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Psychology of concentration: why the world is now addicted to “background TV”

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Psychologists have explored how having the TV on in the background really impacts our concentration.

The coronavirus pandemic has changed the world in lots of ways, but none more so than the way we work. In fact, the proportion of people working from home more than doubled last year during lockdown, and – thanks to the recent rise in hybrid working – it seems as if many of us will continue to do so, at least in some capacity, going forward.

Of course, Netflix reigns supreme when it comes to improving a WFH day. I can’t tell you how many friends have informed me that they’ve been keeping the TV on in the background for… well, for company, as it were. A sort of artificial stand-in for all the hustle bustle of the office that they’ve been missing. 

Naturally, Emily In Paris featured highly on people’s list of top TV shows to stick on while they’re working – which isn’t all that surprising, when you think about it. To quote The Verge’s review, it is “light television meant to be devoured and mostly forgotten.” 

It doesn’t matter how many times you look away from the screen, or get caught up in a task, or start tuning out what the characters are saying, because you’ll look back to find yourself exactly where you’d expect to find yourself; a ridiculously picturesque cobbled Parisian street.

Why so many of us are watching background TV right now

This theme – one of turning easily digestible shows (aka those that don’t demand too much time and attention) into companionship – was a popular one when I reached out to self-confessed purveyors of background TV.

Lily Collins as Emily in Emily In Paris on Netflix
Emily In Paris is a prime example of background TV at its finest.

“My partner and I work very different hours, so I ended up spending a lot of time on my own when I was working from home,” says Alex. 

“I stuck on old episodes of Come Dine With Me, because it was nice to have some voices in the background; it made it feel a bit less isolating and lonely. And I actually find my workload easier to juggle when there’s something on in the background, because it feels a less intense environment and much more laidback.”

Hollie, meanwhile, says she likes to stick on “something that I know won’t distract me, or something that I’ve watched loads of times before, like Friends. I usually turn my laptop away so that I can’t see the TV screen, though, and I keep the volume turned down.”

And Sarah confesses: “I don’t think the TV has been off at all during my time WFH, so I’ve worked my way through Virgin River, Chesapeake Shores, Sweet Magnolias, and When Calls The Heart. They’re all shows dealing with low-stakes drama, so I never get too engrossed – and they are set in such beautiful places, too. Which is always nice, especially when you’re working from a grubby London flat with no view.”

Is all of this passive content consumption really good for us, though? 

Grace McMahon, life coach at Beingwell, says background TV offers a form of “auditory stimulation” that, somewhat surprisingly, actually comes hand-in-hand with many benefits.

“This background noise helps to drown out our inner monologues, which can become annoying and even anxiety-inducing for some,” she explains. 

“For others, it can keep the realisation of monotony at bay, or make them feel less lonely, or offer comfort. And it can even serve as a way to occupy our minds, even when we’re not really paying any attention to what is happening on screen.”

Scaring off TV - stock photo
Our growing obsession with background TV is having a detrimental effect on our ability to engage with meatier shows.

McMahon continues: “We like this ambient noise because it’s the best way to mask the more disturbing sounds of traffic, or our neighbours, or the sounds of our own houses; the creak of a boiler, the pipes jangling in the walls, the roar of an electric fan. 

“And, much like white noise, it can drown out those auditory interferences – not to mention prevent wandering thoughts, feelings, and even rumination (cyclical thinking that can be unhelpful or irrational).”

How does background TV really impact our concentration levels? 

Well, for some of us, McMahon says it can actually improve our focus, particularly when it comes to the cognitively demanding tasks we are given at work. And, while we’re doing more menial tasks, it can help to keep us stimulated while we’re doing them.

To keep it from becoming too much of an additional stimulus, though, McMahon advises that we opt for TV shows that are “light-hearted and easy on the ear, because we’re less likely to get sucked into them and forget about everything else we’re trying to get done.”

“Aim for ‘casual viewing’ and ‘easy watching’, or even a show that’s slightly boring or silly – not so boring that you can’t stand to have it going on in the background, but unchallenging enough to not be sucked into the story,” she says.

“Any shows we’ve watched before, or with fairly predictable storylines, are ideal. And try to avoid those programmes with lots of plot twists, if only because it can be irritating to miss out on those big reveals.”

How is our penchant for background TV affecting pop culture?

Of course, there is one big glaring problem with all of the above; while background TV can be used to boost our emotional wellbeing, engaging with these soothing ambient shows means that we’re telling production companies that this is what we want to see more of on our screens.

Think about it; earlier this year, Emily In Paris received two Golden Globes nominations – for TV series (comedy or musical) and best actress in a TV series (comedy or musical) for Lily Collins – and Michaela Coel’s I May Destroy You was controversially snubbed altogether. We’ve seen, too, critically acclaimed series such as The OA, GLOW, and The Dark Crystal: Age Of Resistance cancelled, while other, less well received shows have been renewed. Over and over and over again.

BBC Three coming back to TV

And, as if that weren’t enough to give us pause, McMahon says our growing obsession with background TV is having a detrimental effect on our ability to engage with meatier TV shows.

And what about our ability to engage with content overall?

“The more we use background TV for whatever reasons, the less engaged we’re likely to be in the future,” she says, explaining that we are creating a “habit” for ourselves.

“We might find ourselves automatically picking our phones, books, and laptops up, even while we’re watching a long-awaited new series, gripping drama or well-reviewed film. Essentially, we’ll be switching to autopilot mode rather than intentionally focusing on the content we’re consuming, as we have subconsciously trained our minds to wander.”

How, then, can we prevent this from happening? Well, McMahon says we need to aim to be “intentional with how you use background TV,” but stresses that this will look different for everyone.

“If you’ve been waiting for a new series or the next series in the saga, or a film, then make the decision beforehand that you will not get distracted; if you have to, move potential distractions out of the way to help you – you won’t be the first person in the world who’s had to leave their phone in another room in order to stay present. And, if you realise you’ve switched to autopilot mode, then take a deep breath and focus on bringing yourself back to the moment.

“Alternatively, if you’re only watching for background noise while you’re working, then be intentional about that, too. Set up a workstation, maybe watch it on a different device to your ‘I’m concentrating’ shows, and keep the volume low.”

McMahon finishes: “The more intentional we are in what we do, and the more we actively choose how to behave or act, the less likely we are to create autopilot habits.”

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Kayleigh Dray

Kayleigh Dray is Stylist’s digital editor-at-large. Her specialist topics include comic books, films, TV and feminism. On a weekend, you can usually find her drinking copious amounts of tea and playing boardgames with her friends.

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