Is Binge Watching Bad For Your Mental Health?
It all depends on your own inner sense of balance.
The past decade has seen a huge transformation in the way people consume media. Viewing habits, now deeply ingrained in culture, didn’t even have words to describe them, or the technology to provide them, as recently as 2012. Online streaming services, in particular Netflix, revolutionized the way people consume TV. Rather than patiently waiting for a week for a new episode of your favorite show to premiere, suddenly, you were able to access entire shows, at the click of a button.
In 2013, Netflix released its first self-made TV show, House of Cards. Unlike the traditional drip-feed schedule, all episodes were available at once. Later that year, binge-watching was named word of the year by Collins dictionary. The phenomena grew and grew, until “binging a series” became part of popular culture.
Watching episode after episode of your favorite show can be harmless fun. It’s something we all do, from time to time. But when does binge-watching become a problem? Does over-consumption lead to addictive qualities? And can binge-watching have a negative impact on your mental health? Let’s press play, and take a look in closer detail.
What Is Binge-Watching?
Binge-watching is defined as watching multiple episodes, or an entire season of a show, in one sitting. A 2014 survey by Netflix found that 73 percent of viewers count anything from 2 to 6 episodes as a “binge.” The same survey found that, out of the same group, 61 percent binge-watch on a regular schedule. The scientific definition (yes, there’s a science of binge-watching!) considers the frequency of sessions, length and amount of episodes, type of content, or the total amount of time spent watching.
There’s a chicken and egg scenario with technology and viewing habits. People started to binge watch before streaming services became available, watching old DVD box sets of popular shows. I’m at the age where I can remember the transition from looking through the listings guide, highlighting programs I wanted to watch, and waiting for them to premiere on TV, to renting box sets (happy memories of Six Feet Under and Prison Break), to surfing streaming platforms.
There’s no doubt, though, that the rise of platforms such as Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime, and the technology powering them, have made binge-watching even easier, by using programming features designed to keep viewers’ eyes glued to the screen and models that remove advertisement breaks. Features from recommendation algorithms (“what’s next?”) to autoplay are all intelligently designed to keep you watching. Streaming platforms have to keep viewing retention numbers high, it’s part of their business model.
What was a novelty in the beginning has become a concern. A review in Critical Studies of Television, in 2018, highlighted the potential pitfalls of modern technology through what they label insular flow, or the ease by which new episodes can be watched. “Rather than going back to the home page and making a deliberate choice, the post-play function takes us directly to the next episode. The ‘skip intro’ function even allows us to make the narrative flow feel more seamless,” the authors write. You don’t have to leave the sofa. And that’s an issue.
Why Do People Binge-Watch?
In the field of psychology, “just because,” is never the answer to any popular behavior. Multiple studies have explored the underlying motivations for binge-watching. The underlying foundation of this research is the Uses and Gratification Theory (UGT), which attempts to understand why people seek out, and consume, media in the way that they do. The theory dates all the way back to the 1940s and has scaled to modern-day excess.
One of the biggest factors is instant gratification and stimulation. Entertainment has the ability to provide a form of escapism from whatever is going on in life. As a passive activity, there’s no need to try and think, be creative, or engage. Depending on the type of content, a few hours of Netflix might boost your mood or allow you to externalize difficult emotions onto the screen.
Now, you don’t have to walk to the store, or wait for your favorite show to be scheduled. A whole universe of content is available, 24/7, at the click of a button. In similar ways to drinking excess alcohol or binging on food, watching a TV show can become a form of distraction from unpleasant emotions. Unlike other types of binging, binge-watching is socially accepted and encouraged.
It’s a bizarre modern phenomenon that binge-watching, and “keeping up” with new TV and movies, is part of modern living, at least in the privileged Western world. A combination of social pressure, FOMO, and the all-at-once availability of shows means that, in order to keep up to speed with conversations amongst friends or colleagues, you have to be watching new shows at a similar pace.
Binge-Watching and Mental Health
Like all other types of binge, binge-watching doesn’t prioritize your health. “You get a show or a movie you’re really dying to watch, and you end up staying up late at night, so we actually compete with sleep,” Netflix CEO Reed Hastings said in 2017. “And we’re winning,” he added. It’s a particularly concerning victory for the streaming platform with over 221 million sleep-deprived subscribers. Seemingly aware of the potential pitfalls of binge-watching, Netflix has instructed actors not to use the term when promoting new shows.
Understanding the negative effects on mental health is complex. The occasional binge isn’t harmful and can be a means to relax and switch off. But that doesn’t mean binge-watching can’t become a serious problem. Multiple studies have looked into the potential harm of binge-watching. In 2017, a study showed the cost of Netflix’s victory, with 98 percent of participants showing reduced sleep quality and higher fatigue after binge sessions.
Binge-watching has been linked with depression and anxiety. Worryingly, those who reported higher levels of anxiety while binge-watching were more likely to continue the habit to avoid further unpleasant feelings — a cycle of behavior that is primed for addiction. Leaning into binge-watching to alleviate uncomfortable feelings comes at the cost of not promoting healthier, supportive behaviors.
Binge-watching has been linked with levels of loneliness, too. Studies have linked high levels of binge-watching with parasocial relationships, the term given to the one-sided relationship viewers develop with performers. Immersed in another world, escaping difficult emotions, many viewers develop feelings of companionship with fictional characters to ease any sense of isolation, a behavior no doubt amplified during the pandemic.
How to Improve Your Information Diet
A few years ago I joined an old-school video rental store. Even though I had access to Netflix, there was something fulfilling in the process of traveling to the store, greeting the owner, walking the aisles, and picking up a physical case, all as I deliberated on what to watch. Once I’d chosen, I knew I was committed to the decision, having left with one or two blu-rays in hand. This isn’t easy to do now; in 2007 there were over 15,000 video stores in America, and in 2017, just 2,000. But it points to the value of delayed gratification.
Like everything in life, moderation is the best policy. Numerous studies have found that binge-watching alone isn’t necessarily bad for mental health. It depends on your relationship to viewing, your motivations, and how frequent or excessive the behavior is. With that in mind, below are a few pointers to integrate binge-watching in a healthier way.
Be conscious of your motivation
If binge-watching is an unquestioned habit, it’s likely you will adopt unhealthy behaviors. Start by being conscious of the process. That doesn’t mean sucking the enjoyment out of the process, or feeling guilty anytime you decide to watch your favorite show, or keep up with your latest obsession. It means being conscious about your decision.
Ask yourself if you are watching out of habit. If so, take a moment to pause and consider whether watching TV is the best use of your time, particularly before bed, where studies have shown binge-watching has a detrimental effect on sleep quality.
Spot any patterns of behavior
If you’re concerned binge-watching is affecting your mental health negatively, start to reflect on the patterns of your behavior. In just the same way some people binge eat when feeling sad, angry, or bored, start to pay attention to how you feel emotionally when you turn to the screen. Have you developed the habit of destressing or “switching off” after a hard day’s work? Do you watch comedy when you’re feeling sad, or drama when you’re feeling uncertain or lost?
Identify healthier alternatives
Once you’ve looked at your habits and patterns, consider what healthy alternatives you could try. Think about turning to mindfulness, yoga, or meditation when you feel anxious or sad, rather than watching a new series. If you notice you binge-watch when lonely, think of creative ways you could be social during those times, such as joining a sports group or inviting friends for dinner.
Address underlying emotions
Although binge-watching can offer temporary relief, if you are turning to the land of entertainment to escape difficult feelings, eventually those feelings will catch up with you. With a healthy dose of self-compassion, start to explore the underlying feelings you might be avoiding. That doesn’t mean going cold turkey and completely avoiding the comfort of a good show, but it does mean starting to pay some attention to avoidance or suppression mechanisms.
The other extreme of binge-watching is feeling guilt for even watching a few episodes. We live in an age of excess, and the key to integrating entertainment and consumption is finding a healthy balance, and enjoying the times you do spend sitting in front of the screen.
If you’re more conscious of this, you might find you begin to enjoy your binge sessions even more. Something I like to do is take time to deliberate on what show I’ll watch next, and then commit to that show. I always have one “serious” program and one “lighthearted” program that I’ll watch at any given time. If someone recommends a show, it gets added to the list.
Find out what works well for you, and achieve your inner sense of balance. Entertainment is designed to be fun. Film and TV are part of an information diet. Allow yourself to enjoy the occasional treat.