Your Unhappy Brain on Television
TV: Short-term fun, long-term problem
Posted Oct 06, 2011
TS Eliot on TV

The remarkable thing about television is that it permits several million people to laugh at the same joke and still feel lonely. – T.S. Eliot

Radio and TV waves

These are the longest wavelength, lowest frequency part of the electromagnetic spectrum family.

When radiowaves are absorbed by an aerial the electrons in the aerial vibrate at the same frequency as the radiowaves. This gives rise to an alternating voltage (current) – that is all they expect you to know at this level.

Each system contains a transmitter. This consists of a source of electrical energy, producing alternating current of a desired frequency of oscillation. The transmitter contains a system to modulate (change) some property of the energy produced to ‘print’ a signal on it. This modulation might be as simple as turning the energy on and off, or altering more subtle properties such as amplitude, frequency, phase, or combinations of these properties. The transmitter sends the modulated electrical energy to a tuned resonant antenna; this structure converts the rapidly-changing alternating current into an electromagnetic wave that can move through free space (sometimes with a particular polarisation).
Electromagnetic waves travel through space either directly, or have their path altered by reflection, refraction or diffraction. The intensity of the waves diminishes due to geometric dispersion (the inverse-square law); some energy may also be absorbed by the intervening medium in some cases. Noise will generally alter the desired signal; this electromagnetic interference comes from natural sources, as well as from artificial sources such as other transmitters and accidental radiators. Noise is also produced at every step due to the inherent properties of the devices used. If the magnitude of the noise is large enough, the desired signal will no longer be discernible; this is the fundamental limit to the range of radio communications.
The electromagnetic wave is intercepted by a tuned receiving antenna; this structure captures some of the energy of the wave and returns it to the form of oscillating electrical currents. At the receiver, these currents are demodulated, which is conversion to a usable signal form by a detector sub-system. The receiver is “tuned” to respond preferentially to the desired signals, and reject undesired signals.
Early radio systems relied entirely on the energy collected by an antenna to produce signals for the operator. Radio became more useful after the invention of electronic devices such as the vacuum tube and later the transistor, which made it possible to amplify weak signals. Today radio systems are used for applications from walkie-talkie children’s toys to the control of space vehicles, as well as for broadcasting, and many other applications.

Television’s role in influencing the mental and physical state of our society has been profound. Most people seem to enjoy coming home at night, and turning on the TV. Like any opiate, it’s a way for many to “get away” from the stress of our day. In the short term TV seems to have a relaxing effect. Studies using functional MRI during TV viewing have determined that humorous television programming can activate regions of the brain called the insular cortex and amygdala, which are areas activated and needed for balanced mood .

Unfortunately, more long-term use of TV seems to be where the problem comes in: watching television over 2 hours per day and eating while watching television are each associated with obesity . In our country, 60 percent of people are obeseā€”and this obesity is a leading cause of a lower life expectancy, cardiovascular disease, cancer and diabetes. It has been shown that each extra daily hour of television kids watch is associated with an 8 percent increase in developing depressive symptoms by young adulthood (3).

Although many people report “lack of time” as a major barrier to regular exercise, the average American adult spends over four hours per day watching television (4,5).

Analysis of over 30 years of U.S. national data shows that spending time watching television may contribute to viewers’ happiness in the moment, but the longer-term effects are not good. In these studies, participants reported that on a scale from 0 (dislike) to 10 (greatly enjoy), TV-watching was nearly an 8. Despite these high marks, it seems that the enjoyment from TV was very short lasting, and gave way to discontent. What was found is that unhappy people glue themselves to the television 30 percent more than happy people. Unhappy people report watching 25 hours of television a week while happy people sit for an average of 19 hours (which is still quite an alarming number). These results held even after taking into account education, income, age and marital status. This data from nearly 30,000 adults led the authors of this study to conclude that:

“TV doesn’t really seem to satisfy people over the long haul the way that social involvement or reading a newspaper does. We looked at eight to ten activities that happy people engage in, and for each one, the people who did the activities moreā€”visiting others, going to church, all those thingsā€”were more happy. TV was the one activity that showed a negative relationship. Unhappy people did it more, and happy people did it less. The data suggest to us that the TV habit may offer short-run pleasure at the expense of long-term malaise. (6)

In short, happy people do not watch a lot of TV.