A question I routinely ask my clients these days is “How do you spend your time after work?”, and a common response is “I return from work, have dinner, and then watch a web series”. This usually leaves people with only about five hours of sleep because they can’t seem to stop at one episode.
That’s what you call, ‘binge-watching’, and it is usually characterized by viewing suspenseful, dramatic, narrative content – often for more than three of four hours at a stretch.
Why is binge – watching addictive?
TV stimulates our visual, aural and spatial senses and engages out entire right-brain. The various complex characters, story plots and dialogues, require us to pay close, careful attention to the continual action onscreen. Since our brain is hard-wired to monitor changes in our environment – this is survival mechanism – we remain glued to the screen.
Another major reason for binge-watching is the addictive quality it has. Our brains need a regular and healthy supply a certain happiness producing chemicals (called neurotransmitters), one of which is dopamine – a neurotransmitter that regulates mood, emotions, sleep and cognitive functions. Our stressful lives cause a reduction in the level of dopamine in the brain. When we binge-watch a show there is natural, internal reward that reinforces continued engagement in that activity. The brain sends signals to the body to continue this rewarding experience and soon the person develops a craving for dopamine. Research by scientists also indicates that the neuronal pathways that cause heroin and sex additions are the same ones that cause an addiction to binge watching. Any activity or substance that produces pleasure, and consistently produces dopamine will soon become addictive.
A 2018 study by Ruben king and colleagues found that there are four main motivations for binge watching: i) anticipation of what was coming next – facilitated by both content and technology features, ii) management of moods and excitement/arousal, iii) procrastination and escapism, iv) social goals – related to both co-viewing, discussing content with others and identification with characters.
What feelings can you be left with after binge – watching?
- When you spend a large amount of time immersed in the characters’ lives, you bond with them like you would someone in life, and it’s natural to experience feeling of loss once the show ends. Some people experience withdrawal-like symptoms when a show is over – much like a hangover after a night of drinking.
- Another fallout is trouble sleeping. A recent study found that people, who tried to forget about their anxieties by watching television, had a four percent increased risk of developing insomnia. According to Dr Robert Potter, director of the institute for communication research at Indiana University, this is similar to any addictive behaviour. If you use something (alcohol, drugs, TV) to help you block out problems, you end up feeling worse later.
- Watching TV shows – lying supine for several hours at once can play havoc with the metabolism too. Lounging slows circulation and metabolisms, making you feel sluggish. While the body gets sluggish, the brain may go into overdrive because TV shows with complicated narratives and emotionally complex characters are both cognitively and emotionally taxing.
Here are some ways to monitor yourself:
- Install Gatekeepers: There are many extensions that limit the number of minutes you spend on certain sites a day.Some Gatekeepers that help to break the habit. StayFocusd is a Chrome extension that limits the number of minutes spent on certain sites per day. If you watch content on your iPad, phone, etc., use Freedom. If you binge-watch Youtube, Netflix and Amazon, disable the “Autoplay” option. Remove the “YouTube Recommended” option which puts a simple icon in your extension bar, from which you can disable various visual elements
- A greater reward: According to Dr. Jeff Galak’s research published in the Journal of Consumer Research, the faster you consume TV shows the less joy you actually get out of them. You get bored with the show and miss out on the subtle nuances that make it so great. So, it’s better to pace yourself with TV shows, you give yourself a chance to think about what you’ve watched, build theories and anticipate.
- Understand that it plays havoc with your world view: Research shows that the longer you stay in the world of a TV show, the more it influences the way you see the real world. People report feeling fearful, anxious and bleak after watching thrills
- Have a mid-way: An hour-long show will usually have a cliff-hanger at the end of every episode, which makes the viewer want to quickly proceed to the next one to see what happens. One way to resist the urge to do so is to just watch the first 20 minutes of the next episode. This will resolve the previous episode’s cliff-hanger. And you won’t be left feeling frustrated.
Niklas Göke in his compilation article “How to Stop Binge-Watching From Ruining Your Life” says that “The problem isn’t that Netflix is addicting. It’s that our lives aren’t”. Binge-watching is an easy, convenient and exciting way to escape from the insignificance of our lives. Ask yourself “If I wasn’t watching TV right now what would I be doing instead?”. We may be confronted with a very ugly answer to that question, that is, if we weren’t TV watching we would be doing nothing else meaningful. The truth is that to overcome any addiction we need to give our lives purpose, something that engages us and deeply satisfies us. It may take a long time to find that meaning, but it’s surely time better spent than watching meaningless content.