Dependence on Media

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Millions of Americans, and no doubt many more millions of people around the world, believe that television viewing can be addictive. Although only 2 percent and 12.5 percent of American adults in two separate surveys believed that they were addicted, 65 percent to 70 percent believed that others were addicted (McIlwraith, 1990; McIlwraith, Jacobvitz, Kubey, and Alexander, 1991). Many millions more appear to experience some misgiving about how much they view. According to a 1990 Gallup poll, 42 percent of adult Americans reported spending "too much time watching television"—up from 31 percent in the late 1970s.

Although it is tempting to use a term such as "addiction" when referring to individuals who report more than sixty hours of viewing each week, the term connotes different things to different people, and it is likely that less confusion will result if more care is taken in the choice of words.

The prime diagnostic manual used by psychotherapists throughout North America, the American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSMV-IV, 1994), does not even use the term "addiction." Instead, the committees that wrote the DSM preferred the term "substance dependence." Still, there are researchers and clinicians who use the term "addiction." As a result, this entry also uses that term from time to time.

How the Viewing Habit Is Formed

Giving thought to how people's viewing habits are formed can be helpful. Among the primary experiences that people report when viewing television is "relaxation," but research suggests that the relaxed and passive bodily and mental states that are associated with television viewing may also make it difficult for many people to turn the set off. According to Robert Kubey and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (1990), the passivity of viewing appears, for many people, to continue after the set is turned off (i.e., the feeling of passivity spills over into how they feel afterward).

As noted by Gary Steiner (1963), it is critical to know that many people also use television to escape negative and unpleasant moods. In fact, according to Robert McIlwraith (1990), adults who called themselves "TV addicts" were significantly more likely than "nonaddicted" viewers to report using television to cope with negative moods such as loneliness, sadness, anxiety, and anger.

Self-labeled "addicts" also say that they are particularly likely to use television when they have nothing to do and when they need to fill open time (McIlwraith, 1990). In comparison with viewers who watch less than two hours of television a day, viewers who watch more than four hours of television per day generally report feeling worse when they are alone and when they are in unstructured situations, such as when they are waiting in line or when they are "between" activities (Kubey, 1986). These findings suggest that dependence on television develops in some people partly as a function of their need to fill the unpleasant emotional voids that accompany solitude and/or open time.

In both the United States (Smith, 1986) and Canada (McIlwraith, 1990), researchers have found that self-reported television "addicts" score significantly higher than "nonaddicts" on measures of mindwandering, distractibility, boredom, and unfocused daydreaming. This all presents the possibility of a vicious circle. Negative moods and thoughts that people experience when they are alone and when they are in unstructured situations can be quickly and easily escaped by viewing television. However, as a result of spending many hours viewing television over many years, some people may become unpracticed in spending time alone, entertaining themselves, or possibly even in readily and simply directing their own attention. This could, in turn, lead some people to experience negative moods and thoughts when they are alone or in unstructured situations—resulting in their returning to television viewing for escape and comfort.

People who live alone and/or feel lonely appear to be particularly inclined to turn to television viewing and may become even more uncomfortable when alone and left without the quasi-social experience the medium offers. Viewers who watch a large amount of television do tend to have more time on their hands and spend more time alone than do viewers who watch only a small amount. The demographic groups that tend to have higher proportions of people who watch a large amount of television are the elderly, the unemployed, and people who are recently divorced or separated.

Television viewing also helps people relax, and anecdotal reports indicate that it relaxes them quickly. Within moments of sitting or lying down and pushing the power button of a television set, many viewers report feeling more relaxed than they did before. Because the reinforcement of relaxation occurs quickly, people readily learn to associate viewing with relaxation. The association is then repeatedly reinforced through simple operant conditioning because viewers remain relaxed throughout viewing but not afterward (unlike a general feeling of passivity that does seem to last after viewing) (Kubey and Csikszentmihalyi, 1990).

The quick onset of relaxation is particularly telling when compared to the use of certain drugs that prove to be habit-forming or "addictive." According to Alvin Swonger and Larry Constantine (1976, p. 235), "The attribute of a drug that most contributes to its abuse liability is not its ability to produce tolerance or physical dependence but rather its ability to reinforce the drug-taking behaviors." This is why both the speed with which a drug takes effect and how quickly it leaves the body can be critical factors as to whether or not dependence occurs. Reinforcement does not need to be experienced consciously for dependence to occur.

Some tranquilizers, for example, those whose effects do not last as long as the effects of other drugs, are often more habit-forming precisely because the user is more aware that the effects of the drug are wearing off. When one starts feeling bad again rather quickly after the drug's effect is no longer experienced, the tendency to turn to the drug again for relief will be greater than if its effects were to have worn off more gradually.

Similarly, or even more notably, the change in mood that one experiences when one suddenly stops viewing television can be abrupt. Many people will report a subtle sense of having given something up when they first turn the set off. Many parents find it easier to get children to turn off the set if the parents can interest the children in another activity.

According to Kubey (1984), viewing begets more viewing because one must generally keep watching in order to keep feeling relaxed. In short, relative to the other possible means that are available to bring about distraction and relaxation, television is among the quickest, and certainly among the least expensive. Unlike engaging in conversation or playing games, one does not need anyone else to be present in order to watch television. With the incredible ubiquity of television and other media, self-control over one's viewing habits may be more of a challenge in the contemporary environment than it was in the notso-distant past.

Using DSM-IV as a guide can be illuminating, and the case has been made by Kubey (1996) that were television a substance, there is little question that people could legitimately be given diagnoses of dependence. Indeed, Dr. Allen J. Frances, who oversaw the 1994 revision of the manual concluded that "Under the broader definition, many kinds of compulsive behavior could be considered addictive, including obsessive sex or compulsive television viewing" (Goleman, 1990, p. C8).

DSM-IV lists seven possible criteria for making a diagnosis of substance dependence. Only three of the criteria must apply in order to make a diagnosis of "dependence." However, five of the seven diagnostic criteria might readily be applied to television viewing and its concomitant behaviors and effects.

One of the most interesting questions to consider is whether people experience anything akin to withdrawal if and when they stop viewing or using other media. In 1963, Steiner presented the following fascinating individual accounts of what happened when a family lost the use of a television set due to a technological malfunction (in a time when many families had only one set): "The family walked around like a chicken without a head." "It was terrible. We did nothing—my husband and I talked." "Screamed constantly. Children bothered me and my nerves were on edge.Tried to interest them in games, but impossible. TV is part of them" (p. 99).

Charles Winick's (1988) review of studies of families whose television sets were in repair led him to the following conclusion:

The first three or four days for most persons were the worst, even in many homes where viewing was minimal and where there were other ongoing activities. In over half of all the households, during these first few days of loss, the regular routines were disrupted, family members had difficulties in dealing with the newly available time, anxiety and aggressions were expressed, and established expectations for the behavior of other household members were not met. People living alone tended to be bored and irritated. Over four-fifths of the respondents reported moderate to severe dislocations during this period.… The fifth to eighth day represented, in many cases, some form of readjustment to the new situation.… By thesecond week, a move toward adaptation to the situation was common [pp. 221-222].

Video Games, Computer Games, and the Internet

Contemporary concerns are focused as often on computer and video games and Internet habits as they are on television viewing. There has been much less research on video games, but it is not difficult to use many of the explanations regarding television dependence to help explain people's affinity for video games. As with television, the games offer the player an escape and distraction, and as with television, players quickly learn that they momentarily feel better when they play the games—leading to a kind of psychological reinforcement.

Computer and video games also have particular characteristics that make children and adults especially likely to report that they are "addicted" to them. First, there is the general challenge posed by the game and the wish to overcome it and succeed—something largely or entirely missing with television viewing. Second, there is the critical characteristic that the games are designed to increase the level of challenge and difficulty as the player increases his or her playing ability.

Psychic pleasure accompanies the improvement of one's skills and the increased mastery of most any human endeavor. In being programmed to challenge players at their current ability, video and computer games offer a nearly perfect level of difficulty for the player who enjoys such challenges. One may search for months or even years to find another tennis or chess player who has a very comparable ability, but many programmed games will provide a near-perfect matching of challenge with player skill. Thus, computerized games also make extended play extraordinarily common because one is feeling neither bored by too easy an opponent nor too anxious by not being able to match the level of competition.

Computer and video games offer all the essential features that are likely to result in a "flow" experience. This term refers to a period of intense, enjoyable, high concentration and involvement resulting from being engaged in an activity where skills and challenges are closely matched and where rapid feedback is available regarding one's performance (Csikszentmihalyi, 1975; Kubey and Larson, 1990). The games give the player nearly instantaneous feedback as to whether the last activity (shot, jump, run, or whatever) was successful. In computer play, as with sports, musical performance, and certain hobbies, the feedback is quick and clear, and insofar as it often occurs at the height of one's own personal level of performance, it is no wonder that the games are extremely engaging and, perhaps, "addictive."

The latest media "addiction" to be proposed both popularly and in academic and clinical circles is so-called Internet addiction. Few journal articles using scientific methodologies and subjected to the rigors of peer review have been published. Much of the existing work has been published on websites. There is little question, though, that as with other media before it, a wide variety of Internet activities have a very strong "pull" or "hold" on users (Young, 1998).

What appears to distinguish the Internet most from the usual media that are examined in terms of dependence is that the Internet is interactive and that it can be readily used to sustain or form social relationships. Playing computer games on the "net" can doubtlessly entail forms of involvement and/or dependency that are very much akin to those related to video games. People may also become dependent on the Internet in connection with hobbies, whether it be genealogy or baseball card collecting. However, insofar as people can communicate readily online with friends, relatives, and professional colleagues—regardless of distance or time—this relatively new technology provides a whole new array of social possibilities. If people have been dependent on the telephone for social contact, it is no wonder that the Internet adds all manner of new possibilities. Being connected with others when one is alone—at any time of day and at very little expense—is very attractive, and there can be little doubt that some individuals are becoming dependent on the Internet. Future research will undoubtedly provide important insights related to this phenomenon.

Dependence on Pornography

A final important consideration is the phenomenon of pornography, a media form that also has often been cited as being addictive. Indeed, with the huge growth in the availability of pornography that has accompanied the availability of video playback technology in the home since the early 1980s, and now with the development of interactive pornography available via CD-ROM and the Internet, the concern over the potentially addictive properties of pornography will undoubtedly be an issue for some time.

It must be noted that research and reporting on the effects of pornography have long been politicized, and thus it is more difficult to weigh the validity and veracity of some contributions to the literature. As with other debates that are related to media effects, it is very difficult to disentangle cause from effect when dealing with pornography. Still, a number of researchers and clinicians report significant evidence for dependence and addiction.

Authorities often find large private pornography collections in the residences of people who are arrested for sexual crimes (Cline, 1994; Reed, 1994), especially pedophiles (Lanning and Burgess, 1989). At a minimum, it can be said that a relationship between the frequent use of pornography and problematic sexual disorders exists for some individuals. Whether the pornography is merely symptomatic of the disorder or plays a causal role is very difficult to establish.

For some observers, there is little doubt that both negative effects and pornography addiction do indeed occur. M. Douglas Reed (1994), a practicing psychiatrist, is explicit in his presentation of specific criteria that he believes would constitute an addiction to pornography. He notes that DSMIV itself recognizes that many paraphilias (i.e., compulsive sexual deviances) frequently involve the use and collection of pornography. Reed lists thirteen paraphilias and how they are related to the use of pornography.

Victor Cline (1994), a clinical psychologist who has treated hundreds of people who have sexual disorders, describes a four-step process in the involvement of his patients with pornography. First, Cline describes an "addiction effect" wherein the person comes back repeatedly for more material because it provides "a very powerful sexual stimulant or aphrodisiac effect followed by sexual release most often through masturbation" (p. 233). Second, Cline describes an "escalation effect" in which there is an "increasing need for more of the stimulant to get the same effect [that had been obtained initially]" (p. 233). Third, Cline observes "desensitization" in which things that might have once seemed shocking become less so and are thereby legitimized. Fourth, Cline claims that there is an "increasing tendency to act out sexually the behaviors viewed in the pornography" (p. 234).

A number of other psychological and physiological mechanisms have been suggested for how pornography addiction might develop. Among the most common is that sexual gratification is a powerful reinforcer (Lyons, Anderson, and Larson, 1994). For Cline, and for many other observers, pornography provides powerful occasions in which modeling and imitative learning can occur.

Dolf Zillmann (1994) has proposed that in many instances, "initial sexual dissatisfaction drives exposure to pornography" and a vicious circle then ensues. With consumption of pornography, the dissatisfaction grows stronger and draws the person into further consumption. It is important to point out that video recorders and the Internet have led to an explosion in pornographic materials and that such materials are far more accessible to people, including children and adolescents, than they have ever been before. This is important since, if a pornography habit—or addiction—can indeed develop, it would seem more likely to develop if pornographic materials can be easily obtained and if the use of such materials is socially sanctioned.

See also:Pornography; Pornography, Legal Aspects; Ratings for Video Games, Software, and the Internet; Video and Computer Games and the Internet; Violence in the Media, Attraction to; Violence in the Media, History of Research on.


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Robert Kubey

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Dependence on Media

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