Despite decades of predictions that different types of internet usage would usurp TV viewing, how much TV and video Americans watch has actually gone up in the last 25 years. And now that we’ve entered the holiday season, screen time is about to reach another peak for most people in the western world. The days will be at their shortest, the weather cold, children will be out of school, and both broadcasters and online TV companies will be promoting and screening some of their best new shows as well as favorite old holiday movies. But why, when there are now so many other potential distractions in our fast-paced world, do people continue to watch so much TV and video?
According to new research by London Business School professor Patrick Barwise and senior researchers Steven Bellman and Virginia Beal at the University of South Australia, it’s because TV viewing still meets our psychological needs to relax and escape, as well as being a much cheaper time filler than other activities, and is now more available than ever.
The new study, along with Nielsen Media Research, shows that offline viewing of TV has remained constant for the past 25 years, but the growth of online viewing has led to a 15% bump in the overall consumption of television and video. In fact, we now, on average, spend about a quarter of our lives watching moving pictures on a screen – and most of this is still live or time-shifted TV on a TV set.
On one hand, the increase in sedentary activities has been shown to lead to a plethora of negative mental and physical health effects. But on the other hand, previous media research (including Professor Barwise’s own earlier studies of viewing behavior) has suggested that watching television helps people relax and allows them, at least temporarily, to escape from their day-to-day worries.
The new study confirms this interpretation by drawing together the results of recent lab-based research using electroencephalography (EEG) and reaction-time measures. More specifically, the authors found that watching TV and video “generated brainwaves associated with pleasant, wakeful relaxation and absorbed cognitive capacity, taking viewers’ minds off other things.” They conclude that viewing has increased because it still meets the same basic psychological needs as in the past but we now have many more opportunities to meet those needs throughout the day and, increasingly, wherever we are.
Evolution Not Revolution
The average U.S. adult (18 and older) now watches almost six hours of television and video per day. That’s around 30% of waking hours. And, despite all the hype, there’s been less change in the patterns underlying this viewing than you might think.
“The explosion in television and video distribution technologies since the 1970s has led to more complex viewing patterns, but the changes so far have been evolutionary, not revolutionary,” according to the research, published in the Journal of Advertising Research. The authors say that when, where and how people watch – as well as why – has changed little, with the new patterns of viewing being mostly additional to the old ones, rather than replacing them.
Forget Your Bad Boss, Bills, and Break Up
One of the study’s most intriguing results relates to why TV viewing is so good at helping people – at least, while they are watching – escape from their worries. Referring to the “limited capacity” media consumption model of Professor Annie Lang at the University of Indiana, who led many of the lab-based studies they cite, the authors say that watching a moving picture on a screen automatically absorbs a significant amount of cognitive capacity, reflected in slower reaction times on a secondary task such as pressing a button in response to a stimulus. In other words, watching TV literally takes our minds off other things – meaning it helps us stop thinking about problems we don’t want to think about – like our horrible boss, unpaid bills and personal problems.
Despite younger people watching TV in many different ways (including online), more than 50% of millennials’ viewing is still on a traditional television set. At the same time, our aging population is not the main driving force behind increased overall television consumption. As people get older, their TV watching does increase, but this new research contends that demographic changes account for very little of the long-term increase in viewing. It’s really about what we, as humans, are looking for when we view, and the increasing number of opportunities to look at moving pictures on a screen.
Per the new research, the key is “Psychophysiological patterns suggesting that television and video may help viewers relax by automatically inducing a pleasant, comfortable mental state, reflected in a relatively high incidence of alpha waves, and escape, by literally taking their mind off other things, reflected in longer secondary task reaction times.”
The researchers also draw an interesting contrast between TV viewing and radio listening. Most radio consumption is a secondary activity. Where, when and how it happens are quite different from TV viewing. Because it does not involve visual processing, radio listening is mentally less taxing than watching television and seems to have no significant impact on primary task reaction times. Thus, television and radio appear to be meeting complementary needs. Radio is reserved for background while doing boring, repetitive work like laundry, driving or eating, and it does not automatically absorb so much mental capacity that it reduces performance on the primary task. (In contrast, talking on even a hands-free phone while driving does slow down reaction time, with potentially fatal results). Think of radio as taking your mind off of what you are doing at that moment – something boring. Television watching, on the other hand, is usually a primary activity to help you unwind and take your mind off things you don’t want to think about then because they’re unpleasant.
While debate will continue over how good, bad, healthy, and unhealthy television and screen time are for people of all ages, one thing is clear: it isn’t going anywhere. TV and video tap into basic human needs and are a cheap, familiar, reliable, easy to use, and increasingly ubiquitous means of entertainment. And if there’s anything we’ve come to understand about human behavior, it would be that it’s very difficult to change established habits and patterns.