Academic journal article Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media

"I', Addicted to Television": The Personality, Imagination, and TV Watching Patterns of Self-Identified TV Addicts

Academic journal article Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media

"I', Addicted to Television": The Personality, Imagination, and TV Watching Patterns of Self-Identified TV Addicts

Article excerpt

The term "television addiction" first appeared in the popular press (e.g., Winn, 1977) bolstered only by anecdotal evidence, but it gained widespread acceptance among parents, educators, and journalists (Milkman & Sunderwirth, 1987; Winn, 1987). Comparing reports in the popular literature about TV addiction with the psychiatric criteria for addictions contained in the American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV, 1994), Kubey suggested that the behaviors people described in these popular accounts paralleled five of the seven DSM-IV criteria used for diagnosing substance dependence: television consumed large amounts of their time; they watched TV longer or more often than they intended; they made repeated unsuccessful efforts to cut down their TV watching; they withdrew from or gave up important social, family, or occupational activities in order to watch television; and they reported "withdrawal"-like symptoms of subjective discomfort when deprived of TV (Kubey, 1996). Although television dependence is not recognized as a mental disorder by the DSM-IV, Kubey argued that television addiction as described in the popular literature has similarities to pathological gambling, the only purely behavioral addiction or dependence disorder not involving use of a psychoactive substance which appears in DSM-IV (American Psychiatric Association, 1994).(1)

A symposium at the convention of the American Psychological Association in 1990 brought together for the first time psychologists who had conducted empirical studies of television addiction/dependency (McIlwraith, Smith Jacobvitz, Kubey, & Alexander, 1990). The working definition of television addiction proposed by this group will be used for the purposes of the present study: television addiction can be defined as heavy television watching that is subjectively experienced as being to some extent involuntary, displacing more productive activities, and difficult to stop or curtail (Kubey, 1990; McIlwraith, Smith Jacobvitz, Kubey, & Alexander, 1991; Smith, 1986).

Television addiction is widely believed to exist. Smith (1986) reported that 65% of respondents surveyed believed TV was addictive. McIlwraith (1990) reported that 70% of a sample of university students believed television was addictive. This belief is certainly widespread among educators and parents concerned about literacy (Winn, 1987), and it appears that social policy regarding television may be strongly influenced by a popular belief for which there is nearly no empirical support. Unlike the question of TV violence effects, which has been exhaustively researched, there have been very few studies of TV addiction. To date, there are no data to tell us whether television addiction exists as a clinical phenomenon or whether it is simply a colloquial shorthand expression of ambivalent feelings about the television medium (Alexander, 1990).

The research reported in this article was an attempt to explore what people mean when they describe themselves as "addicted to television."

Theories of Television Addiction/Dependence

The possibility that television produces dependency leading to prolonged involuntary viewing is of concern to students of media because this effect may be the first in a chain of other effects. Television will have little (direct) impact on someone who does not watch it. If there is something about the television medium itself which compels viewers to watch it for long periods of time, then this opens the gates to the effects of heavy viewing. Many effects of television are thought to be effects of heavy or prolonged viewing, for example, displacement of other recreational activities (Williams, 1986), desensitization (Drabman & Thomas, 1974), impairment in the development of imagination and imaginative play (Singer, 1993), and cultivation effects (Gerbner, Gross, Morgan, & Signorielli, 1994). …

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