Health

02.10.13

Six Ways TV Affects Your Brain and Sperm

A new study finds watching TV lowers male sperm count. But from killing you softly to changing your dreams, Rachel Krantz breaks down the other ways the boob tube is altering your mind.

TV will rot your brain. It’s a mother’s refrain as tried and true as “You’re going out in that?!” and “Don’t forget to take a sweater.” But as it turns out, Mom may have been understating this one. Researchers are only just beginning to understand the effect television has on the brain, and what they’ve found so far sure isn’t good. From decreasing your chances of procreating to cutting years off your life, here are the top six ways our beloved television may be pulling a HAL 9000 on us.

1. Watching TV Kills Your Unborn Children

Most dudes have already made a mental note that resting their laptop on their, um, lap isn’t the best for the little guys, but a new study may give some guys cause to pause their DVR. New research published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine found that healthy young men who watch more than 20 hours of television a week have almost half the sperm count of men who watch just a few hours. The reason for the spermicide?  It's not that your Real Housewives marathon is causing evolution to give up on you, but all that sitting may be. "We know that men who wear too-tight underwear have poorer sperm,” says Dr. Allan Pacey of the University of Sheffield. “So it’s not a million miles away from sitting on the sofa ... for too long and heating up your testicles for too long. It’s the same mechanism I would suspect." Researchers also found that a heavy amount of TV watching seemed to negate any positive countereffects regular exercise had on other sperm-challenged groups, like overweight men or smokers. At least now there’s proof: there's nothing sexy about a couch potato.

2. TV Will Kill You, but at Least You’ll Have Been Entertained

Maybe you’ve already calculated how many hours of your life were used up watching The Wire (60 episodes x roughly 60 minutes = roughly 2.5 days of your life, well spent), but did you know you were spending future time as well? Again, this is a cause vs. correlation situation here, but researchers in Australia who followed 11,000 people found that for each hour a day spent in front of the TV, you have an 18 percent greater risk of dying from cardiovascular disease and an 11 percent greater risk of death in general. Put another, more terrifying, way, every hour you wasted watching Newsroom (after age 25 that is, because everything about getting older is unfair) you’ve cut 22 minutes off your life. The study led researchers to conclude that watching TV “may be associated with a loss of life that is comparable to other major chronic disease risk factors such as physical inactivity and obesity.” Speaking of obesity, there’s indeed a correlation. Researchers from the University of Miami found that people eat 40 percent more in front of the TV and crave higher-calorie foods while they watch than they would otherwise.

3. TV Alters Your Dreams

Just when you were getting ready to jump off a Hulu bridge, here’s a little respite from the fact that TV is making you sickly and infertile: turns out that just like Dorothy tripping in a Technicolor OZ, TV has helped us all dream a little more colorfully. A researcher at the University of Dundee asked 60 participants—half of whom were under 25 and therefore had barely seen black-and-white TV, and the other half of whom were over 55 and raised on it—to keep a dream journal. As it turns out, only 4.4 percent of the young people’s dreams were in black-and-white (thanks to Nick @ Night, no doubt) whereas nearly a quarter of the 55-plus group reported dreaming without color. Kinda cool, kinda creepy. "There could be a critical period in our childhood when watching films has a big impact on the way dreams are formed," the study’s author said. Which brings us to perhaps the creepiest of the TV findings: how the tube is shaping children's brains.

4. TV: Everyone’s Favorite Abusive Babysitter

Sesame Street may have taught you the alphabet, but even the most wholesome public television could be rewiring kids’ brains in less-than educational ways. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) issued a policy statement in 2011 stating that while more research needs to be done, it strongly believes that television has numerous adverse effects for children—especially those under 2 years old. According to the all-too limited studies, the AAP says, exposing baby brains to TV can cause disruptions in sleep patterns, “expressive language delays,” and seems to point to a “correlation between television viewing and developmental problems,” though, at this point, “not a causality.” As kids get older, TV’s influence appears almost as damning. Researchers at Iowa State University found that kids who watched more than two hours of television a day were 1.5 to two times more likely to have attention-deficit problems. “In our sample, children's total average time with television and video games is 4.26 hours per day, which is actually low compared to the national average," one of the study’s authors, Douglas Gentile, says. “ADHD is a medical condition, but it's [also] a brain condition. Therefore, it is not unreasonable to believe that environmental stimuli can increase the risk for a medical condition like ADHD in the same way that environmental stimuli, like cigarettes, can increase the risk for cancer."

5. TV Makes You Angry, Like Walter White

You may have internalized Breaking Bad more than you’d realized. A 17-year study from Columbia University and Mount Sinai Hospital followed more than 700 adolescents into adulthood and found that teens who watched more than one hour of TV a day were more likely to commit aggressive acts later in life. The study found that teens who watched less than an hour of TV a day had about a 5.7 percent chance of committing aggressive acts (such as threats, assaults, fights, robbery, and using a weapon to commit crime) by age 30. But that number shot up fourfold, with 22.5 percent of those who watched one to three hours of TV a day committing aggressive acts as adults. Again, it's not clear if TV is the cause or a  symptom.

6. TV May Make You Feel Like a Loser

The remarkable thing about television is that it permits several million people to laugh at the same joke and still feel lonely.—T.S. Eliot

Whatever bro-kinship you might feel watching the Super Bowl with your friends, the fact remains that most people watch most television alone. And surprise-surprise, that can be lonely. Analysis of more than 30 years of television studies consisting of over 30,000 people found that on average, people who measured as “happy” watched 19 hours of TV a week, while “unhappy” people watched more than 25. On the bright side, other studies have found that TV can at least be a short-term cure for that bottomless well of loneliness. A study published in The Journal of Experimental Social Psychology found “evidence for the 'social surrogacy hypothesis,' which holds that humans can use technologies, like television, to provide the experience of belonging when no real belongingness has been experienced," according to the study. But, obviously, this strategy has its flaws, since "turning one's back on family and friends for the solace of television may be maladaptive and leave a person with fewer resources over time."

So what have we learned? TV may kill you, decrease your chances of having kids, ruin the ones you do have, and possibly turn you violent. But on the upside, it will totally help you forget you even read this.