BY BEN THOMAS | Original image by Ember
The idea that “TV will rot your brain” feels almost nostalgic in a way. It conjures up memories of Saturday mornings spent with Nickelodeon cartoons and bowls of sugary cereal, curled up on the couch (or on the floor) in comfy pajamas, ignoring our parents’ admonitions to take a break for the sake of our eyesight and our mental health. But we all grew up on television, and we turned out okay… didn’t we?
Maybe not so much—especially now that we’re spending 70 percent more time on the internet than we did before COVID. But as timely as the problems of screen-fueled anxiety and guilt are, these issues are anything but new.
In his 1993 essay E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction, writer David Foster Wallace explored how TV binges fueled negative self-talk in a variety of ways. Decades before doomscrolling, Wallace recognized that prolonged TV viewing arouses our inner critic—compelling us to turn that same critical gaze on ourselves, and become “vastly more spectatorial [and] self-conscious” about our own daily lives.
It’s an insight that still rings eerily true in the 2020s, when we control (or think we control) a whole universe of on-demand digital media, yet remain just as anxiously self-conscious as ever. In fact, if anything, we seem to be getting worse.
Today, a new wave of studies are confirming what we know from experience: TV and social-media binges are associated with “increased depression, social interaction anxiety, and loneliness” for people in all age groups. For older adults in particular, prolonged TV viewing can even raise the risk of cognitive decline and early-onset dementia, by eroding gray matter in brain areas crucial for memory and language.
So does binging really “rot our brains,” like our parents warned us it would? Yes—though that’s only part of the story. The larger truth is, mass media inflicts subtle yet long-lasting psychological damage in a wide range of ways—and for some surprising reasons. Let’s take a closer look at how this happens, and why.
The rumors are true: prolonged TV viewing really does correlate with unhealthy brain development—straight from our youngest years onward. For example, a 2020 study led by Gabrielle McHarg, a researcher at the University of Cambridge, found that toddlers who spend lots of time with screens tend to have trouble communicating verbally and making decisions. And as people grow older, those who watch upwards of three hours per day tend to produce less gray matter in brain areas crucial for cognition, according to a 2021 study led by Ryan J. Dougherty at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.
These developmental disruptions can add up to major problems, because a healthy brain is supposed to be constantly growing, developing and changing—not only in childhood, but throughout every stage of our lives. Our lifelong brain plasticity is the reason an 18-year-old can learn a new language, a 50-year-old can master a whole new career path, and a 90-year-old can fall in love with a brand-new hobby (or a new romantic partner!).
Long-term TV viewing interferes with healthy brain plasticity, preventing binge-watchers from unlocking their full mental potential.
However, long-term TV viewing interferes with that healthy brain plasticity, preventing binge-watchers from unlocking their full mental potential. Even worse, a long-term binge habit is associated with a shorter lifespan. A 2021 study led by Sarah Kozey Keadle, an epidemiology researcher at the National Cancer Institute, found that the more TV a person watches every day, the more likely they are to die sooner than average. In other words, every sedentary hour spent in front of a screen shaves a little more time off a person’s life.
When we binge Netflix or doomscroll TikTok, we can’t help comparing ourselves to the people we see—often in a negative way. For example, a 2020 study led by Dan Warrender at Robert Gordon University in Aberdeen, Scotland, found that “individuals experiencing social comparison can struggle to find anything other than upward comparisons [on social media] to measure themselves against, so an average day is always compared with the ‘greatest hits’ of others.”
These unrealistic comparisons span all social networks and streaming services. Researchers have found increased rates of depression and negative self-image in people who spend hours scrolling Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and YouTube—while preliminary TikTok studies point in the same direction. Prolonged TV viewing has also been linked to low self-esteem, while Netflix has been called out for fat-shaming and transphobia; not to mention general binge guilt.
We know all this. We’re disgusted by it. Yet we keep coming back for more. Why?
“Television looks to be an absolute godsend for the human subspecies that loves to watch people but hates to be watched itself,” Wallace wrote in E Unibus Pluram. “We can relax, unobserved, as we ogle.” But at the same time, Wallace was skeptical of claims that TV was turning us into “a nation of sweaty, slack-jawed voyeurs.” Voyeurism, he pointed out, is non-consensual; whereas actors want to be watched. They’re experts at “acting natural”—at cultivating the illusion that we’re peering into their (fictional) private lives.
Reality TV takes this model a step further, putting us (the viewers) in the judge’s seat—where we feel safe to render judgments on the talents and lifestyles of real people, without any worry of being judged in return. Here, the illusion is less about the actors’ performances, and more about the construct of the show itself: we’re watching people who aren’t just acting "natural," but are actually (or at least supposedly) living their real, private, natural lives on the other side of a two-way mirror, through which we safely watch and judge without fear of being seen.
These illusions require significant talent to cultivate—but they turn from impressive to insidious when actors (or reality show contestants) enter into our intimate daily thoughts, and we start to wonder if other people really are happier and more attractive than we are. Maybe they have cooler friends and more exciting jobs than we do, and are constantly having bucket-list adventures and jetting to exotic locales and hooking up with other stunningly attractive people while we sit at home, watching.
A new wave of studies are confirming what we know from experience: TV and social-media binges are associated with “increased depression, social interaction anxiety, and loneliness” for people in all age groups.
Most of us don’t consciously believe this about our friends and coworkers. But when both scripted and reality TV present us with people to judge, they’re also serving up an “industry standard” of ideal lifestyles, as Mark Grief wrote in an n+1 essay; ideals to which many of us low-key aspire even as we roll our eyes at them. Over time, these norms become part of our own interior mental spaces, so we seek out mirrors of them in the external world—fueling a cycle of frustration in which we’re never satisfied; always searching for that next level up.
In other words (just as Wallace’s essay called out back in 1993) the problem isn’t that mass media turns us into passive zombies—on the contrary, social networks and streaming services are so addictive because they let us think we’re in control, while influencers and fictional characters flex on us until we feel miserable. We choose to inflict this on ourselves because, in the moment, it feels good to be a part of something so magical.
Is such semi-voluntary masochism unique to new platforms? Probably not—but certain aspects of on-demand media have raised the psychological costs.
Toward the end of E Unibus Pluram, Wallace expressed a prescient skepticism about the future of digital media. Much of his eye-rolling is directed at George Gilder’s 1990 book Life After Television: The Coming Transformation of Media and American Life, whose glossy full-color pages envision a utopian future of screens linked into a worldwide “interactive net,” where we’ll all communicate in real-time HD video—finally in control of the media we view and share; free to shape each experience as we please.
As Gilder’s book predicted, we now interact with streaming media the way Gen X interfaced with TV: we skip through, manipulate, remix, and ironically post clips to our social feeds, tabbing between summer blockbusters, web shorts, animated gifs, and Netflix series as easily as flipping channels. Yet contrary to Gilder’s predictions, this hasn’t brought fulfillment. In fact, our attention spans get shorter every year. The more we "control" our media, the more dissatisfied we feel.
Ancient Egyptian person: "Tell me of the year 2021!"— Ben Thomas (@writingben) November 30, 2021
Me: "Well, we have never-ending scrolls with dancing pictures that constantly change."
AEP: "!!! What do you do with these magic scrolls?"
Me: "We stare at them until we feel guilty and depressed."
Wallace saw this coming. A full 30 years before Zoom fatigue, he foresaw that real-time video calls would heighten social anxiety by invading our privacy—while HD screens would only sharpen our physical insecurities. Plus, if 1993’s menu of 40 cable channels encouraged six-hour TV binges, Wallace reasoned, then unlimited streaming options would exponentially multiply the scale of the problem. It’s hardly necessary to point out how right he was.
Still, not even Wallace foresaw how deeply digital media would insinuate itself into our daily routines. He wrote of the “rapt credulity” that glued his generation to the screen, but stopped short of forecasting a future in which we’d all carry screens in our pockets, take them to bed with us, check them first thing each morning, and panic when we can’t reach them.
Today, our screens have evolved from appliances into full-blown sensory prosthetics, so seamlessly woven into our experience that we almost forget they’re objects separate from ourselves. “Television has become… our own interior,” Wallace wrote in 1993—and if we swap in “digital media” for “TV,” that statement rings even more true in the 2020s. We doomscroll with “rapt credulity” because we forget what we’re supposed to be credulous of.
These clouds do have a hint of a silver lining, though. While all passive media viewing appears to be equally harmful—in other words, watching five hours of BBC documentaries causes just as much brain damage as watching five hours of music videos—your level of engagement can make a massive difference. For example, taking notes on what you’re watching, or even coloring or sketching with the TV on in the background, can strengthen healthy brain activity while also helping improve your mood.
Keeping your viewing moderate can also provide some benefits. Studies show that one to two hours of daily screen time (at max) can actually improve psychosocial functioning—activating some of the same brain regions that light up during in-person social interaction. This stimulation may be especially crucial during lockdown, when opportunities for face-to-face socializing can be hard to come by. In lonely times like these, an hour or two of TV may actually be therapeutic.
Many studies on the dangers of binging and doomscrolling have found that we can reduce the damage simply by limiting our intake.
In fact, many studies on the dangers of binging and doomscrolling have found that we can reduce the damage simply by limiting our intake. Apps like Offtime can help break that cycle—and our brains are highly talented at bouncing back from damage when we give them some room to breathe. Plus, once we take that step back, it becomes easier to remember that our screens are ultimately just appliances; machines designed to capture and hold our attention for the profit of others.
The more we cultivate awareness of this fact—and of the reality that media images and narratives are designed to deceive us—the more we really can start to take back control of our viewing and scrolling, and of our mental wellness. The journey back to real reality takes a unique shape for each one of us. And that's exactly as it should be.
Ben Thomas is a journalist and novelist who's lived in 40+ countries. He specializes in telling stories from the frontiers of science, history, culture, and the cosmos—and the points where all these fields intersect. Find him on Twitter at @writingben.