Around 70% of American adults identify as “binge-watchers.” Thanks to the pandemic, streaming has become an increasingly popular and mainstream activity. Binging, when it comes to TV, is usually defined as watching a number of episodes of a single TV show in quick succession. Binge-watching tends to instill a mixture of pleasure and self-hatred in most people who partake; for example, 37% of Netflix subscribers have admitted to binge-watching a series while at work. Binge-watching a show you love can be a delightful experience, yet hours go by without your having accomplished anything productive – which most people beat themselves up for later. So, is this newly celebrated tradition one that should be preserved, or are there side effects of binge-watching that may be undesirable?
Here are three arguments in favor of binge-watching, and three arguments against it.
The unhealthy choice
It’s 1 a.m. and your pillow is calling, but the next episode of your favorite TV show just started automatically, and you need to know what happens after the last episode’s cliffhanger. The problem? A study in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine links being a self-proclaimed binge-watcher with a 98% amplified risk of poor sleep quality, including fatigue and insomnia. In the moment it may seem like a good idea but binge-watching before bed can make the next day a difficult one to get through. A recent survey shows that 88% of US adults and 95% of 14 to 44-year-olds have lost sleep because of staying up late to binge-watch multiple episodes of a TV show or streaming series.
Binge-watching doesn’t only impact your sleep. A Scottish study from the University of Glasgow asserts that watching more than 2 hours and 12 minutes of television a day is not only bad for your mental and physical health but can actually lead to an early death. Spending long periods of time sitting in one place can slow your metabolism and contribute to developing potentially fatal blood clots. Not to mention that binge-watching may lead to binge-eating. While binge-watching may feel good in the moment, your body may disagree long-term.
Most shows aren’t designed for binge-watching
Though the popularity of Netflix, and streaming in general, is growing exponentially, the majority of TV shows have been written with the intention of building anticipation; their writers have historically relied on the fact that there is a week between each episode in which you’ll be waiting to see what happens next. Binge-watching, by contrast, doesn’t provide the time needed for after-thoughts and discussions, central to the community-building experience. Viewer discussions around mystery or action TV shows, like “Did Daenerys Targaryen really have to destroy Kings Landing?” or “Did Tony Soprano live or die?” are less likely to happen when the mystery is solved or reasoning explained minutes after the question was posed. Additionally, the binge-watching phenomenon attests to the lack of patience that characterizes modern society. We’re used to getting everything immediately and aren’t good at waiting for things we want. Our need for instant gratification (and our inability to delay gratification) may not be good for people over time, and binge-watching is a major example of this problem.
Many periodic binge-watchers will choose a night with their TV over a night out with friends. A study found that 56% of bingers prefer to watch alone, and 98% of people prefer to watch at home. Netflix also asserts that 84% of pet owners binge-watch with their pets; this is a concerningly high number of people who prefer to binge with their furry friend rather than with other humans. After all, research from Brigham Young University demonstrates that social isolation is a risk factor for having a shorter life, in ways that are comparable to obesity. Separating yourself from the outside world in order to binge-watch, with or without a pet, may be a sign that things have gone too far. New research confirms that Americans are spending less time with friends than they did a decade ago.
Bring on the Binge
Enhancing our art
Bingeing on TV makes it easier to enjoy and understand plot complexity, which has led to the creation of complex fiction, and by extension, greater art in our television shows. Shows have never been more creative, suspenseful and thought-provoking than they are today, with a record number of dramas produced in recent years. (Think Wednesday, The Queen’s Gambit, Handmaid’s Tale and Black Mirror.)
Additionally, newer shows are now written with binge-watching in mind thanks to Netflix; for example, Ozark, Stranger Things or Amazon Prime’s The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, to name just a few, release all of the episodes from a season at the same time, suggesting that the episodes are intended to be watched quickly and together. Such a canvas of uninterrupted plot lines has allowed creators to be more complex, resulting in better cinematic and more challenging art.
A better viewing experience
Binge-watching makes the entire viewing experience better. It’s similar to picking up a book that you absolutely can’t put down until you’ve read it from cover to cover. There’s something intensely gratifying about finishing a story from start to finish; gorging on TV shows provides such an effect. Being completely immersed in a story’s plot line puts viewers in a state of “flow,” which is an experience categorized by positive psychology as an important contributor to creativity and well-being. Thanks to binge-watching, we don’t have to wait between various parts of a show’s narrative (and therefore we don’t forget it), which means we can handle and enjoy the intricacies of today’s shows, with their multiple plot lines and subtle twists.
Better than drugs
Everyone has addictions, some more serious than others. For those with an addictive personality, binge-watching may be a more harmless urge to give in to than others when soothing an itch. Psychologist Dr. Bea contends that when you watch a show, you release the feel-good chemical dopamine in your brain. Streaming shows keeps the dopamine coming – yet there’s no real harm in binge-watching, and who’s to say you shouldn’t bask in some harmless pleasure?
The Bottom Line: Binge-watching is an enjoyable way to immerse yourself in a specific TV show, but it might not be the healthiest activity in which to partake and may actually ruin the experience of a show for you. What do you think? Do you prefer to binge-watch a show (or one, or two or three…) or stagger your viewings?