Going TV cold turkey what is it like to give up the box for a month?

In this golden age of television, the pressure to binge-watch is immense even as evidence mounts about the health risks. So how did one heavy user cope with the big switch-off?

There are almost no pleasures left in life that someone hasnt suggested we give up to better ourselves. Booze, sugar, smoking, meat, clutter, coffee, even our smartphone. Soon well be told that all this teeth-brushing is getting rid of our bodies important natural tooth bacteria and Joe Wicks will launch his new book: How to Live with Decay … Everyday!

Yet there is one indulgence that engulfs our life like nothing else. We spend a dizzying amount of time doing it, yet it goes almost completely unchallenged by self-help books and wellbeing advice: watching television. We spend, on average, over four hours a day looking at our TV sets. In the UK, 74% of viewers say they sometimes watch more TV than they intended to, with a third of adults admitting that binge-watching has cost them sleep and left them feeling tired.

Weve found that self-proclaimed binge-watchers exhibit higher levels of stress, anxiety and depression, says Jessica S Kruger, an assistant professor at the University at Buffalo who has studied the public health impacts of binge-watching. There are also studies out of Harvard showing that among people who spend two hours watching TV the risk of diabetes goes up by 20%, the risk of heart disease by 15% and early death by 13%.

Given that people in Britain watch twice that amount, you would think the government might have declared a national crisis and appointed a bingeing tsar by now. But the only message we ever hear about TV is that we are living in its golden age and have a responsibility to watch it all: every week there is another must-see show we have to finish, just to engage with our fellow humans.

Im starting to think I could be spending this time better. A lot of my other life goals making my flat nice, reading more serious books, shedding a roll or two of stomach have been sidelined by TV. After a particularly square-eyed Christmas, I decide its time to try life without television and promise not to watch any for a month.

It wont be easy. Im what you would call a heavy user. I have a 43in TV in the front room, with Freeview Play, an Amazon Fire TV stick and Apple TV. Ive got Netflix and Amazon Prime.

More time for jigsaw puzzles … Wolfson discovers one of the great things about switching off the TV. Photograph: Sarah Lee for the Guardian

I have always been like this. When I was young, I would go to friends houses where TV was presented as a reward that should be rationed out: You can watch cartoons when youve done your homework. But in our house, TV was part of the family. We would eat dinner in the living room, watch EastEnders and then get into heated family discussions about the precariousness of Steve and Mel Owens relationship. Even as I got older, I would spend an inordinate number of Saturday nights in with the family, voting for Will Young on Pop Idol or doing those weird national IQ tests they used to have on BBC One. I learned as much about the world from Harry from Spooks and Toby from The West Wing as I did from my teachers.

Now I go out quite often, but when I stay in, TV can sap the life out of my evenings. Ill come home with plans to better myself. Then, almost as if by magic, five-and-a-half hours disappear and Im splayed on the sofa, surrounded by the crumbs of some stale crackers Ive managed to forage from the kitchen, the remote having never left my hand.

Giving up TV is complicated because the boundaries between what is and isnt TV are foggy in the age of Netflix and Amazon. Kruger tells me that its these on-demand services, available on every device and making it easy to watch an entire series in one go, that make us most susceptible to bingeing. So I opt for a total ban. No TV shows, sport or films on any device. Im still allowed to go the cinema because thats, you know, living life.

The first week or so feels fantastic. Almost immediately I become a grown-up version of myself. I read the first few chapters of Ta-Nehisi Coates collected essays on the Obama years, while starting Michael Wolffs Fire and Fury on audiobook. I go to a talk about the early Jewish settlers in London, and see the Ai Weiwei documentary about the refugee crisis. My girlfriend, who doesnt watch much telly and is thrilled about this new development, takes me to an exhibition by the painter Roy Colmer at the Lisson Gallery exactly the sort of thing I would normally try to get out of. Unexpectly, I love it: spray-gun patterns that echo TV distortion on canvas, it all feels very fitting for my journey.

My initial pang of withdrawal comes on the first Friday night I come back from the pub, feeling drunk and very ready to sink into the sofa and put away a couple of old 30 Rock episodes. When I realise I cant, Im suddenly at a loss: Im too drunk to read, too awake to go to sleep. Then, after a few minutes, it just happens: I tidy my room not just shoving things under the bed, but folding, ironing, get-to-the-bottom-of-the-wash-basket tidying. I wake up on Saturday morning in what feels like a hotel room, but one of my own making. I feel like I have a secret butler.

Lots of reading time, too. Photograph: Sarah Lee for the Guardian

While I think Im doing quite well, my friends and family seem almost angry with me. When I tell people what Im doing theres a look of exasperation on their faces, as though I have insulted a relative. People cant understand what point Im trying to prove. What, youre not even going to watch McMafia, says my mum, sounding hurt that we wont be able to discuss it.

The hardest thing is missing the snooker. Its the Masters, and for me this would normally mean a lovely week of horizontal evenings, gently dozing between frames. But with my new go-getter attitude, I organise a trip to see a match live instead, a thrilling showdown between Ryan Day and Ding Jun-Hui. I feel like Ive cracked the code for life: dont just watch, do.

Its all going well until week three, when my girlfriend leaves to go on a week-long retreat, and it really hits me. This would be perfect boxset time; instead I am slightly bereft. I try everything to stop myself from watching: laser quest; bowling; bingo, twice. On Saturday night my friend Anna comes for dinner, and we begin a 1,500-piece jigsaw puzzle of a shelf of soft drinks. I bought it at a charity shop years ago and never opened it. At 4am we are still going, in silence, fitting pieces together with mindful clarity.

Not all the ways I distract myself are so wholesome. Ive always been a light gambler, but now its rampant: betting on football matches and then listening to them on BBC 5 Live, like a wideboy in the 1950s. On a particularly dark night I download the app of the ITV gameshow The Chase, which allows you to play the Bradley Walsh quiz on your phone with a virtual Bradley cracking gags between the questions. It even has the same music. I beat the chaser twice. My cravings are sated.

But I only properly break my abstinence once during the month. I have to watch a bit of the Trump and Piers Morgan interview on my laptop for work. Its as if, in my absence from television, we have switched over to some state-controlled, despotic network, the interviewer fawning over a politician telling him he is so fabulous he could even manage our football team. Im happy to switch it off.

By the end of the month I havent, as I had hoped, finished a library of books and become trim and fit. But I am enjoying life in a more rounded way: getting up early, reading the paper, cooking for myself every night.

Then, finally, I am allowed to watch again. I wait till midnight on the final day and then feel the soft remote in my hand again, endorphins rushing through me before I have even reached the familiar Amazon Fire homepage. I decide to start with the Grammys, having felt like I had missed out on all the bitching about Lorde being snubbed and Gagas new face earlier in the week.

But something isnt quite right. Its almost like watching through someone elses window. Maybe its because Ive already missed the zeitgeist, or it was just a really bad Grammys, but it isnt giving me the same buzz. I switch off about a third of the way through.

Three days later, Ive watched a bit of a film, but I just cant quite bring myself to get back into a series.

Im sure it wont last. One friend has sent an unsolicited list of everything Ive missed, and the weight of unwatched box sets feels heavy on my shoulders once again. But Kruger gives me a few tips on how to fight the urges: we shouldnt fast-forward adverts, which make the bingeing process less enjoyable and less addictive, and I should consider getting an app that locks you out of your Netflix account after a certain amount of time.

Its advice worth heeding. New studies about the dangers of extended TV watching emerge all the time. One, published in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine, found that a higher frequency of binge-viewing was related to poorer sleep quality, more fatigue and insomnia. There was also evidence that bingeing drama boxsets, with complex storylines and cliffhangers, had a greater impact on normal sleep patterns than traditional TV watching.

Im going to start putting in my calendar when I plan to watch something, like a treat, and switching off after that. Im grateful for everything TV has taught me, and Im certain my formative years would have been much worse without it. But after decades of devotion, Im ready to start being my own strict parent: only watching cartoons when Ive done my homework.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/2018/feb/25/television-binge-watcher-eastenders-give-up-a-month

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