Binge watching: Complete guide to its effects on the brain and body
Just about everyone and their pets have binge-watched something before. Netflix found that on average, 61% of users watch between 2-6 episodes in one sitting. What is binge watching and how does it affect our body, brain, sleep, and overall health? What does our brain look like while binge watching? What are the positive and negative effects of it? What are some things to do rather than binge watch? Read about this and more here.
What is binge watching?
Binge watching, also spelled binge-watching, and also known as binge-viewing, marathon-viewing or simply binging, is the practice and act of watching television for a long period of time. Often, spending hours watching a single TV show.
In 2013, although the word “selfies” won for the official New Word of the Year, “Binge watching” was the runner-up and there’s a lot of evidence as to why. In people over the age of 15, it’s been found by the United States Department of Labor that on average, people watch at least 2.7 hours of TV a day. That’s about 20 hours a week on average! In 2013, Netflix, one of the world’s top binge-watching networks, found:
- 61% of users watch between 2-6 episodes in one sitting. Netflix is just one of many viewing platforms that has made it their mission to ensure that users are able to watch an entire season of a TV show at their own pace by giving them every episode in the season at once. Whether the users watch that all at once is up to them.
- 79% of users said that watching multiple episodes of the same show at the same time actually makes the show more enjoyable.
- 65% of users said that even if they took a digital time-out (not using social media or excluding certain apps from being used), they would still watch TV.
- 73% of Netflix users are happy binge watching. This makes sense considering that 76% of users said that binge watching helps them relax from everyday life.
- 39% of users prefer to “save” the TV show for later. The study found that often the reason for this is because the person wants to save the show to watch it with someone later.
- Most Netflix members choose to binge watch a series rather than taking their time with it. A study done by Netflix found that it takes the average binge watcher one week to finish an entire season.
- 80% of users said they would rather binge-watch a good TV show than read a friend’s social media post.
- Of the users interviewed, 38% prefer to do so alone while 51% prefer to watch with at least one other person with them.
- 361,000 people watched all nine episodes of Stranger Things on the day it was released according to this article.
- TV shows that fall under the categories of horror, thriller and Sci-Fi are the most likely to be binge-watched.
What does your brain look like while binge watching?
Netflix survey that found that 73% of users are happy binge watching. But, why? It’s because our brain reacts to the chemicals that are released while we watch. When we are engaged in an activity that we enjoy, our brain produces dopamine– the “feel good hormone”. Dopamine gives the body its internal pleasure reward which only reinforces the continuum of the activity. Essentially, when you were a kid and enjoyed playing on the playground, you realized that you wanted to do it more and more each time. That’s because your brain was happy while you were on the playground with your friends and released big spouts of dopamine into your system. While binge watching your favorite show, the brain continues to produce dopamine which gives your body a drug-like high. You begin to develop cravings for dopamine which causes you to feel a pseudo-addiction to the show you were binge watching.
The process we feel when we are addicted to drugs or other substances is similar to the process we feel while binge watching. Our neuronal pathways that cause addictions (like sex additions and heroin addictions) are the same neuronal pathways that cause the addiction to binge watching and it’s why sometimes it’s so hard to stop watching. Our body becomes so addicted to the dopamine produced that it wants to continue to do that substance or activity that provides it with that dopamine fix.
We can actually go through a phase of reactive depression when the binge is over and our last episode has finished- some people really mourn the loss. It’s considered situational depression because it’s happening due to an identifiable event (the episode ending). The stimulation our brain was receiving, and the dopamine it was producing, is lowered which leads to the state of depression.
Effects of binge watching on the body
There are many effects of binge watching on the body- none of them positive- but that all have their solutions.
- The spine. While binging, many people slump into their chair which causes their spines to go into a “C-shape”. If kept in this shape for too long, the spine can become cramped, our muscles begin to ache, and our organs can be squashed. Try using a reclining chair or sit up as straight as possible to help your back stay in the natural S-shape it should be in when you stand.
- The lungs. Sitting for long periods of time shrinks our lung capacity by a third. This means that we are getting less oxygen which leads to a decrease in mental focus. Try to fix this by sitting in a chair and putting a pillow behind the lower back- this position will help open up the lungs a bit.
- The Quads and other muscles. People’s muscles begin to “go soft” and they become out of shape. According to a six-year study of over 15,000 adults, people who watch TV “very often” are 40% less likely to exercise for less than one hour a day compared to people who won’t watch TV often.
- The gut and metabolism. People who don’t exercise and eat while watching TV are likely to gain weight. A U.S. study done over the period of six years found that for every two hours of TV you watch a day, you’re 14% more likely to develop diabetes and 23% more likely to become obese. Try to stay clear of watching channels such as The Food Network and try to not eat while binge watching. Instead, try drinking water.
- The heart. Binge watching causes our hearts to stop breathing sooner. An Australian study found that, on average, every hour of TV watched after age 25 reduces life expectancy by about 22 minutes!
Effects of binge watching on your sleep
Binge watching has a huge impact on your sleep- and it’s not a good impact, either. While it’s been found that regular TV watching doesn’t impact sleep, binge watching is associated with poor overall sleep quality. In a joint study done between the Belgium University of Leuven and the University of Michigan, 423 adults between the ages of 18-25 were interviewed. Strong links were found between the binge-watchers and their sleeping problems. It was found that over 80% of the participants considered themselves to be binge watchers (of that 80%, 20% said they binge-watched a few times a week over the past month). The study also found that of those 423 participants, of those who were poor sleepers, 1 in every 3 had poor sleep due to binge watching. The study linked binge watching to fatigue and insomnia symptoms, too.
It’s been studied that looking at that fluorescent light, also known as the “blue light”, that the TV or computer emits (roughly four hours) before bed inhibits us from falling asleep, getting the necessary amount of REM sleep, and causes us to feel groggy the next day- even if we get the “necessary eight hours”. This is because the blue light inhibits the brain’s release of melatonin– the hormone that causes us to feel sleepy and make us fall asleep.
Eight in every 10 Brits have been found to skip sleep in order to binge watch instead. Over two hours of TV a day can cause sleep-debt and may lead to overall sleeping issues such as being unable to fall asleep, waking up during the night, one awake in the middle of the night being unable to fall back asleep.
These troubles with sleep stem from the mental stimulation that comes from an extended time of watching the TV (or any blue light for that matter). This mental stimulation is known as pre-sleep arousal and stimulates the brain activity and alertness by being exposed to the storyline, imagery, and action of the show or movie. If the binge watch is long enough, it interferes with our pre-sleep arousal to the point that it makes us have a greater difficulty to fall asleep. What does this mean? It means that while it may feel great to get home after a long day, eat dinner, and fall asleep to your favorite show, that show is actually keeping your brain awake and alert, not helping it relax.
Effects of binge watching on the brain
We can become truly attached to the characters because our brains code our experiences (whether they be from a book, movie, or imagined in our mind) as real-ish memories. The areas of the brain that are activated while binge watching are the same areas that are activated when we experience a live event. We become so drawn into the storylines that we become attached and a part of the characters and outcomes of the plot that they feel real. That’s why we can actually feel heartbroken when we finish the last episode of the last season of our favorite TV show.
It’s also easy to identify with characters and once we identify ourselves with them, we become more addicted to the show. Think of “How I Met Your Mother” and all different forms of characters there. Or, even more inclusive, think of “Modern Family”. A show that includes: an adopted Asian girl, two gay husbands/dads, sibling rivalry, father of the gay couple/too-hard-on-the-kids dad, a goofy dad, a brainiac teenage daughter, the “typical” teenage girl, a Latina immigrant, the working mom/the stay-at-home mom, etc. Our brain attaches to “our character” and we become more attached and then more addicted to the show. We can also become addicted to a show by “wishful identification”. While most of us can’t realistically identify with the characters in Gossip Girl, many still identified and binge watched it. Why? The plots and characters gave way for us to dream and imagine that we lived in that world.
Is it considered bad for your overall health?
Overall, binge watching isn’t considered the best thing for our health. Binge watching negatively affects our sleep, our heart, lungs, spine, emotions, and brain. Our risk for obesity goes up as our hunger hormones– leptin and ghrelin go out of whack, our risk for cancer is increased, and we have an increased risk for both stroke and heart disease. It’s possible to see the negative effects of binge watching on the body in as little as two weeks!
Positive effects of binge watching
There is the obvious social element to binge watching which helps support a social life while doing rather “anti-social” activities. Think of Game of Thrones, for example. Now think about how “into it” people can get by having their own parties where they can cosplay (dress up as characters) and hang out together while watching the newest episodes. One can also think about how it helps socially when someone makes a reference to a TV show that you understand- you feel more connected to them. You can also speak about the TV show you watched last weekend with your coworkers on Monday.
Binge watching a series or several movies can actually activate areas in the brain that are involved in arousal, vision, aggression, and emotion among other emotions. These parts of the brain include the sensory-motor areas, the septum, and the visual cortex. It’s positive because activating these areas of the brain frequently can help the brain stay healthy, better sustained than the non-active parts, and active. This activation causes the brain circuits to work which can slow down the loss of neurons and non-neural cells that are in the brain which can cause an advancement in (cognitive) aging.
Binge watching is actually a stress reliever. By keeping the stressors from infiltrating the brain, binge watching sets up a boundary between reality and the TV show. This line between the two keeps the stressors at bay.
TV series and movies can have characters that make good role models. If, for example, you see Princess Carolyn (from the Netflix original “Bojack Horseman”) as the self-driven working woman she is, she can help be a role model, guide, and motivate you to be the same. However, that can be a two-sided coin if you consider Bojack Horseman (an alcoholic narcissistic horse) to be a role model.
- Binge watching can be a social activity.
- It can activate the neural networks
- It’s a stress reliever.
- You can find role models to help guide and motivate you.
Negative effects of binge watching
While being positive and thinking that binge watching is social, it’s often not. 56% of viewers participated in a market research study in 2013 were found to only binge watch by themselves.
The negative effects of continuous TV watching are strongest in children and adolescents because their brains aren’t done growing yet. That said, no one is immune to it, either. For aging brains (people over age 45), passive stimulation isn’t encouraged by neurologists. While binge watching uses the same neurological networks every time you binge watch, the neurological networks not being used and not being regularly exercised are put into “hum” or “buzz” mode.
There are other concerns with binge watching in terms of one’s day-to-day health. There’s the lack of physical activity which in the end lowers energy reserves and reduces fitness. There’s also the concern that watching TV can prevent one from going to sleep on time and getting a good night’s sleep. It’s been proven that the blue light from the phone, computer, or television screen can disrupt one’s sleep cycle.
Binge watching has been associated with higher levels of depression and anxiety. According to a study done by the University of Toledo, not only are people who watch more TV more addicted to TV, but they are more likely to suffer from anxiety and/or depression (possibly due to the isolation).
Our emotions starve to death. When we exchange our human relations and human connection for TV, we disconnect from our human nature and substitute it for virtual. As humans, we are meant to connect, but when we disconnect from humans and begin to over-connect with TV shows and movies, especially at the cost of our human connections, our emotions actually begin to starve to death because they aren’t getting the attention they need- neither from you nor from any other human connections.
- Binge watching is more often than not an anti-social activity.
- The negative effects are strongest in children and adolescents.
- Aging brains need activity, not passivity.
- It lessens ones amount of daily physical activity.
- It disturbs the sleep cycle.
- The more you watch, the more addicted you become.
- Binge watchers have, on average, higher levels of depression and anxiety.
- Our emotions starve to death.
Tips to not binge watch as much
- If you must do some Saturday-morning binge watching, opt for a show like Jeopardy rather than Breaking Bad. For kids, try Dora the Explorer rather than the Powerpuff Girls. Watching an engaging show that is interactive (yelling responses at the TV) is useful because it links prior experiences and old memories with new facts. One is able to learn from the shows. Other options are to watch documentaries (I know, but there are some really cool ones out there!).
- Try picking up a book rather than a remote control. The reading process is more brain-engaging than the TV-watching process because the reader needs to think about what the characters and settings look like.
- Try watching as many minutes of TV a day as you exercise. That is to say, if you exercise (even just go walking at a mildly quick pace) for 30 minutes a day, you can watch 30 minutes of TV. Use TV as a motivator, not as an excuse.
- Shut off the “autoplay” feature on your viewing network (such as Netflix). By disabling this feature, after finishing an episode, the next episode won’t automatically play. This take the temptation way of saying “oh, since the episode already began, I’ll watch just one more….”
- Try finding other sources of pleasure to help give your brain that dopamine kick it’s looking for. Also by finding other sources of pleasure, you’re less likely to become addicted to the show or to binge watch it.
How often do you binge-watch? Let us know what you think in the comments below!
Anna is a freelance writer who is passionate about translation, psychology, and how the world works.