Be honest. After a long week of classes and midterms, have you ever sat down to watch multiple seasons of a TV show overnight?
If you have, you are not the only one. A recent survey has shown that 61 percent of TV watchers routinely binge watch. More relevant, young people, especially college students operating on irregular schedules, increasingly consume television in larger volumes over a smaller period of time (or “binge watch”) rather than watch weekly shows on a traditional TV set.
Binge watching is quickly becoming the new mode of TV consumption, but we should be wary of the future it beckons. Binge watching not only harms our psychological and physical health, but also reveals a disturbing modern desire to escape from our realities.
The drastic shift towards binge watching has been a consequence of the changing medium by which young people watch TV today. 100 million Americans view online videos everyday and, among the youth, there has been a steady downward trend against watching TV on physical TV sets. The move towards online video has increased the rates of binge watching among the youth.
Intuitively, this makes sense. New online platforms lend themselves to binge watching. The user has complete control over which episodes to watch and at what frequency. Companies like Netflix even design their online user interface to be “binge-friendly.” For example, timers automatically start the next episode, requiring the viewer to make an effort to stop watching. Moreover, “Netflix exclusives” like “House of Cards” and “Orange is the New Black” release whole seasons of shows at once and are only available online through Netflix.
The shift towards this new format of online binge watching makes TV especially deleterious to one’s health. Adults who consume TV in excess of 3 hours per day double their chance of a premature death. This is largely due to the fact that remaining stagnant for long periods of time increases the risk of chronic disease, such as diabetes, heart disease, obesity and cancer. Such health effects persist even with regular exercise. Students may be inadvertently shortening their lifespan by binge watching.
But even more than physical health, students are putting their mental health at risk. Binge watching can develop addictions wherein one cannot stop watching TV even as his or her enjoyment of each additional episode decreases. A term called hedonic adaptation refers to how new things are exciting at first, but become less enjoyable over time. Some psychologists believe that binge watching is an instance of hedonic adaptation, but addicted viewers continue to watch the episodes often out of a desire to feel a sense of closure by finishing a season or a plot line. In fact, the narrative concept of a “cliff hanger” is almost made to make TV shows “bingeable.” It leaves the audience yearning for resolution even if it means trudging through episode after episode.
Furthermore, binge watching is often an isolating and alienating experience that leaves watchers feeling less satisfied at the end. A survey by an entertainment research firm found that 56 percent of binge watchers prefer to watch TV alone and 98 percent of bingers watch at home. As a solitary experience, binge watching increasingly consists of immersing oneself in a virtual reality and closing off real life. Living vicariously through “Friends” episodes becomes the alternative to actually hanging out with friends and engaging in real relationships. As a result, excessive binge watching involves sacrificing the emotional resilience and feelings of sustained happiness that come with having positive social interactions.
But, a deeper and more interesting angle to consider is why we, as college students and young adults, indulge in social seclusion and virtual reality through binge watching. College students often describe binge watching as a “reward” that they get after completing some sort of work, like writing a paper or finishing a problem set. It is frightening that the actions of our daily lives, especially the work that we do as students and employees, drives us to binge. Indeed, we are so disaffected with our daily routines that, to recharge our batteries, we have to escape from our own realities and enter into a fantasy world with excitement and drama.
Consequently, the bigger issue belying the binge epidemic is the following question: Why do we feel unfulfilled by our real lives? Perhaps our daily routine has become mundane and robotic. Perhaps we are burned out from work. Perhaps we want to feel happy, sad, or just feel something. Perhaps we want to discover a sense of purpose and we do so vicariously through glorified TV characters. Regardless of what it is, I urge us to make changes in our real lives rather than relying on short-term TV highs.
Contact Neil Chaudhary at neilaman ‘at’ stanford.edu.