You decide to check out a new show on Netflix. Before you realize it, you’re nine episodes deep and it’s 4:00 AM. Binge watching may be satisfying at the time, but it ruins what makes TV shows special in the first place.
Binge Watching Devalues the Show
When a show comes on weekly, there are seven days in between episodes. During that time, people generally discuss the episode with friends and family, dissect everything that happened, and just generally think about it. These thoughts are brought into the next week’s show, and the entire process is repeated. Week after week for a full season, these thoughts and feelings build up.
This leads to deeper relationships with characters, a better understanding of the world they live in, and almost a sense of “urgency” (depending on the show, of course) about what is going on with them. These are all things that are lost—to an extent, at least—when shows are binge watched. Instead of taking the time to really focus on the characters and the world, binge watching takes away the most valuable parts of what makes TV so great. The acting, writing, and storylines all become muted in a sense. The emotional impact of what happens to characters is lessened when the buildup is removed.
A recent study done by the University of Melbourne proved that binge watching devalues a show. The study was pretty simple: it has three groups of users watch the same show (the first season of The Game) in one sitting, one week, and six weeks. The participants were then quizzed after 24 hours, one week, and 140 days. The participants who binged the show had forgotten most of what they watched at the end of the study, and also reported enjoying the show “significantly less.”
By contrast, the group who watched the show spread out over six weeks—one episode per week—had the strongest memory retention and reported the most enjoyment in watching at the end of the experiment. Of course, one study isn’t the be all, end all when it comes to how every person will react to watching shows.
This is mostly due to a psychological phenomenon called “hedonic adaptation”—which really just means that new things don’t stay new forever. When you start watching a new show, it’s exciting and fresh, but, over time, it can start to become “normal” and feel stale. Binging the show keeps it feeling fresh in the short term (at the expense of more long term enjoyment).
But, as mentioned earlier, it also reduces excitement. If there isn’t a break between episodes, the feelings of nervousness and anticipation are greatly reduced. That’s a big part of what makes a TV series special.
There’s also the idea that when you spend weeks, months, or even years with characters, the emotional connection you make with them is even stronger. Seeing something happen with a character you’ve been watching for a long time has a bigger emotional impact than seeing the it happen to a character you’ve only known a short time.
There are also other implications to consider here—psychological, physical, and emotional.
Binging Can Become Addictive and Lead to Depression
There’s a reason people love binge watching shows so much: it feels good. Enjoyable activities cause the brain to produce dopamine, giving the body a natural feeling of pleasure. Since this feels good, the body and brain naturally want to keep doing it. The problem is that this can become addictive—the body will start to “crave” the feeling that comes from binge watching a TV show.
Of course, this addiction isn’t the same as a drug addiction in a the full sense of the word—it’s more comparable to the way the body reacts when a drug is initially introduced to the system. The addiction isn’t present at that time, but the body knows it feels good. It then wants that positive feeling more, which can lead to the user taking the drug more often, in turn leading to a full-on physical addiction to the drug.
Binge watching TV shows isn’t this bad of course, but the point still remains: anything that causes the brain to produce dopamine can become an addiction, a craving.
There’s also another side to this: the depression that comes along with a completed show. Once a binge sessions is over, situational depression sets in because this high is over.
It Can Take a Toll on Real-Life Relationships
While craving the euphoric feeling caused by dopamine doesn’t seem like a big deal—and it may not be in the short term—it can lead to bigger issues. On a longer timeline, the brain can start to desire this feeling more than human companionship, which may lead to issues in real-world relationships.
This can really become a problem when shows are binged alone, as it can become a substitute for human companionship. Instead of connecting with friends and family, this connection is instead made with TV. This comes at an emotional cost, especially if it gets to a point where nights in with Netflix are chosen over time spent with friends and family.
Sitting is Killing You
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It’s common knowledge that sitting behind a desk all day is terrible for your health, but we don’t often see sitting in the recliner or lounging on the couch in the same light. The truth is, however, that it’s just as bad—maybe even worse.
Sitting for long periods of time is not only bad on the back and general posture, but also the heart. In fact, a study published in the Journal of the American Heart Association showed that people who watch TV for more than three hours a day double the risk of premature death.
Of Course, It’s Not All Bad
While binge watching shows definitely has some negative effects, there are also some positives to cramming shows all at once, too.
For example, binging TV can be an escape from the mundane, everday slog of life. This in itself can be a stress reliever—a way to get away from the everyday pressures of life for a few hours.
It can also encourage deeper relationships with people—the opposite of the point made earlier—because it gives us something new to connect on. People who watch the same shows always have something to talk about, which can foster better relationships. While this works for shows that come on weekly, binging is beneficial for internet-only shows (like most Netflix titles) that are released all at once. If the entire show has been watched, then everyone is on the same page and can discuss it openly.
Binging TV shows can also be inspiring and motivating to some people—especially when any of the characters become “role models.” This can help people become stronger, more inspired, and more in line with what they see for themselves. For example, if an inspiring character is seen as strong and assertive, a person who is generally shy and passive can be inspired to stand up in a situation where they normally wouldn’t because their favorite character comes to mind at the right time.
In other words: TV characters can be real heroes. Watching a favorite character overcome an obstacle or deal with a traumatic situation can absolutely help people better deal with things in real life. These fictional characters can be just as inspiring, motivating, and—most importantly—real to the people who watch and love them.
And the truth is, more shows are becoming attuned to the binge-watching phenomenon, written to specifically take advantage of it. On many streaming sites, you’ll see shorter seasons of shows with more continuing story lines and fewer “filler” episodes. In essence, they become more like reading a novel—a brief, intimate fling with some great characters, and then you move on.
All that isn’t to say that no one should binge watch shows. Like the saying goes, all things are fine in moderation. Binging a new show every day probably isn’t a good thing, and if it starts to have an negative mental or emotional impact, it’s probably time to step away for a little while.
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