Put Down That Remote! Binge-Watching Can Be Bad for You

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On May 18, Netflix will roll out the second season of one of its buzziest, most controversial and, let’s face it, most bingeable shows: 13 Reasons Why. We wrote quite a bit about the show’s first season, beginning with our review and spiraling out from there. (Our parents’ guide to the series will be updated after the series’ new season.) Of course, by the time we began talking about it, some viewers had already watched the whole 13-episode season—streaming it in one massive lump. Obviously, the show itself has a plethora of issues, but those issues can be magnified—and other issues can arise—when it’s consumed as rapidly as possible. And I wanted to unpack that a bit more here.

We live in a dizzying entertainment age, and nothing expresses that cultural vertigo more than the changes we’ve seen in television.

When I was a kid, I had just a handful of channels to flip through on the old family TV set, and I’d have to wait a whole week to see the next episode of Magnum P.I. Now, we need not head to the living room to watch something: Television comes with us on our smartphones and tablets. Not only do we have hundreds of channels to choose from, but we have scads of options on streaming networks like Hulu, Amazon Prime and YouTube. Netflix, home to 13 Reasons Why, completely upended our notions of what “television” itself was, and nowhere is that more apparent in how it allows us to “binge” on its shows. In days of yore, series like Stranger Things and Orange is the New Black would’ve taken months to unfurl. Now, many finish season-long story arcs in days, sometimes hours.

In 2013, when streaming shows was still relatively new, Netflix found that 61% of its users watched between two to six episodes of a given show in one sitting. Three years later, Netflix found that most of its users tended to gun through an entire season in one week. In fact, Nielsen said that 361,000 people binge-watched all nine episodes of the second season of Stranger Things on its very first day of release.

Last year, 13 Reasons Why was an extraordinarily popular television binge: Its viewers blew through its first season at the third-highest clip as any show on the service. (American Vandal and 3% were Nos. 1 and 2, respectively.)

Now, obviously, Plugged In has long taken a cautionary tack about what we consume on television. A compelling story doesn’t necessarily mitigate the crass and salacious content that a show might contain, and families should always be wary about what they watch. But binge-watching television brings another factor to the entertainment table: Watching a season in a week does something far different to your brain than just watching a season in a … well, season. In other words, we need to consider how we watch as well.

Netflix found that nearly three-quarters of its users (73%) felt pretty good when they binge-watched a favorite show. That’s because the binge triggers a dopamine release in your brain. Dr. Renee Carr explained the phenomenon to NBC:

This chemical gives the body a natural, internal reward of pleasure that reinforces continued engagement in that activity. It is the brain’s signal that communicates to the body, ‘This feels good. You should keep doing this!’ When binge watching your favorite show, your brain is continually producing dopamine, and your body experiences a drug-like high. You experience a pseudo-addiction to the show because you develop cravings for dopamine.

Carr says this “addiction” isn’t all that different from what leads to sex or heroin addiction. “Your body does not discriminate against pleasure,” she says.

Obviously, getting a dopamine kick from a finite story comes with a built-in bummer: The season’s going to end. So the quicker you binge through it, the quicker it’ll be done. That’s why some scientists suggest that bingers might experience something akin to grief after they complete a favorite show.

But it goes deeper.

A study from the University of Minnesota suggests that binge-watching can be harmful to our physical health: After studying 15,000 adults, researchers there found that binge-watchers were 1.7 times more likely to develop blood clots than their less sedentary peers. And naturally, all that viewing time can lead to hardcore sleep deprivation.

Binge watching can also lead to emotional isolation, too—where a fictional television show can become more important to viewers than face-to-face relationships. “When we substituted TV for human relations we disconnect from our human nature and substitute for [the] virtual,” Dr. Judy Rosenberg told NBC. “We are wired to connect, and when we disconnect from humans and over-connect to TV at the cost of human connection, eventually we will ‘starve to death’ emotionally.”

Paradoxically, binge-watching also can foster greater connectivity, of course: When we watch a show and know others who do, too, we can all share our experiences with those fellow fans, which actually can make bingeing a bonding experience. “It does give you something to talk about with other people,” Dr. Ariane Machin told NBC.

But that doesn’t seem to counteract the negatives that come with bingeing. According to a study by the University of Toledo, self-described binge watchers report higher levels of stress, anxiety and depression than those who don’t binge television. That’s ironic in the case of 13 Reasons Why—given the first season was about, in part, teen anxiety, stress and depression.

I’m a realist. I know that, if you’re prone to binge-watching, you’ll not be likely to stop because of a blog. But we know that bingeing anything, be it alcohol or ice cream, isn’t particularly healthy. Why would we expect television to be any different?

Who wrote this?

Paul Asay has been writing for Plugged In since 2007 and loves superheroes and finding God in unexpected places. In addition, Paul has also written several books, with his newest—Burning Bush 2.0—recently published by Abingdon Press. When Paul’s not reviewing movies, he hikes with his wife, Wendy, runs marathons with his grown kids, Colin and Emily, and beats back unruly houseplants. Follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.

Have something to say? Leave a comment.

Luv7Christ3 More than 1 year ago
It’s good to put healthy boundaries around bingeing anything.

But reality is for some, they may need the escape, till they figure out how to balance tv watching.  Binge watching is usually a lesser evil than other addictions.

Emotional health, may require a good christian counselor or therapist for christians if one is having a hard time nagitating negative emotions.

And it’s the responsibility of each person.

Until I find a good christian therapist (already have a christian counselor) for my heavier emotional issues, I need my escapism, till the healing in Christ makes it easier to balance Netflix or other online movie or tv watching, like YouTube, etc.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Is it okay to ask questions about 13 Reasons Why here?   I looked for a comment area under the original review, and didn't see anything like a Comments/Feedback area.

As a 52-year old parent, I watched the series last year.   I was really moved by the unique story.  And as someone bullied badly in high school, I really 'felt' the message.    Ever since then (6-12 mos?), I have felt passionately about watching this with my now 14-year old son.   He's good looking, popular, athletic...and also impetuous, gullible, and susceptible to peer pressure.   All I could think about after watching S1E1, was how a beautifully innocent and nervous young girl's life changed by a picture being shared.  All the other things (drinking, sex, lists, secrets, etc) are all constants in high school--all of which seemed to target Hanna once that picture was shared.  I want my son to see how an innocent date can spiral out of control when all those other constants get involved.   Just 1-2 indiscretions can cause so much.  I think Hanna referenced the Butterfly Effect? 

Anyway, the desire to watch this 1:1 with him hasn't subsided.    After multiple considerations with my wife, she has agreed.  I plan to take the content slowly (thanks to this article), and have always planned to pause the show multiple times and use it as a teaching moment.  I may even FFWD past the sexual scenes and of course Hanna's final act.
Jessica More than 1 year ago
Thanks for sharing. It's very admirable that you desire to be a responsible parent and want to guide and help your teen with such a serious subject. As you consider what to do - and maybe give you more food for thought, you may want to check the articles on our Focus on the Family parenting page called"13 Reasons Why Not" (https://bit.ly/2jREYEg). Within the artilce you can request a Parent's Guide for the very purpose of discussing these things with your teen. We hope this has been of help. Blessings to you and your family!
charitysplace More than 1 year ago
They failed to mention another serious side effect of binge-watching a show -- the inability to recall what happens from one episode to the next! Instead of deep internal pondering of individual episodes and, maybe, discussion with like-minded friends (that's the thing I miss most, now all the online discussion forums have fallen by the wayside), you blow through it, don't discuss it with anyone except in broad generalities, and then have nothing else to look forward to -- except the next binge-worthy show.

Admittedly, I didn't get through Stranger Things in the first day as planned, but only because I had the dreadful imposition of REAL PEOPLE staying at my house that weekend, so I could only sneak in episodes at 6am until they woke up. Got the best of both worlds that weekend -- friends at my house AND Stranger Things.

I did binge season two of The Crown, though... and will go back and watch it more slowly at some point in the near future.

Since I tend to over-work myself (moderation is not something I have yet learned), sometimes I reward myself with a day off and a binge-watch. Fortunately, there's only maybe three times a year a show is worth binging...
charitysplace More than 1 year ago
BTW, I'm having a hard time not binge-watching Lost in Space on Netflix. Solid story, good acting, keeps me on the edge of my seat, and PG!! Can't ask for more than that!!
Sandee25 More than 1 year ago
You are so right! When I binge watch, I find that I have trouble remembering what just happened the hour before! I hadn't thought that the reason was not having the time to mull it over, talk about it, etc. That makes perfect sense. When I watch TV in real time, after I finish the current episode, I think about it more leading up to the next week because the anticipation of new information and/or resolution builds. Can you imagine binge-watching a show like Lost?! I'd be even more confused than I am now--and that show's been off the air for 8 years! I watched Breaking Bad the first time in real time. It was excruciating to wait months and months for the next season to start, but so worth it! When I watched it the second time, in binge time, I thought it was unrealistic, that things couldn't possibly happen that fast. It wasn't as good in binge time.

I engage in a "modified binge." I watch an episode or part of an episode during my lunch hour about 3 or 4 days a week. So it takes me about 3 or 4 weeks to get through a normal season of ten to twelve 1-hour episodes. Best of both worlds. Plus, I only watch one show at a time. When I finish Longmire, I'll start on Lost in Space. Can't wait!
charitysplace More than 1 year ago
I fell behind on LOST and wound up getting the DVD sets from the library after a few years -- since I can only keep them about two weeks, that forced me to binge-watch a lot of episodes and as a result... I cannot tell you much of what happened in individual episodes or seasons, apart from a handful of memorable incidents / deaths.

I think there's something to be said for the anticipation of waiting for a new episode -- I'm glad I have to wait a week between Doctor Who episodes! Gives me time to discuss, re-watch, read fan theories, and talk about what may happen / building plot twists in a way that just having all the answers at your fingertips within 24 hours does not do...
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago

TV may be bad for you, but it sure is nice for me when I get to watch my Washington Capitals play, something that doesn't happen often.


In all fairness, I don't think TV is bad in moderation. Everything is bad for you in excess. As for books, most of them these days are just as trashy as TV shows. And yes, what we watch matters. But I don't think we need to throw the baby out with the bathwater, to use the tired cliché.


-Nameless

Anonymous More than 1 year ago
The Bible says alcohol is good in moderation...
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I'm sorry you have a distaste for all who have drunken wine before (including Boaz, David, Solomon, Peter, John, James, and Jesus). Regardless, the Bible says it is fine to drink in moderation so trying to correlate watching TV in moderation to drinking in moderation won't help your argument