Bad Habits You Don't Need to Kick

Get ready to ditch some major guilt! These so-called vices have some surprisingly nice perks.
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Your Habit: Television

The other night, after putting my twin toddlers to bed, I dashed down to the basement, plopped myself on the couch, and watched six (yes, six) consecutive episodes of The Shield: Season 5 via Netflix. Three hours into this marathon my husband ventured in, shook his head, and said, "Do you need to go to a 12-step program?"

What can I say? I don't smoke. I'm not a shopaholic. I've never ever been drunk. But I do have a serious crime-drama habit. Before The Shield I was strung out on The Wire -- I watched the first 17 episodes in one weekend. (In my defense I was newly pregnant and didn't have the energy to do much else.)

Though watching crooked cops hunt mobsters for hours might seem like a path to brain rot, there are experts who'd argue that my habit is a healthy one. Science writer Steven Johnson, author of Everything Bad Is Good for You, maintains that TV plotlines have grown so complex since the days of Starsky & Hutch that following shows like The Wire and The Sopranos qualifies as a cognitive workout. I'll buy that. I've often had to watch scenes of The Wire three times, with closed captioning, to process what was happening.

Though Johnson's book focuses on television and video games, the title might well apply to many other popular habits that get bum raps. Okay, maybe not everything bad is good for you. Smoking is still bad -- really bad. And no one's condoning a daily trip to Cinnabon. But being a coffee fiend, a Facebook fanatic, an occasional gossip monger, or argumentative wife may, in fact, be more healthful than long as you don't cross the line. Psyched to justify your personal vices? Look no further.


The upside: It's not just the intricate plots and shifting alliances in today's programming that challenge us, Johnson writes, but also the fact that we're not being spoon-fed the details. He argues that all this inferring and deducing is making us smarter. While there's not much scientific evidence to back up Johnson's theory, developmental psychologist Robert Kubey, PhD, director of the Rutgers Center for Media Studies, calls it "an intriguing idea." While Dr. Kubey doubts that sophisticated television, on its own, will turn us into a nation of brainiacs, he agrees that certain shows prompt us to exercise our mind and can teach and provoke. "People are learning things about science and medicine from shows like CSI," says Dr. Kubey. "And a show such as Big Love may make you reflect on your own marriage."

When you've crossed the line: Heavy channel surfing, watching TV out of habit rather than interest, and holing up to watch reruns of Walker, Texas Ranger while your family walks to the farmers' market are all signs that you need to put down the remote. Dr. Kubey says that though watching TV can be relaxing, his research has found that it can drain energy. People who watch more than four hours a day actually enjoy TV less than those who watch fewer than two hours a day.

TV devotees are also fatter. Research from the National Weight Control Registry -- a database of 6,000 adults who have shed an average 60 pounds and kept it off long-term -- found that the less time their members spent glued to the tube, the less weight they regained.

To dial down your habit, try picking specific programs you genuinely want to watch rather than just checking to see what's on. With your family, create a list of fun activities you can do together, whether it's playing a board game or going for a walk, and post it on the refrigerator. After dinner, choose something from the list -- not the TV Guide channel.

Continued on page 2:  Your Habit: Social Networking


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