If your eyes are burning and you have lost all track of time, unless cramming for exams, you probably just finished streaming and binge-watching the latest new or returning television series.
No longer is it necessary to record one episode of a TV program you may miss on a given night—to catch up at a later date. With myriad TV streaming services (also known as major streaming video platforms), one needs only to subscribe to a service and then prepare the couch for a lengthy viewing session of one, two, or all episodes of the newest season of a favorite program.
Not since the introduction of the television into North American living rooms (in 1948 in the U.S., and in Canada in 1952), have people been more consumed by the tube. With countless streaming services like Amazon, CraveTV, FandangoNOW, Google Play, Hulu, Microsoft, Netflix, PlayStation Video, and Vudu—the dizzying prices and offerings are a menu for study.
Depending on your viewing preferences and on the amount of viewing you do, pay-per-view or monthly subscription rates can range from the rare find--free of charge--to $35.00 USD per month and everywhere in between.
In her September 2017 article for Business Insider, Caroline Cakebread explained that binge-watching involves devoting many hours—or days—to watching multiple episodes of a TV program at once. Thanks to the availability of these streaming services, statistics show “58 percent of Americans have engaged in binge-watching, and of that number 72 percent say it’s how they normally consume TV shows”.
In a recent survey conducted by theguardian.com, most respondents defined binge-watching "as two to five hours of consecutive viewing in one day". Earlier, in a 2014 Psychology Today article, Jonathan Fader, Ph.D., said binge-watching “is commonly defined as watching 2-6 episodes of a TV show in a single sitting”.
So why are people binge-watching and what effect is it having on the viewer? Cakebread’s article explains the why saying that prior to online streaming, viewers did not have the option to “watch multiple episodes at once until after a TV season was available to buy or rent in stores”. But binge-watching allows the audience to consume the full story in one sitting, without waiting a week or more for the next episode to air.
The effects of binge-watching are perhaps less obvious than the reasons why people do it. But, researchers are beginning to understand the real impact this pattern of watching programs is having on viewers’ mental health.
Writing for nbcnews.com in early November, Danielle Page stated the obvious: if viewers did not enjoy binge-watching, they would not be doing it in such large numbers. In a recent Netflix survey, Page continued, 73 percent indicated they associated “positive feelings” with binge-watching.
“But,” Page countered, “if you spent last weekend watching season two of 'Stranger Things' in its entirety, you may have found yourself feeling exhausted by the end of it—and downright depressed that you're out of episodes to watch.”
Page refers to an explanation by clinical psychologist, Dr. Renee Carr, Psy.D., of the chemical reactions in the brain causing the highs and lows of binge-watching. According to Carr, writes Page, “when binge-watching your favorite show, your brain is continually producing dopamine [a chemical providing the body an internal feeling of pleasure], and your body experiences a drug-like high. You experience a pseudo-addiction to the show because you develop cravings for dopamine."
The brain does not differentiate between whether the dopamine is the result of a drug like heroin, or the sixth in a ten-episode binge-watched series. The brain—and body--only knows it craves the all-over good feeling. Like a heroin addict looking for the next high, the ‘hooked’ viewer feels the need to keep watching.
Page also includes the interpretation of Chicago clinical psychologist, Dr. John Mayer, Ph.D., who believes “the act of binge-watching offers us a temporary escape from our day-to-day grind, which can act as a helpful stress management tool”. Mayer equates this way of watching programs to “. . . a steel door that blocks our brains from thinking about those constant stressors that force themselves into our thoughts”.
But what happens to that same viewer’s brain when the ten-episode series is over? According to Mayer, viewers tend to feel a sense of loss and can actually go through a sad period of time, much like a mourning process. “We call this situational depression because it is stimulated by an identifiable, tangible event,” he explained.
If binge-watching causes highs and lows similar to a drug addiction, as well as depression—what is the solution? In Jonathan Fader’s Psychology Today article, he suggests asking yourself a few questions to determine whether there is a need to change viewing habits—for the sake of your mental health. His questions include:
- Has your TV binging caused you any significant impairment or distress?
- Has it made you late for work?
- Caused you to lose sleep?
- Caused arguments?
- Is there time to discuss the show with your loved ones?
- How frequently do you eat while you watch?
Overall, Fader encourages moderation as the key. Binge-watching every now and then is probably just fine as long as it does not become a detriment to one’s daily activities and overall well-being. And with that, perhaps there will indeed be time for one more episode.
Cakebread, C., (September 15, 2017). Business Insider. Here are all the reasons why Americans say they binge-watch TV shows. http://www.businessinsider.com/reasons-why-americans-binge-watch-tv-shows-chart-2017-9
Fader, J., Ph.D., (February 16, 2014). Psychology Today. Binge TV: Is Our New Way of Watching (Breaking) Bad? https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-new-you/201402/binge-tv-is-our-new-way-watching-breaking-bad
Karmakar, M., & Sloan Kruger, J., (March 4, 2016). The Guardian. Is binge-watching bad for your mental health? https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/mar/04/binge-watching-mental-health-effects-research
Littleton, C., (August 9, 2017). Variety. Peak TV: The Count of Scripted Series in 2017 So Far. http://variety.com/2017/tv/news/peak-tv-scripted-series-count-2017-1202521118/
Page., D., (November 4, 2017). NBC News. What Happens to Your Brain When You Binge-Watch a TV Series. https://www.nbcnews.com/better/health/what-happens-your-brain-when-you-binge-watch-tv-series-ncna816991
Seymour, G., (January 4, 2016). CNN. Is this draining your life of meaning? http://www.cnn.com/2016/01/04/opinions/seymour-binge-watch-tv/index.html