I used to be addicted to television.
I didn’t know it at the time (addicts never do), but looking back, I recognize the signs and I realize that I had a big problem.
From the time I was 6 to the time I was 13, I probably watched around 3 hours of TV every night. It wasn’t good quality TV, and it certainly wasn’t educational or valuable to me; it was stuff like Spongebob, The Simpsons, and various B-list Cartoon Network shows.
Later on, we made the mistake of getting cable, and I was sucked into the Disney Channel. At that point in my life, I would come from junior high school, plop on the couch, and watch episodes of Hannah Montana and The Suite Life of Zack and Cody.
Not even original content. Reruns.
It was around that time when my stepfather intervened.
One day, I came home from school, and the TV was gone.
Missing. Vanished. Disappeared.
Put yourself in my shoes: your TV is your altar, your temple of mindlessness, your opiate. Suddenly, it’s nowhere to be seen.
I was apoplectic. I was indignant. I was livid.
“How do you like the new setup?” My stepfather asked, pointing to the empty wall where the 46-inch flatscreen had been.
“What… what did you do?!” I asked, incensed. “Why!?”
“C’mon, Aaron,” he said, “You were spending 5 hours a day on that thing. You didn’t even respect the stuff you were watching and you knew it was garbage.”
TV was dominating my life and interfering with my homework. When my mother got home, she told me how she felt that she was losing me to the black box.
“I come home and you’re watching ‘Zack and Cody,’ and I know I can’t interrupt you. If I want to talk to you, I have to wait until 6:28pm and catch you before the next episode starts.”
These were all good reasons to get rid of the TV (or at the very least, cut back considerably), but did their reasons fall on welcome ears? Did I immediately see the errors of my ways and embrace their concerns? Did I accept the new TV-lessness with equanimity and perhaps even some gratitude?
Of course not!
I raged against the dying of the light!
I threw a fit, I was wrathful, and I said things I shouldn’t have said to my mother that I still regret to this day.
I remember that I was upset about the TV for 3 whole months, and during that time, I was sullen and unapproachable. Couple that with your run-of-the-mill teenage angst, and I’m sure I was not fun to be around in those 3 months.
But my mom and my stepfather were patient. They helped me through the withdrawal period and I was able to detox successfully. After half a year of TV abstinence, I started to actually feel better, and I recognized that my life was much better without TV in it.
Yes, my friends at school would talk about things they had watched on TV, and I felt wistful at times when I couldn’t chime in. TV is a major cultural touchstone in America, so giving it up can be a big loss.
But that loss was more than compensated with the newfound time I had in my life.
I started reading more, my grades improved, and I definitely felt closer with my parents. Soon after we gave up TV in the house, my mom gave birth to twins, and I certainly wouldn’t have been as active in their early years if I were sedated for hours every evening.
Nowadays, I hardly watch TV at all, and I feel as if I’m a much more interesting person because of it. I indulge occasionally (I watched Rick and Morty, for example, and a few episodes of Black Mirror), but by and large, I’m a recovering TV-holic, so I abstain.
I replaced TV with a finely curated list of YouTube subscriptions. Instead of letting the media passively wash over me, I carefully and actively handpick certain channels to follow, and after nearly a decade as an active YouTuber, I’m very happy with my list. It includes things like SciShow, Crash Course, Veritasium, 3Blue1Brown, Kurzgesagt, ASAP Science, and Ours Poetica, all of which are educational and delightful. There are some creators who are really terrific, and I’d say that the greatest source of learning in my life these days comes from YouTube.
TV is a drug, and it should be treated as such. It’s a psychoactive substance. TV can worm its way into your brain, rewire your neural reward matrix, and create addictive tendencies that can be hugely harmful.
That has become especially true in the last decade with the advent of Netflix.
Netflix is the new kid on the block who started out scrawny but returned from a summer vacation 2 feet taller and completely jacked — and now he’s a bit of a bully.
Netflix is known as a “bottomless pit” of resources, and it’s sometimes placed in the big 5 of tech companies (referred to as FAANG: Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Netflix, and Google). They’ve changed fundamental aspects of our culture, from ushering in a new era of subscription services, to affecting the way we seduce one another (Netflix and chill, anyone?).
I don’t doubt that there has been an incredible resurgence of amazing television shows thanks to Netflix (and other streaming services like Hulu, Amazon, and Disney Plus). Some folks say that we’re living in a golden age of TV. I question if there aren’t better things to have a golden age in.
What I think is most insidious as a former TV addict is the new practice of binge watching. That’s a recent development, and we have to recognize it for what it is: a tactic devised by a handful of executives at Netflix to get us hooked more effectively. They made the choice to release entire seasons of a new show at once, rather than serialize the episodes, which was a game changer.
That can be dangerous for those of us with addictive personalities, and I’m sure we all know people who lose entire weekends to Netflix binges when a new season of a show comes out. I’m not casting aspersions on their character — I think they’re victims of a purposeful strategy that was made with a “profit over people” mindset.
Maybe you’re one of those people. What’s more, maybe you’re one of those people and you don’t even know it.
Addiction is a serious problem, and we’re all more susceptible than we think. The biggest challenge of addiction is when we don’t even realize we have a problem.
I ask you now to take a sober examination of the amount of time you and your loved ones spend watching TV. I’m not saying you should go cold turkey, like I did, and you may wind up finding a balance that works for you; but again, TV is a drug, and I do think it’s important to have a healthy relationship with all psychoactive substances in our lives. That goes for weed, alcohol, caffeine, and yes, TV.
I was under the spell of TV for years and didn’t realize it. We may think that streaming services offer us more freedom than traditional network television, but with binge culture, that freedom is overpowered when we become addicts. For me, the withdrawal symptoms were real and painful when I finally quit. I wouldn’t wish that on anyone, and yet it can be a necessary step towards a healthier, more intentional life.
After all, a binge is usually accompanied by a purge.