Put Down That Remote! Binge-Watching Can Be Bad for You

On May 18, Netflix will roll out the second season of one of its buzziest, most controversial and, let’s face it, most bingeable shows: 13 Reasons Why. We wrote quite a bit about the show’s first season, beginning with our review and spiraling out from there. (Our parents’ guide to the series will be updated after the series’ new season.) Of course, by the time we began talking about it, some viewers had already watched the whole 13-episode season—streaming it in one massive lump. Obviously, the show itself has a plethora of issues, but those issues can be magnified—and other issues can arise—when it’s consumed as rapidly as possible. And I wanted to unpack that a bit more here.

We live in a dizzying entertainment age, and nothing expresses that cultural vertigo more than the changes we’ve seen in television.

When I was a kid, I had just a handful of channels to flip through on the old family TV set, and I’d have to wait a whole week to see the next episode of Magnum P.I. Now, we need not head to the living room to watch something: Television comes with us on our smartphones and tablets. Not only do we have hundreds of channels to choose from, but we have scads of options on streaming networks like Hulu, Amazon Prime and YouTube. Netflix, home to 13 Reasons Why, completely upended our notions of what “television” itself was, and nowhere is that more apparent in how it allows us to “binge” on its shows. In days of yore, series like Stranger Things and Orange is the New Black would’ve taken months to unfurl. Now, many finish season-long story arcs in days, sometimes hours.

In 2013, when streaming shows was still relatively new, Netflix found that 61% of its users watched between two to six episodes of a given show in one sitting. Three years later, Netflix found that most of its users tended to gun through an entire season in one week. In fact, Nielsen said that 361,000 people binge-watched all nine episodes of the second season of Stranger Things on its very first day of release.

Last year, 13 Reasons Why was an extraordinarily popular television binge: Its viewers blew through its first season at the third-highest clip as any show on the service. (American Vandal and 3% were Nos. 1 and 2, respectively.)

Now, obviously, Plugged In has long taken a cautionary tack about what we consume on television. A compelling story doesn’t necessarily mitigate the crass and salacious content that a show might contain, and families should always be wary about what they watch. But binge-watching television brings another factor to the entertainment table: Watching a season in a week does something far different to your brain than just watching a season in a … well, season. In other words, we need to consider how we watch as well.

Netflix found that nearly three-quarters of its users (73%) felt pretty good when they binge-watched a favorite show. That’s because the binge triggers a dopamine release in your brain. Dr. Renee Carr explained the phenomenon to NBC:

This chemical gives the body a natural, internal reward of pleasure that reinforces continued engagement in that activity. It is the brain’s signal that communicates to the body, ‘This feels good. You should keep doing this!’ When binge watching your favorite show, your brain is continually producing dopamine, and your body experiences a drug-like high. You experience a pseudo-addiction to the show because you develop cravings for dopamine.

Carr says this “addiction” isn’t all that different from what leads to sex or heroin addiction. “Your body does not discriminate against pleasure,” she says.

Obviously, getting a dopamine kick from a finite story comes with a built-in bummer: The season’s going to end. So the quicker you binge through it, the quicker it’ll be done. That’s why some scientists suggest that bingers might experience something akin to grief after they complete a favorite show.

But it goes deeper.

A study from the University of Minnesota suggests that binge-watching can be harmful to our physical health: After studying 15,000 adults, researchers there found that binge-watchers were 1.7 times more likely to develop blood clots than their less sedentary peers. And naturally, all that viewing time can lead to hardcore sleep deprivation.

Binge watching can also lead to emotional isolation, too—where a fictional television show can become more important to viewers than face-to-face relationships. “When we substituted TV for human relations we disconnect from our human nature and substitute for [the] virtual,” Dr. Judy Rosenberg told NBC. “We are wired to connect, and when we disconnect from humans and over-connect to TV at the cost of human connection, eventually we will ‘starve to death’ emotionally.”

Paradoxically, binge-watching also can foster greater connectivity, of course: When we watch a show and know others who do, too, we can all share our experiences with those fellow fans, which actually can make bingeing a bonding experience. “It does give you something to talk about with other people,” Dr. Ariane Machin told NBC.

But that doesn’t seem to counteract the negatives that come with bingeing. According to a study by the University of Toledo, self-described binge watchers report higher levels of stress, anxiety and depression than those who don’t binge television. That’s ironic in the case of 13 Reasons Why—given the first season was about, in part, teen anxiety, stress and depression.

I’m a realist. I know that, if you’re prone to binge-watching, you’ll not be likely to stop because of a blog. But we know that bingeing anything, be it alcohol or ice cream, isn’t particularly healthy. Why would we expect television to be any different?