You’re probably watching a lot of TV. How much is too much?

The general rule is that anything over 3 1/2 hours of watching television can be excessive.
(Tim Boyle / Getty Images)

In the last two months, TV numbers are through the roof. Local news, streaming and on-demand movies have all spiked in viewership, receiving ratings bumps from people of all ages.

But experts recommend that you vary your new stay-at-home habits and find ways to fill your days without always being front of a screen.

So before you watch all of “Too Hot to Handle” in one sitting, consider these factors.


How much TV is too much for adults?

Doctors and researchers have come up with slightly different answers, but the general rule is that anything more than 3½ hours of television each day can be excessive.

“There was no association with adverse effects for watching up to 3½ hours a day,” said Daisy Fancourt, an associate professor of psychology and epidemiology at University College London who co-wrote a 2019 study that associated excessive TV watching among older adults with increased memory loss. “But [any time] beyond that was associated with cognitive decline.”

One key connection doctors have found: People who watch excessive amounts of TV are usually also seated for long stretches of the day, a sedentary activity with side effects so dangerous that some within the medical community have referred to sitting as “the new smoking.”

“If we’re spending so much time watching TV, it may be that we’re not spending enough time doing other activities that would keep our brains healthy, like exercising, reading and socializing with other people,” Tina Hoang, a research associate at the Northern California Institute for Research and Education, said via email.

In 2015, Hoang was a coauthor on a study that evaluated TV watching as a proxy for a sedentary lifestyle. Their research showed high television viewing and low physical activity in early adulthood were associated with worse cognitive function later in life, a potential risk factor for neurological disease such as dementia and Alzheimer’s.

Similar studies have found excessive TV watching to increase the risks of other chronic illnesses such as heart disease, Type 2 diabetes and pulmonary embolism.


Of course, these studies evaluated long-term activity, collecting data over periods as long as 25 years. Still they serve as a warning: If bad TV habits developed during the coronavirus crisis prove to be more than temporary, they could come with serious health consequences later.

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What about kids?

The guidelines around TV watching and screen time for children are much more precise.

Infants and toddlers should be spending the least amount of time in front of a screen, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics, which advises children younger than 24 months to avoid almost all digital media outside video chats.

Between ages 2 and 5, the AAP notes that kids can benefit from watching small amounts of high-quality educational TV — for no more than one hour per day — alongside an adult who can answer questions and keep them engaged, a practice called co-watching.

“A lot of what kids get out of watching TV changes with their developmental abilities,” said Miriam E. Bar-on, a professor of pediatrics at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. “A child who is in the process of learning how to talk isn’t going to benefit from watching TV unless somebody is watching TV with them and interacting. ‘Sesame Street’ says, ‘Let’s count,’ and the person watching with the child counts with the child and has the interaction, then it becomes an interactive activity.”

After the age of 5, the right amount of TV can help stimulate imagination and creativity in children, according to Bar-on. But if screen time becomes excessive, routinely surpassing four hours day, it has been heavily linked with a greater chance of childhood obesity.

“If a child is just plunked in front of a TV,” Bar-on said, “he or she is not running around getting exercise.”

The AAP has also found that content matters: The more violent or risky behaviors (e.g., smoking or drinking alcohol) a child is exposed to, the more likely they are to engage in it themselves over the course of their life.

Yet, Bar-on acknowledged that in these extreme times, some parents might need to bend these guidelines. The prevalence of online school has created a necessary rise in screen time. And during other parts of the day, TV can be one of the easiest ways to keep children occupied while parents work from home.

“While [the AAP’s] basic policy remains in place for normal circumstances, I think you certainly can be much more flexible,” Bar-on said. “There’s no one set formula for what families can do. It needs to be fluid, what works for them.”

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What are some alternatives?

Doctors agree that staying physically and mentally active are the most important keys to good at-home health during the lockdown.

“The evidence would suggest that if you are watching TV, get up and take lots of breaks in between and try to engage in other stimulating activities,” Hoang said.

Instead of watching five straight hours of “Ozark” or “Tiger King,” go for a short walk or complete a quick workout between episodes.

“Critically, getting your body moving, which is also heart healthy, can help,” Hoang said.

Or use your free time to do something that can’t be found on your TV screen.

“Activities such as playing games, reading, creative activities such as music or art, crosswords, volunteering and social engagement can all be mentally stimulating,” Fancourt said.

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