For her twenty-second birthday in April, Katie Nevins received a gift from her mother that many college seniors would relish: a television set. But Nevins dreaded the present. As a stay-at-home student in Des Moines, Iowa, she’s experienced the destructive power that excessive viewing can exert.

“I can only talk to my mom during commercial breaks,” says Nevins, the only child living at home. “She feels like TV is more important than me.”

The evidence is in the ubiquity of sets —nine of them —in the Nevins household. Katie’s mother has a hand-held set she takes with her into the bathroom, a portable one to carry in the car, one at her nursing job and one at the dinner table that blares in place of family conversation. Each bedroom has a set, and there’s even one in the garage because the day’s activities are scheduled around programs.

“I hope to watch less as I get older,” Nevins says. “I don’t want to treat my kids the way I was raised. It’s not right to have TV run your life.”

Brooke Foster, 21, had the opposite experience. Growing up, she was so busy in sports and other activities that she didn’t have much time for television. And besides, her parents wouldn’t let her watch anything unless they did too. But when she began attending a Christian college in St. Paul, Minnesota, things changed. Each girl had a TV in her dorm room and the sets were on constantly. “Friends,” a popular sitcom, had a regular audience of 30 young women each week.

Foster had never seen the show but soon became hooked. To keep up with her roommates’ conversations about the series, Foster watched Friends reruns every day. She found the series funny but ultimately a negative influence because so much of the humor focuses on premarital sex.

Now Foster, who is beginning her senior year, has transferred to another school and lives alone. She purposely asks to work every Thursday night as a waitress so as not to be home while Friends airs.

A Giant Pull from a Giant Box

Researchers Robert Kubey and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi published a study earlier this year in Scientific American, intimating that TV addiction is akin to substance dependence. They cited evidence that TV junkies spend a great deal of time engaged in the activity, use it more often than intended, repeatedly have tried to quit without success, exhibit withdrawal symptoms when wanting to stop and relinquish important social, family, or occupational activities because of it. Kubey and Csikszentmihalyi blame it on “our instinctive visual or auditory reaction to any sudden or novel stimulus.”

Stephen Winzenburg, communications professor at Grand View College in Des Moines, agrees with the study’s premise that watching television is an addictive behavior. In 20 years of teaching, Winzenburg has often placed 500 students on a week-long “diet” in which they abstain from watching TV. Most students think avoiding the set won’t be a problem. But three-fourths of his students, after journaling their experiences, have used the word addiction to describe their viewing habits.

Among the students living at home, one-third of their parents have encouraged them to cheat on the diet. “The set usually is a part of family activities,” says Winzenburg. “Some parents send kids out of the house because they don’t want to be without TV.”

In fact, parents, who may have used the TV set as a baby-sitter, often pass on their viewing habits to their children.

Watching TV is by no means inherently wrong. The key is maintaining a healthy perspective on the “idiot box” by learning to discipline your viewing habits – even when it means refraining from tube time. Be warned: Scaling back on viewing may make the set even more appealing to you. Just as a chocolate cake beckons the dieter in the kitchen, that giant box seems to be calling to be turned on in the living room.

“Whenever something is user-friendly and gives us rewards, we go back to it a lot,” says Robert J. Thompson, Syracuse University communications professor at the Center for the Study of Popular Television. “TV does that for us.” While Thompson doesn’t believe TV is medically addictive, he concedes that it’s habit-forming and people are drawn to it. The whole idea of television is to suck viewers in so they’ll want to watch all the time, Thompson says. And, indeed, studies indicate that the average adult spends four hours a day with the tube. Nearly 99 percent of the U.S. population owns a TV set, and 75 percent have more than one.

You’re a Moving Target

Most people enjoy vegging out and watching a show or two. For many, it’s a great way to unwind. But the escape from reality that TV provides involves more than pure entertainment. Whether you know it or not, every second you watch has been carefully planned. With the naturally hypnotic effect TV can have on many viewers, could it be that something’s going on behind the scenes?

A myriad of studies have indicted frequent tube-gazing as a contributing factor to lower academic achievement, violent behavior, and growing obesity. Singles are particularly susceptible to falling into patterns of too much TV. They may use it as a companion and security when living alone. Many go to bed with the set on just to have the noise. It can be an inexpensive way to pass the time for a single without a lot of disposable income.

Network executives are fully aware singles are watching. In fact, they fork out millions of dollars to make sure singles keep watching. Since the mid-1990s, most primetime TV shows have focused on young singles, most of whom are affluent, sexually active people with flexible morals. The fare doesn’t provide weighty subject matter. Thompson notes that on most episodic shows, including “Friends,” it doesn’t matter if you answer a phone call or go to the bathroom and miss a few minutes of the dialogue. Figuring out the plot is easy.

Winzenburg sees a danger in singles using the inanimate object as a substitute for relationships. He cites an example of a student who refused to go on a date on Thursday nights because she would miss “ER.”

Christians are particularly vulnerable to sexually oriented programming, such as the entertainment offered on MTV, Winzenburg says. “Christians tend to be voyeuristic and like to watch things they can’t do,” he says. “They know it’s a sin to commit adultery and have premarital sex, but by watching it, they can vicariously live out the fantasy.”

Changing Your View

In the past, Susan Madrid of Aguanga, California, plopped down in front of the television set for three hours almost every night. But five years ago, Madrid accepted the challenge of the annual TV-Turnoff Week, in which Americans are urged to participate in screen-free activities such as writing letters, walking, listening to music, tackling household repairs, or even talking to people. Madrid, now 37, found a week without television so refreshing that she quit TV permanently. Upon seeing commercials for the first time in five years when a friend invited her over to watch the Super Bowl, Madrid realized she’d made the right decision. “They all seemed so tactless and tasteless,” she says.

Frank Vespe, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based TV-Turnoff Network, says the decision to watch is up to each viewer. “Rather than saying the junk on television is a problem that Congress or broadcasters can solve, we put the focus on individuals to get control of their lives,” he says. “Rather than being the default setting for what we do with our free time, television should just be one of many choices.”

Thompson agrees that examining something that has become a natural habit is in order. “It’s a good thing now and then to pay attention to anything that’s part of our daily life so intimately and so invisibly,” he says.

“The biggest problem with television, especially cable, is that it has eliminated the opportunity to be bored,” says Thompson. “When I was a kid, if there was nothing good on, I’d have to find something else to do. Now there’s something on 24 hours a day that can amuse me. I can turn on my digital cable box and go from the sacred to the profane, from the educational to the insipid, from the entertaining to the stupid in the flick of a dial.”

Americans may now choose from some of the best and worst programming in television history, says Thompson, author of Television’s Second Golden Age: From Hill Street Blues to ER. He says discernment is key.

Television is not the anti-Christ. While there certainly are too many mindless shows to count, there are also educational, informative, and creative ones. As with everything, balance is the key. But consider the fruits of your TV watching. The cost of watching too much TV is measured in the missed opportunity of doing other things of value, particularly interacting with other humans.

“I see a lot of Christian homes with giant screens in the living room and multiple sets elsewhere,” says Winzenburg, who believes anything more than an hour a day is too much. “We shouldn’t be scared of silence. That’s when we have an opportunity to hear God’s voice.”

This article is written by John W. Kennedy and is shared with us courtesy of Christian Single Magazine. It was originally posted on the great resource web site of Lifeway.com.