Okay, quick poll time. With a show of hands, “who has ever binged watched a show?”
If your hand isn’t firmly raised in the air, you’re either a liar or a modern anomaly. With so many online streaming services and mobile applications at our disposal, there are more ways to binge than ever before. And after a long day, sitting down in front of the TV and deciding to start that new show that everyone’s been talking about can lead to some epic binge-worthy sittings (looking at you Stranger Things and Game of Thrones).
But hey, the good news is you’re not alone, right? With 24/7 access to hundreds of shows (new and old), it’s only natural that on average Americans spend 2.7 hours in front of the TV every day, totaling 20 hours per week. If we’re basing that on the average 40-hour work week, then watching TV is like a part time job for us.
But casually watching TV and binge watching are two different things. In fact, a Netflix survey shows that over 60% of its users regularly binge 2-6 episodes of a show in one sitting. Depending on your personal binge consumption, that may seem like a lot or a little, but the question still stands: What does binge watching do to your brain?
Binge watching and the brain
Remember those 90s “This is your brain. This is your brain on drugs” commercials? Well, binge watching is not like smashing an egg with a frying pan. However, it is just as addictive-forming as a drug.
When something makes us feel good, our brains release the chemical dopamine. It’s your body’s way of rewarding you for the pleasure while reinforcing continued engagement in said activity, in this case binge watching. Dopamine is like that little voice in your head saying, “keep going, just one more episode.” The result is an addiction that gives your body a drug-like high.
And while mechanism to give us the high may not be the same as a hardcore drug, the chemical reaction that occurs from binge watching is similar to what happens when a drug or other addiction takes hold. Whether you’re addicted to heroine, sex or binge watching, your body doesn’t discriminate against pleasure. If it’s an activity that produces dopamine, then it can become addicting.
Breaking down the brain
Whether you’re experiencing a memory live or forming one based on watching it on TV, the brain doesn’t know the difference. Memories are memories, regardless of how they were made. That’s why the same areas of the brain that are triggered during a live event are the same ones triggered during a binge session. As viewers, we get drawn in so deeply to our most beloved characters and their storylines that their experiences become our memories.
The good side of the binge
Remember when your mom would storm into the room, turn the TV off and say that cringe-inducing line from the parent handbook, “too much TV is bad for you?” Well, it turns out that it’s both right and wrong. While binge watching may be as addictive as crack (which is not good for the record), it can also be a stress-reducing event.
Binge watching acts as a stress management tool, whether we’re aware of it or not, by temporarily letting us escape from our daily grind. Think of it as a light switch. When we binge, that switch is flipped and we tend to shut down our minds and tune out normal stress, day-to-day pressures and tomorrow’s responsibility.
Furthermore, binge watching has been linked to social camaraderie with fellow binge folk. Research has shown that it gives faithful viewers of certain shows a sense of community where they can be with their people and have in-depth discussions of the show and how it relates to their own lives.
The bad side of the binge
Where things start to get a little ugly is when our beloved binge induced coma comes to an end – just like with all good things. Think about it, how many times have you mourned the loss of a series? If we binge too aimlessly, this loss can turn into withdraw and despair, eventually depression can form because we’ve lost our dopamine tap.
And while watching your favorite shows with a loved one can be an activity to bring you closer together, binge-watching alone can become quite isolating. When you replace human relations with over-connection to TV (or social media for that matter), we’re substituting human nature for virtual addiction. Too much real-world disconnection from binge watching can eat away at emotions leading to depression, anxiety, stress and more.
There may not be catchy drink responsibly slogan like “Stay alive. Don’t drink and drive,” but that doesn’t mean the binge-watching addiction isn’t bad for you.
Clearly, there are good and bad effects to binge watching. The tricky part is finding balance so that you can reap the benefits without suffering from the consequences. But you can start by setting a binge limit and sticking to stopping when it’s time. Whether that’s 2 or three episodes, whatever’s appropriate for you. Do whatever it takes to prevent yourself from the “just one more episode” state of mind.
Additionally, try to balance your binge periods with other social interactions. Give your brain another source of pleasure – exercise, reading a book, grabbing a drink with friends, playing pickle-ball, etc. – one it doesn’t have to derive from countless episodes of fictional characters and their stories. Your brain and your health will thank you for it.