TV-Watching Has Been Linked To 8 Major Causes Of Death & I Still Won't Stop

Illustrated by Ly Ngo.
Let me start by saying that I love TV. I make a top 10 list of my favorite shows every year (Louie won in 2014), I take pride in introducing my friends to their new favorite shows, and I even have a favorite TV reviewer. But a recent study begs me to rethink the (undoubtedly excessive) amount of time I spend on this, because it suggests that watching TV is associated with several of the top causes of death in the U.S.

In the study, to be published in the December issue of the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, researchers got some baseline info on 221,426 adults in 1995. At that point, none of them had been diagnosed with a chronic illness. Then, the researchers checked up on the participants again at the end of 2011 to see who was still alive and well.

I bet you can already guess where this is going: The researchers' results showed that those who watched more TV (at least around three hours per day) had higher risks for developing eight major diseases down the line. These included diabetes, cancer, and heart disease. They were even more likely to die by suicide. Yikes, huh?

This definitely isn't the first time TV-watching has been linked to some pretty nasty health effects. Plus, the effects tend to get worse the more we watch. In one study, participants who watched at least two episodes of the same show back-to-back were more likely to report feelings of loneliness and depression. But it's unclear whether the feelings or the bingeing came first. And a 2011 meta-analysis suggested that every two hours of extra TV we watch each day increases our risk of death by 13%.

Before you cancel your Netflix subscription, let me remind you: It's not the TV that's killing us. Hanging on the couch or (let's be honest) in bed for hours on end isn't great for you, whether or not you're watching TV. Sitting for extended periods of time is so bad for us it's been called "the new smoking" by several media outlets. And as if that wasn't bad enough, we tend not to make the healthiest food choices when we're on the TV train. This is partially because food just tastes duller when we're distracted, so we opt for especially sugary or sweet snacks instead.

So the issue with Netflix/Hulu/HBO/your streaming service of choice isn't that a show is literally murdering you; instead, it's that the TV just keeps coming. And unlike, say, a book, it's specifically engineered to keep us right where we are. This encourages the prolonged sitting and snacking, both of which are linked to these causes of death.

Believe it or not, watching TV has also been linked to some rather nice things! For instance, people who consistently watch the same show eventually begin to see those characters as their friends. A 2009 study showed that merely thinking about a favorite program could provide a sense of "belongingness" and can protect against drops in self-esteem. Thinking of a show that wasn't a participant's favorite did not produce the same effect.

So maybe people who watch a large amount of TV report being lonely not because TV causes loneliness, but because they're actually trying feel less lonely by firing up good ol' Friends. As someone who's dealt with both anxiety and depression at various points in my life, I can't tell you how lovely it was to be able to check in with my British pals on The Office when real-life friends seemed lightyears away.

Keeping up with shows also makes us feel like we're in more control of our lives, especially when social interactions are daunting. A 2012 study suggests that we like to retreat to our familiar fictional worlds (including TV shows) after we've been trying hard to force ourselves to be positive IRL, and that diving back into that world actually restores our sense of self-control. In a day where you can't choose much more than your own lunch order, it's nice to know that some things will always stay constant.

So, sure: Sitting around all night every night as soon as you get home from work isn't going to do you any favors. And if you're not mixing it up with something more active a few times per week, it may even doom you to some very unfortunate fates. But if you're choosing to spend that time catching up with the ghouls on American Horror Story or those goofs on Brooklyn Nine-Nine because it makes you feel better, that makes sense, too. I, for one, can't wait to see what my friends are up to tonight.