While we recognize the limitations of any singular blog post’s ability to answer big questions like the ones we’re asking, our intention is not to tell you everything there is to know about this issue, but rather to open up a space for conversation, reflection, curiosity, and a consideration of all the other questions this one question sets in motion.
To binge or not to binge; what will you watch?
It’s midnight. I awake abruptly, go to roll over and feel nothing but air beside me, as if I am laying on the edge of a cliff. I immediately roll back to save myself from the tumble downward to be blocked by a warm soft wall. The couch. I slowly open my eyes, trying to get my bearings as I hoist myself upright. I focus on the screen dominating my view and read – Are you still watching”?
As I shake my head and finally awaken completely I am left yet again wondering what I am doing sitting on my couch. I should be sleeping soundly in my nice cool bed instead of a hot tangled mess.
Why did I decide to play that last episode knowing I was about to fall asleep?
With streaming platforms like Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon offering up never-ending selections of entertainment, it is all too easy to get stuck on auto-play as we fall down the rabbit hole of our favorite shows and become attached to our favorite characters. The combination of these beautifully produced stories created to keep us all entertained, perpetually watching and sitting on platforms that encourage users to not look away, produces the perfect environment for binge watching.
Binge watching, an act we may not readily admit to committing but one the average American has been known to partake in, can be defined as watching two or more shows in a row and is not inherently a bad or detrimental thing to do. However, just like other addictive behaviors, binge watching shows can also be categorized as a problem if the behavior begins to detract from your (real)life. That is where our question comes into play: to binge or not to binge, what will you watch?
This question, like many others we have posed in this space, drives to a core understanding of media literacy and media mindfulness; the understanding of how the media we consume and the way in which we choose to consume it is impacting our lives. For me, not recognizing when it is time to shut down for the night has cost me countless hours of healthy sleep.
Numerous studies have been done looking into binge watching, exploring how the brain works when binge watching shows and the mental health impacts of binge watching. Scientists have seen that like other pseudo-addictions your brain produces dopamine while you watch shows you like. The more you do it, the more dopamine it produces and the better you feel. If the brain does not have any other reliable sources of pleasure (such as human connection), dependency on this form of dopamine can develop into an addiction.
While it can be addicting, it should be acknowledged that binge watching can also be used as a stress management tool as it can help us block out our daily stressors during the period of watching. The way we identify with characters and situations in shows can fuel the likelihood that watching a show will produce dopamine, and why many people report watching shows helps them relieve stress.
Although we can form genuine connections with others over the shows we watch, when we substitute human relations with TV we become disconnected from our own human nature, which can exacerbate and deepen feelings of isolation, anxiety, and depression. When we spend more time watching and less time engaging and living we can starve ourselves emotionally(link) of the person-to-person interactions and connections our bodies and brains need, and what happens when we finish binge watching our favorite show?
Now I have to wait a year to watch more???!!!???!!!?
I am feeling pretty sad…(aka dopamine crash)
Maybe I will just start the whole thing over; what else do I have to watch, do, or experience?????
It is easy to see how this type of behavior can have rippling negative impacts on our lives, but all hope is not lost!
Each study we encountered highlighted this idea:The difference between a healthy enthusiasm and an addiction is that the former adds to your life, whereas the latter detracts from it(link). Here are the expert tips on creating healthy media habits:
- Setting up either time limits or episode numbers you are willing to watch is one way to combat problematic binge watching habits and prevent this habit from becoming addictive. Create media blackout times where you won’t binge watch. Set boundaries for yourself and stick to them.
- Although I don’t think I could ever do it, stopping half-way through an episode will help you get over the constant cliff-hanger narrative that most shows employ to hook you into the next episode, as by the time you get through half of the episode you will have answered the most pressing questions from the previous one and will have not yet been pulled in by the most pressing questions for the current episode.
- Balance your binge watching with finding other sources of pleasure so your brain doesn’t get hooked on binge watching as a primary source of dopamine. Hang with friends and family, go for a walk, join a club, play a game, cook something delicious, make some art, or find your own fun. Seek alternative forms of positive cognitive/emotional stimulation.
For me, I shut auto-play off on all my platforms and no longer find myself incoherently stumbling off my couch at all hours of the night.
actions to take
Seek out diverse media.
Question the nature of
Reflect on your own habits of binge watching
Share your experience with us!
Connect with an AC member for a one on one chat.
questions to consider
What genre(s) of show do you choose to binge watch?
Why do you choose that/those genre(s)?
What have you lost from binge watching in the past?
What have you gained?
What boundaries do you have in place?
Are they working?