depression. If they got walking, swimming, got into great outdoors, that would help. You’d be nearly guaranteed that TV does not help depression,” Phil says.

Adults aren’t the only demographic prone to this problem. Programmes are no longer confined to the lounge or sitting room, as instant streaming services like Netflix and Amazon Prime make modern TV available to us on our phones, laptops and other portable devices. Whether you’re on a long train commute or a flight to a different country, movies and shows are easily accessible.

This modern revolution means that addiction also extends to generations of young people who are technologically agile and can binge-watch season after season in one sitting. At one time in history children were told that watching too much TV would damage their eyes, while today it plays a formative part of their development.

Often people watch TV to fill time because they want to avoid stimulation or their responsibilities, and this option creates a portal to another world momentarily.

“I would suggest ‘crutch’ is a good word. In all fairness, it’s a milder crutch than all the other addictions, but it surely is a crutch. Again, you have a small problem, people will say ‘It does no harm’, and in some ways it doesn’t do that much harm but what it does do is leads us to not exploring life to its fullest,” Phil explains. Rather than going out to play badminton or talking to other people, we instead focus on the screen which is an ultimately unfulfilling endeavour, he adds. When TV begins to stifle your well-being, creativity and engagement with others, it’s worth considering whether you fit into the category of TV addict. And while you might not be a fully-fledged member of this group, analysing how much time you spend in front of the box is worth the effort.

When it comes to watching television, going cold turkey isn’t a practical solution. It provides entertainment and education in a form different from books and live shows, and when integrated into a healthy lifestyle can be a source of respite and inspiration. In this vein, instead of breaking up with your TV, the goal should be to improve your relationship with it. Small steps like truthfully monitoring how much time you spend in front of the screen, keeping a balance between informative and entertaining programmes, and avoiding television while eating will make a huge difference in your consumption.

If TV is currently your outlet for dealing with emotional issues like a break-up, Phil says interacting with others is vital and that over-reliance on television won’t solve anything.

“Getting out and talking to people, going to therapy, going to Mass, whatever it is you’re into will help you through it, but TV won’t help you through it – it’s a pacifier.”

And as any parent knows, if a child wants to fully develop, it must grow out of its pacifier.

For more information about addiction problems, see: