From playground violence to the election of Donald Trump, it seems there’s nothing its critics won’t blame on Evil Edna, the television set in the corner of the living room. It’s long been a focus of attention for psychologists too, of course, who seem more than willing to offer an opinion on whether the “goggle box” is or isn’t good for us. And why not… Americans spend on average three hours each evening transfixed to its screen, the British even more so. It’s unsurprising therefore that this strange invention – pretty much surpassed by computers and other devices anyway – continues to be such a fertile are for academic research. But what does that research actually say?
The honest answer is “very little”. Statistically speaking, the results of most studies either fail to achieve a satisfactory confidence level or, if they do, the results are not particularly impressive. Nonetheless, a rather unsubstantiated consensus seems to have developed that suggests the good old “telly” is probably bad for us, at least in the sense that prolonged viewing can make us unhappy. The logic at work here? Television takes us away from the things that make us happy, such as hobbies and pastimes, and it also keeps us indoors away from established environmental factors that encourage positive effect.
In a way, this line of argument – even if true – is based purely on circumstantial evidence. Saying TV makes us unhappy because it keeps us away from things that would make us happier doesn’t necessarily follow through. Moreover, interesting new research by Deniz Bayraktaroglu and his colleagues suggests that we may be looking at the whole problem the wrong way round anyway! In a large-scale diary study of almost 1700 adults, the authors found no relationship between hours spent viewing one day and being less happy the next – but they did find that a negative mood does correlate with more hours glued to the box the following day.
So where does this leave us? Well, we still can’t say watching TV makes us unhappy, but we can argue convincingly that being unhappy makes us more inclined to watch TV. It’s not immediately clear why this should be the case, but it seems to me that the most likely explanation is that TV is a source of distraction when we are feeling down. Comfort viewing, you might say.