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Could a TV Free Lifestyle Improve Your Mental Health?

We all know that watching a lot of television is bad for us, right? Many studies have been conducted which show powerful relationships between frequent television viewing and obesity. The consistency of these studies is so strong that the CDC has recently listed excess television viewing as a risk factor for obesity. But what about the role television plays in psychological health? A recent study conducted by researchers at Eastern Washington University was one of the first to examine the psychosocial characteristics of television free individuals. This study explored psychosocial differences across different levels of television viewing, with the hypothesis that television free individuals would display a more positive psychosocial health profile.

A nation-wide sample was recruited for this study and participants were categorized according to their television viewing habits, with approximately one third of the sample falling into each of these categories: (a) no television, (b) up to 2 hours per day, and (c) over 2 hours per day. These participants were then compared on a variety of psychosocial indicators of health, such as depression, hopelessness, loneliness, shyness, self-esteem, life satisfaction, weight satisfaction, and tendency toward disordered eating. Tests were run separately for males and females.

Interestingly, results of this study revealed non-significant effects for males, suggesting that television-viewing status has little impact on the psychosocial health of men. These results are incongruent with previous research on adolescent males (Page, et al., 1996), which found that frequent male television viewers were more shy, lonely, hopeless, and had a higher tendency toward disordered eating than their less frequent viewing peers. In this study, frequent male viewers appear to be no different than moderate (up to 2 hour per day group) and television free individuals on the indicators of psychosocial health. Thus, for males, the hypothesis that being television free is associated with an enhanced psychosocial profile is not supported.

For females, results revealed that both the TV free group and the up to 2 hour per day group differed, in the hypothesized direction, from the over 2 hour per day group on all of the variables included in this study! Interestingly, the TV free group and the up to 2 hour per day group did not significantly differ on any of the dependent measures. These findings suggest that the female subjects in this sample who watch limited amounts of television (less than two hours per day), share similar psychosocial health profiles as individuals who do not watch television. Both groups, however, show an enhanced psychosocial profile versus study participants who watch more than 2 hours per day.

Relative risk estimates reflect the above findings with females who watch television more than 2 hours per day 3.05 times more likely to be depressed, 3.07 times more likely to be lonely, 2.66 times more likely to be hopeless, and .24 times as likely to have high self-esteem than the television free group. These results add to the growing body of evidence showing strong associations between frequent television viewing and psychosocial decrement.

Results of this study suggest that the 2-hour mark per day may be an important threshold. Since the average American watches approximately 4 hours of television per day (Nielsen, 2000), the 2-hour threshold is only half as much television as most of us currently view. Too much television displaces time that could have otherwise been devoted to reading, problem-solving, homework, hobby development, and interaction with family and friends. Too little time spent in social interaction could be a factor in explaining that heavier television viewers were found to be shier, lonelier, and more depressed than TV free or light television viewers. Does this mean that most Americans are putting their psychosocial health at risk? Possibly. The strong associations found in this study between television viewing and psychosocial health should not be taken lightly.

We all know intuitively we should cut back on our television viewing. Now, we have some evidence as to exactly “why” we should cut back.

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