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We’ve all been there: A new show enters your life, bedtime flies by and “one more episode” turns into a mini-marathon.
The streaming era certainly didn’t invent binge-watching, but it did add significant fuel to the fire, with the number of self-reported binge-watchers increasing from 61% to 92% in just three years.
Binge-watching has blown up
“Television addiction has been a concept since the ‘80s. People have been studying it, but binge-watching as a behavior has become more popular with the rise of video on-demand streaming services,” said Morgan Ellithorpe, an assistant professor in the Department of Advertising + Public Relations at Michigan State University who studies the effects of media on health and well-being.
“We’re getting to the point where if you don’t binge-watch, you’re in the minority,” she told Allconnect®.
Netflix has embraced the phenomenon, dropping a “Year in Bingeing” infographic in 2017. “Before you assume that racers are just basement-dwelling couch potatoes, know that for these super fans, the speed of watching is an achievement to be proud of and brag about,” they wrote in a press release. “TV is their passion and Binge Racing is their sport.”
But one person’s binge-watching is another’s television addiction.
Unsurprisingly, binge-watching is most popular with young people. In a 2018 Morning Consult poll, 73% of 18-29 year-olds said they watched two or more episodes in one sitting at least once a week.
More concerningly, 76% of young adults said they stayed up all night watching a show, 57% made a less healthy choice because of a show and 45% canceled social plans to binge-watch. This is when it crosses the line into what researchers call “problematic viewing.”
Binge-watching can become problematic viewing
“Problematic viewing is similar to behavioral addiction in how it affects your life,” Ellithorpe told us. “People are more likely to forego sleep, they’re more likely to eat more food and they’re more likely to sit in one place for longer the more they’re binge-watching.”
The health risks associated basically come down to that point: When you’re binge-watching, you’re not doing healthier things like exercising, engaging in social relationships or getting much-needed sleep.
Few things impact our overall health like sleep, and binge-watching can be a significant disruptor to it. It’s conventional wisdom in the medical community that going to sleep with the TV on is bad for you.
“Normally melatonin is secreted right around bedtime; when people would go to sleep, it begins to secrete and it peaks when you get to sleep,” Stuart Quan, a Harvard Medicine physician specializing in sleep and circadian disorders, told Vice. “Right in that time frame, if you tend to try to fall asleep and you’re exposed to light, and especially blue light, it will tend to inhibit the production of melatonin and your ability to sleep.”
That said, many people fall asleep with the TV on and lead perfectly happy, productive lives. One 2011 study commissioned by the National Sleep Foundation found that 60% of Americans watch TV immediately before going to sleep “every night” or “almost every night.
When it becomes problematic is if you forego sleep in order to keep watching. “If you’re saying to yourself, ‘Ok, I’m going to watch a few episodes of this show and then I’m going to bed at 10,’ but then 10 rolls around and you tell yourself, ‘Oh, now I’m just going to watch one more episode,’ but then you go to bed at 11 or midnight because you just couldn’t stop it when you originally intended to — that’s a sign that the behavior’s problematic,” Ellithorpe said. “You’re losing control of the behavior.”
The effects of sleep deprivation are well-documented, hampering everything from your memory to immune system. While not everyone needs to get the recommended eight hours of sleep every night — some people need more and some need less — it’s still a good target for most people.
“Some people who average more or less than these hours of sleep remain in excellent health. Perhaps they have different genes,” Harvard Medical School Professor of Medicine Anthony L. Komaroff wrote. “Unfortunately, we currently have no way of telling if you might be one of those lucky people. So, as often is true in life, it’s wisest to play the odds and follow the general advice.”
“A binge-watching session isn’t going to directly cause obesity,” Ellithorpe told us. “But insofar that it causes worse food choices, less sleep, less exercise — it adds up over time to outcomes like obesity.”
It’s no secret that binge-watching is often accompanied by binge-snacking — and not always of the healthiest variety. While streaming services are a more recent phenomenon, researchers have been studying the relationship between TV and obesity for decades.
“There’s convincing evidence in adults that the more television they watch, the more likely they are to gain weight or become overweight or obese,” Lilian Cheung, director of health promotion and communication at Harvard School of Public Health, told NPR.
The reason is pretty simple: The more you’re watching TV, the less time you have to prepare healthy meals. Viewers are much more likely to open a bag of chips than to roast some vegetables in the oven. Being engrossed in a show also means we’re not paying attention to how much we’re eating.
“When we are distracted while eating, or eating mindlessly, we are not paying full attention to the food in front of us, and miss the satiety cues letting us know that we are full,” said Cheung.
Binge-watching tends to be a solitary activity. According to one survey, 60% of people who binge-watch said they do it alone. And while most researchers won’t go as far as to say it causes depression, some research has found a link.
One often-cited study from the University of Texas at Austin found that survey respondents who binge-watched were more likely to report feelings of loneliness and depression. There are a lot of studies (see: here, here and here) that have found the same link.
But just because there’s a link doesn’t mean binge-watching is causing depression. As one recent paper in Psychology of Popular Media Culture notes, “The psychological investigation of this behavior, however, is still in its infancy, with most studies using a confirmatory approach and assuming a priori its genuine addictive nature.”
In other words, just because a binge-watcher might present the symptoms of addictive behavior or depression, we still don’t know how direct a role binge-watching plays.
Like most sedentary activities, binge-watching can increase your risk for heart disease. One 2018 study noted that “Of several sedentary behaviors, TV viewing may particularly allow people to be sedentary for a long time.” It concluded, “A greater frequency of TV viewing was associated with increased risk of VTE (venous thromboembolism),” a condition in which blood clots form in the legs or arms and travel to the lungs, causing a pulmonary embolism.
Another study looked at pulmonary embolisms and TV specifically, and concluded that “Television time was positively associated with the risk of mortality from pulmonary embolism.”
That said, the risk is pretty small. Jumping from less than two and a half hours per night to more than five hours only increased the mortality rate from 2.8 people per 100,000 to 8.2. (For comparison, the mortality rate attributed to cigarettes is 174 per 100,000.)
So, how much is too much?
“Unfortunately, we don’t have a certain number of hours that we would recommend to people that they stop at,” Ellithorpe told us. One person’s problematic viewing is another’s perfectly healthy Saturday night.
“All we can say is pay attention to whether you’re choosing television over things like actual interpersonal interaction,” Ellithorpe said. “Then you probably want to think about reducing your use.”
How to binge-watch better
For most people, binge-watching has probably not crossed the line into “problematic viewing.” But we can all benefit from some guidelines to make sure our relationship with TV is a healthy one.
1. Set a shut off time
Watching another episode is no longer a choice; it’s now the default. Because it’s so easy to let one episode autoplay into the next, you have to consciously decide when to stop watching.
We recommend committing to a number of episodes or a shut off time before you start watching. The National Sleep Foundation recommends eliminating blue light from screens at least an hour before you go to bed.
2. Pay attention to your behaviors
While there’s no specific hours limit that experts recommend for binge-watching, your behaviors will tell you everything you need to know about what’s healthy for you. Keep an eye out for red flags that signal you’re watching too much.
“When other people tell you that they think you watch too much television, that’s a sign that you should be moderating your use,” Ellithorpe said. “If you start saying ‘no’ to social engagements or ignoring the people in your household in order to continue watching TV, that is another sign that it’s crossed the threshold to problematic.”
3. Don’t beat yourself up
We’re fighting an uphill battle — Netflix and other streaming services spend millions of dollars on user testing to make sure you click “one more episode” — but it doesn’t mean our binge-watching is problematic.
In the Morning Consult poll, 25% of binge-watchers said they feel guilty after binge-watching, compared to 15% of TV viewers overall. These issues sound serious — and they are — but binge-watching is nothing to be ashamed about if it’s kept within check.
“There is nothing wrong with media use in and of itself,” Ellithope said. “ I don’t want people to feel guilty about binge-watching every once in a while.”
Binge-watching can be good for you, too
While the health risks of binge-watching are well-publicized, it can also have some surprising positive effects like social connection and empathy.
As social psychologist Satoshi Kanazawa wrote in his research paper, “Bowling with our imaginary friends,” the human brain has a hard time distinguishing between real friends and TV friends.
“There is nothing shallow about the community we experience by watching TV, or so our brain thinks,” Kanazawa writes. “Watching TV is our form of participating in civic groups because we do not really know that we are not participating in them.” In fact, viewers often “feel as if they have more friends” if they watch more television.
Ellithorpe described a similar side effect of binge-watching to us: “We find that enjoyment is higher, that people feel stronger connections to the characters, that they feel more immersed in the narratives…There is a benefit from those for things like our mood and feeling connected to people — and those benefits are amplified when you binge-watch.”
That’s not to say that everyone should immediately start binge-watching at the expense of other, more active pursuits. But as long as viewing hasn’t become problematic, it’s worth remembering the positive effects alongside the negative ones.