It is a rainy Sunday night. I am swaddled up in an oversized furry blanket and staring, like a zombie, into the soft glow of lights that project from my living room television. The episode I was tuned into suddenly ends, and none other than Netflix’s infamous “15 seconds until the next episode begins” screen pops up. My emotions are running, and my anxiety is high, I allow the seconds to run. I’ll be honest this went on for a few hours, but there is no serious harm in watching a little too much TV right? WRONG. Binge watching (watching between two and six episodes in one sitting) has become a sort of social phenomena. A Netflix survey published around the holidays two years ago, found that 61 percent of 1,500 respondents admit to devouring TV regularly. This study does not even take into account response bias, or nonresponse bias. We can assume that some people may have felt embarrassed to answer truthfully, or that some didn’t even take the time to answer. What if that 61% was even larger! We find ourselves striking up conversations with strangers by asking what Netflix shows and seasons they are watching, it can consume someone. Sadly, I must inform you that numerous studies show that binge-watching television has negative effects beyond our belief. Some of these effects include: obesity, loneliness, depression, and insomnia.
Avid binge-watching is a form of hiding negative emotions, leading to many mental health consequences. A recent longitudinal study completed at the sleep disorders and research center, monitored the correlation between stressful events and sleeping on a sample of community members who were considered “good sleepers”. The study found that binge watching increased participants risk of insomnia by four percent. I think that this study is particularly valid because it utilized previously “good sleepers”, and demonstrated the change of pattern that occurred from the stress of a show. This could be due to the arousing nature of a television show. Often times television is watched before bed Cliffhangers cause anxious feelings that can last a while, which in turn could be stifling ones ability to fall sleep. Just like any addiction if you attempt to burry yourself beneath it through compulsive behaviors, you will always come out feeling worse. It is shocking to think that something as seemingly harmless as television shows could have similar causes and effects as an alcohol or drug addiction. In a different study lead by Yoon Hi Sung, findings show that those who felt the most depressed also had the highest tendency to binge-watch TV shows. The randomized research study surveyed over 300 adults and asked them to answer questions relating to loneliness and levels of depression. They aligned these answers with their TV habits and reached a conclusion. Those who answered positively to feeling depressed and lonely, showed higher rates of binge watching. The only problem I have with this study is its failure to consider confounding variables. It does not take into account genetics, or other life hardships but the correlation is still enough to raise concern.
Aside from mental health, there is also the danger of physical health problems. In a survey study done by the Australian Diabetes, Obesity and Lifestyle Study, the findings are horrifying. The study which is centered around a 12,000 participant survey asked questions about general health, hours spent watching TV, smoking, diet, etc. They then took these answers and applied them to an actuarial table, modifying it to fit answers pertaining to smoking and other negative habits. The study concluded by saying that every hour spent on television after the age of 25, reduced the participants life expectancy by 22 minutes. This is a massive claim. I find it difficult to believe based on the use of a table and survey, instead. The thought of my life decreasing based off of evidence from a survey is concerning. I see it as a soft end point, requiring further assessment due to its lack of relation. Separately, a prospective study done in 2003 monitoring 50,000 middle aged women for six years, found that for every hour of TV watched it increased the viewers chance of becoming obese by about 23 percent. These findings do not come as a surprise to me. Sitting motionless on a couch is quite obviously not going to help one lose weight, instead it actually slows the viewers metabolism and circulation. There is also the association of food with movies and television. Viewers are likely to carelessly snack while binge watching television. The mental and physical health effects are overwhelmingly negative. Although all the effects are not immediate, they do cause long term damage. You will not become obese at the very moment you are watching Game of Thrones.
So, now that you know the negative effects that accompany binge-watching TV why would you continue to do it? Robert F. Potter, PhD, director of the Institute for Communication Research at Indiana University says that we are much more susceptible to binge watching on Netflix because the company, as well as the writers want us to. Netflix makes it so easy to watch for hours on end because of the way it is formatted. Once an episode ends, the next one comes on within seconds. Once the show comes on the viewer is instantly hooked, it is nearly impossible to turn off at that point. Potter mentions that, “Our brain is hard-wired to monitor changes in our environment as a survival mechanism, so it’s hard for us to tear our eyes away.” Writers structure their shows with cliffhangers at the end, grabbing our attention and leaving us anxiously awaiting the next episode. Cliffhangers can generate acute stress and produce excess CRH hormone. The release of this hormone causes the body to remain energized and alert, making it harder to fall asleep. When you can’t fall asleep, and aren’t tired, it is just an excuse to watch more tv and indulge in the vicious cycle. Aside from evolution, completing an episode is often viewed as an accomplishment to our brain. Just as completing an assignment is an accomplishment, it does not immediately differentiate between which actions are productive and which are not. This completion triggers the reward system in our brains activating serotonin and dopamine. Dopamine is an attention seeker- it always wants to be present. The release of dopamine encourages us to keep watching and therefore continue to create dopamine, much like the involvement of dopamine in a drug addiction. Serotonin could also be accessed by the bright lights emitted from the TV or computer screen.
Binge watching television is a phenomena that is becoming largely accepted due to companies such as Netflix and Hulu. While it is a seemingly harmless and enjoyable activity, numerous studies are showing the dark side. There is now evidence supporting increased levels of depression, obesity, and insomnia. Although some of the studies done are not perfect, we can not ignore their conclusions. So, will you let those 15 seconds run?