So whatever happened to the days when you could eat at a restaurant without a half dozen televisions distracting you. Last week, after getting up at 4 AM one day and working frantically to meet deadlines all morning, I lunched at an Asian restaurant. The food came with a heaping helping of CNN, Headline News, local news, ESPN, soap operas and more. As I waited for my order to arrive, the televisions bombarded me with stories about:
- A mass shooting of school children
- An ex-cop allegedly turned cop killer
- A large increase in gun sales
- The rape and slaying of a child
- A serial arsonist
- The North Korean nuclear threat
- The Iranian nuclear threat
- The War on Drugs
- The War on Terror
- The War on Afghanistan
- Alleged sexual abuse by priests
- The doping crisis in cycling
- Brain injuries in football
- An approaching asteroid big enough to wipe out all life on earth
With those, I had a side order of a Cialis commercial – “Just so I could be ready for the moment” when my main course arrived. The main course was a flambé of “Johnny left Sally after Sally had Jimmy’s baby” on a soap opera.
Frankly, this menu of the world’s woes left me with a little heartburn. Instead of miso soup, I got my fill of misery. To cap off the experience, the Muzak was turned up so loud I could barely hear my luncheon partner. We were forced to stare at a panoply of pain scrolling across screen after screen. I wonder if this is what it’s like to live inside a depressed person’s head – inescapable, recurring videos reminding you of pain everywhere you turn.
To google for answers! In 2012, the journal Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking published a study called Media Multitasking Is Associated with Symptoms of Depression and Social Anxiety by Mark W. Becker, Ph.D., Reem Alzahabi, B.S., and Christopher J. Hopwood, Ph.D. from the Department of Psychology at Michigan State University.
“The unique association between media multitasking and these measures of psychosocial dysfunction suggests that the growing trend of multitasking with media may represent a unique risk factor for mental health problems related to mood and anxiety.”
The researchers noted that spending too much time in front of screens can mean less time spent on social activities when people deal with each other face to face. (See Rick Janacek’s post yesterday, “Texting: The Death of Conversation?”)
How many people engage in media multitasking? A survey by Nielsen released in December of 2012 showed that 36 percent of those between 35 and 54 used a tablet while watching television, and that 44 percent of those between 55-64 did the same. Approximately 40 percent of Americans now use smartphones and tablets while watching TV. Tweeting about TV rose 29 percent in just the first six months of 2012.
In 2009, the Los Angeles Times reported on researchers at the University of Pittsburgh and Harvard Medical School who looked at the media habits of 4,142 healthy adolescents. They calculated that each additional hour of TV watched per day boosted the odds of becoming depressed by 8%. This is important because this age group spends on average more than 7 hours per day with media, and more than 10 hours per day when multitasking is factored in. The researchers described several possible explanations.
- TV watching reduced time for organized after-school activities and other pursuits thought to reduce the risk of depression.
- TV watching displaced sleep, an important factor in emotional growth.
- Programs and ads may have made teens feel inadequate and stirred feelings of depression.
- Exposure to violent, disturbing images may depress people.
This brings us back full circle to my lunch at the Asian restaurant in Houston. Researching this topic reminded me of a much different experience I had decades ago at a Japanese restaurant in Chicago called Azuma House. Upon entering Azuma House, one was greeted by the tranquil sounds of running water and a bamboo flute. You were then led to a private, quiet dining room and served by gracious hostesses in kimonos whose ritual bows made you feel like a king or queen. The atmosphere helped people connect with each other all night long as sumptuous course after course was served.
It was a welcome retreat from the pressures of the workaday world. My, how times have changed! It’s kind of depressing.