Many elements of our lives serve a drug-like purpose including television, food and exercise.

Research supporting the drug-like effects of television isn’t even new. The quick cuts and other editing effects unavailable to us in our everyday lives trigger something called the “orienting response.” When we lived in constant danger of being eaten by predators, fast movement and quick changes in scenery got our attention very quickly. Television capitalizes on this instinct and pulls us in.

If television is a drug, what are its effects? It immediately relaxes people, perhaps because our orienting response requires a kind of oneness with our environment to fully process quick movement. Once we turn it off, though, we feel immediately tense as the more abstract worries of the day come rushing back. Producers know this, so they’ve cut out commercial breaks between shows and start new shows right after a previous one is done. Why turn off the TV when a new show has already begun? The system is engineered to promote addiction.

Michael Stipe (of REM) was being interviewed in a bar with televisions and kept complaining the the interviewer that he couldn’t concentrate on the questions because he couldn’t help but get pulled into TV images. TV images are about as easy to ignore as the smell of fresh baked tollhouse cookies.

Television for young children seems espeically harmful–possibly contributing to autism–so it would seem that we should approach it with extreme caution. No “TV as babysitter” for kids four and under. There is a massive level of brain development as well as honing of fine and gross motor skills during that time. Television is the last thing a human at that age needs.

But what do about families that need to work numerous jobs in order to pay rent and feed the kids and use television to keep a toddler out of trouble? How about longer maternity or paternity leave, just like every other country but the U.S. has? Give parents–from any social class–time to raise their kids.

The whole question of television watching gets a bit trickier as your child gets older. My son, who is nine, loves cheese. I did as well at his age (and still do). Many kids will eschew meat, vegetables and fruits in favor of as much milk as they can drink. Kids also love sugar and chocolate.

Every food in that list has drug-like effects, and some might argue that they are addictive. Cheese contains tyrosine, which calms people in times of stress. Chocolate also increases levels of tyrosine and contains the stimulant theobromine. Milk calms people through tryptophan. Robert Lustig, a reputable dietician, has proven with mathematical precision that the refined sugar in a soft drink has the same systemic effect as the alcohol in a beer (he discusses this at 1:20 or so).

Do we really want to start worrying about any food that has a drug-like effect? Tropical fruits such as pineapples, mangoes and bananas are so sweet that they might promote highs in kids similar to those from refined sugars. But aren’t these also highly nutritious? Grass-fed beef contains essential fatty acids, which can protect against depression when consumed in moderate amounts.

Everyday activities, then, can work as prescription drugs as well as illicit ones. Don’t we want some of these good drugs? During a workplace seminar years ago, the presenter stated that every time you cross something off a list, you get a surge of happy chemicals in your brain.

The phenomenon of “runner’s high” is well-documented.

Music stimulates dopamine, a pleasurable neurotransmitter associated with searching or hunting.

“Hunting” for something on the web also boosts dopamine. Pornography ramps up dopamine during the search and then floods the brain with it during climax.

How much can we possibly prohibit, caution against, or ban?

And at this point, I haven’t even touched on “hard” drugs like alcohol (yes, it’s as bad as many of the others), marijuana, cocaine, and heroin. Chocolate also triggers anandamide, one of the active ingredients of marijuana, so we’d better watch out in case anyone tries to eat enough unsweetened chocolate to trigger a cannabis high.

What do we do with all of this information? We can’t ban anything that might be a drug, because everything in our environment functions as a drug. Sunlight promotes vitamin D production which makes us happier. Working towards an exciting goal–learning skateboarding tricks, cooking a new and exciting recipe, writing a blog post such as this one–all boost dopamine levels.

Do we just give up and put our six month old in front of the television?

How about a cost-benefit analysis? Most of the evolutionary triggers for neurotransmitters–exercise, accomplishment, healthy fats, etc.–are clearly beneficial. The enjoyment we get from music and reading doesn’t seem all that bad either.

How about movies? We seem to enjoy those–and learn from them–even if there’s some kind of sedation involved from the medium.

The “do we ban it?” question seems absurd most of the time, considering most of us don’t want the government telling us everything we can or can’t consume. But excess in any area–video games, drinking, even strenuous exercise–seems like a bad idea for most people and should probably be approached with caution. We worry about someone who drinks a six pack of beer a day, so why shouldn’t we worry about eight hours of TV each day? They’re both harmful.

But moderation seems to work most of the time. Why not have a beer or two? What’s wrong with being addicted to a television show? Why not take up bike racing if the pain point of exertion gives you a high?

We need to look at these things and consider them. I don’t think Alcoholics Anonymous is a perfect organization, but they have some important things to say about addiction in their survey. There are some of the more obvious problems–passing out drunk, for instance–but the idea that strikes me most (a paraphrase of questions 6, 7 and 12) would be “Is this addiction interfering with relationships, work or other areas of your life?” This seems to me like a great evaluative tool. Certain things that might initially seem harmful–low-level marijuana use, for instance–suddenly don’t seem that bad. Others, like video game addiction (which I had to quit at one point) suddenly seem more harmful, because they can crowd out social interaction.

But cheese and chocolate are always good.

  • Henry

    This is a fascinating entry! I think your sort-of-conclusion is right: “Is this addiction interfering with relationships, work or other areas of your life?” We are all addicted — to work, play, television.… Life is a series of addictions. Being “addicted” to different projects (a book, cooking, caring for a child) is what makes life fun. Long ago I internalized some great words: “Process is all. Process is the great happiness.” When you are involved (addicted) you are happy. Reaching a goal is meaningless, a great disappointment. Now what? Process (addiction to something!) is the great, cheap, happiness.

  • Ben

    Pops: I’m glad you enjoyed it. I almost mentioned that I felt addicted to television at age eight but couldn’t figure out how to work it in. The book HOW MUSIC WORKS by David Byrne supports your idea that process is a “high.” There was rampant drug addiction in a Brazilian city but, once they started teaching young people how to play musical instruments, the drug problem went away. Everyone became involved in making music rather than taking drugs.