Sam Holstein

Why I Criticize TV, Video Games, and Social Media So Much

Anyone who’s a regular reader of my work is familiar with my criticisms of TV, video games, and social media. My complaints about these things are many and varied, but they boil down to this: they are fun in small doses, but at the end of the day, they are a waste of your time.

Many readers take offense to this. Whenever I criticize modern entertainment in my writing, they are quick to reply with responses which focus on a couple of core criticisms:

  1. “Watching Netflix/playing video games/using social media is a valuable way of decompressing and relaxing”
  2. “Watching Netflix/playing video games/using social media are beautiful stories and a source of inspiration”
  3. “Life isn’t about constant productivity. People need time to not work, to just be, you know?”

It may surprise my readers to know I actually agree with these sentiments.

  1. Entertainment has a way of temporarily transporting you away from the concerns of your life, giving you a much-needed emotional break.
  2. The TV shows and video games that are coming out today are some of the most beautiful pieces of storytelling humanity has produced.
  3. Last but not least, life is not only not about constant productivity, it’s not even mostly about productivity. I myself only work four or five hours a day, if that, and frequently take three day weekends.

My issue with these things isn’t the things themselves, but how we use them.

We are deluding ourselves

On very, very few of the occasions in which I see someone watching Netflix/playing video games/using social media are they using these things in a healthy way. Most of the time, when I see people doing these things, they’re doing something definitely unhealthy and sometimes dangerous: using them as a way to disengage from reality.

The thing about entertainment is that while it often superficially feels relaxing, it is neurologically not relaxing at all. It’s a pipeline of ultra-high stimulation directly to your sensory cortices, a rainbow technicolor light show for your brain. This produces a sedative effect similar to that of the high of cannabis, where you feel as if you’re being relaxed, but in reality, are experiencing more stimulation than usual.

If we’re mindfully coming to the experience of playing a video game knowing we’re engaging in a high-stimulation storytelling experience, that’s one thing. Engaging with a beautiful story is an enriching experience. If we’re mindlessly plugging into the stimulation high in order to avoid life and telling ourselves we’re “relaxing,” that’s entirely another.

More often than not, people who play a lot of video games/watch a lot of TV/use a lot of social media are doing the latter.

The modern world has a problem with entertainment

Now that watching tv/playing video games/using social media — otherwise known as entertainment — has become so widely accessible, we’ve developed a bizarre attitude toward it.

In the past, entertainment was something you had to consciously decide to pursue. You had to find a book, buy the book, sit down with the book, and read the book, taking time away from other important things like cooking or working on the farm. In the modern world, however, entertainment is never more than a few finger movements away.

It appears to me that as a result, we treat entertainment as the default state; when we are not at work, with friends, working on our fitness, running errands and doing life tasks, or specifically doing something else, we fall back on being entertained. We dive into social media, watch YouTube, turn on Netflix, or play a game. This habit is so pervasive that we’ve come to think of being entertained as the default state.

This is evident in casual conversation; when coworkers talk about what they did last night, the assumption is that if they didn’t go out with friends or get something done in their lives, they were at home watching Netflix and scrolling Facebook.

This is really unhealthy. As I pointed out earlier, entertainment is a firehose of stimulation piped directly to your brain. When we fall back on entertainment, we are not embodying a relaxing state of “just being,” we are putting our brains through the most taxing thing they are going to do all day. America has an anxiety problem, and while I have no studies corroborating this assertion, I firmly believe that’s in large part because we’ve made constant stimulation our default state.

Being entertained is not a healthy default state for humans. The healthiest default state is nothing; sitting in peaceful silence, or taking a relaxing walk, or slowly puttering around the house while cleaning or cooking, activities which are not very stimulating to either your mind or your body. Only in this environment does your mind have the space to perform the deep thought tasks that are so essential for your mental and emotional health.

Be honest with yourself

It’s pretty easy to tell if you’re using TV/video games/social media as a drug.

In my experience, the former is a natural and healthy part of life, whereas the latter is indicative of a bad habit of falling back on entertainment instead of consciously living, moment by moment.

If you spend a lot of time on entertainment, I encourage you to take a hard, honest look at your own motivations. Are you really moved by the beauty of The Last Of Us, or are you just playing it because you know it will give you a rush? Do you really feel gratified when you use Facebook, or do you just open it compulsively while you’re sitting on the train?

In sum: I don’t actually have a problem with TV, video games, social media, movies, memes, or any of the other things modern people do to entertain themselves. My problem is that so often, these forms of entertainment are not done for their own sake, but done to avoid the hard work of living life to the fullest.

We’re so engaged in doing things to achieve purposes of outer value that we forget the inner value, the rapture that is associated with being alive, is what it is all about. — Joseph Campbell