Is TV A Bummer?

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Are cable TV's best customers severely depressed individuals, literally addicted to the tube?

People who said they're “very happy” reported watching 0.8 fewer hours of TV per day than those who were “not happy,” according to a study by University of Maryland sociologists that appears in the December issue of the academic journal Social Indicators Research.

The correlation between increased TV viewing and unhappiness, the researchers found, holds after controlling for education, marital status and other predictors of happiness. Happier people spend more time visiting with relatives and friends, going to church, having sex and reading newspapers. (Not necessarily in that order.) Almost no differences were found for Internet use.

“This reinforces conclusions from earlier studies of TV's dysfunctional role in American society,” the University of Maryland's John Robinson and Steven Martin wrote. The study is based on 34 years of data collected by the University of Chicago's General Social Survey of 45,000 people.

Meanwhile, Americans are tuning in to TV for record amounts of time — an average of 142 hours per month in the third quarter, according to new Nielsen figures.

That's not to say the nation, in growing increasingly glued to HDTV sets, is in danger of becoming sadder. It's not clear from the data whether “happiness leads to lower [TV] viewing, or that more viewing leads to unhappiness,” the researchers noted.

Robinson and Martin acknowledged more research is needed, but suggested that heavy TV viewing has parallels with addiction, “since addictive activities produce momentary pleasure but long-term misery and regret. People most vulnerable to addiction tend to be socially or personally disadvantaged, with TV becoming an opiate.”

Huh. Or maybe some people just really love TV, and are happier for it. Some commentators think the clichéd old addiction metaphor is pushing it.

“[P]eople have been socialized through the media and studies like this to feel they have to apologize for watching TV, so it is not surprising that the researchers find evidence of such apology in the answers respondents give even as they acknowledge the pleasure TV offers,” Baltimore Sun television critic David Zurawik blogged.

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