Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past few years, you’re familiar with the term “binge watching”. Consuming endless hours of television is kind of a staple of nowadays’ media culture. Being an occasional binge watcher myself, I wanted to learn more about the phenomenon. I am sure you fully understood the binge watching meaning and importance during 2020, but is it really healthy to spend endless hours in front of a TV screen? The binge watching guide below is the result of my extensive research.
I decided to include an infographic with some binge watching stats because some of these are quite surprising, and I also looked at some methods that help people stop binge watching, or at least allow them to start to binge watch more responsibly.
Now, shall we?
Let’s Define Binge Watching
The first record of the word “binge” was in the mid-19th century.
From the excessive consumption of alcohol (binge-drinking), the term went on to extent to the excessive consumption of other things as well, including television.
The actual term, “binge-watching,” appeared around the 1990s, gaining popularity quite fast, but only being used by the mainstream media in the early 2000s.
But what is binge watching anyway? What does to “binge watch” mean? How many episodes should you watch for it to be considered binge watching, and in what time span?
While most dictionaries do not mention the episodes to hours ratio in their binge watching definition, a widely accepted interpretation is watching two to six episodes in one sitting.
Keep in mind that, since shows can be as short as 20 minutes or as long as an hour/hour and a half, it’s difficult to establish an exact, universally accepted binge watching meaning.
Likely, if you are watching many episodes (preferably of the same show) one after the other, you are binge watching.
If binge watching was not extreme enough for you, you should know that the term “binge racing” also exists; someone who finishes an entire season of a show in the first 24 hours after the release is the first in the world to do it. While I personally engaged in a 15-hours binge watch of Black Mirror, I am not cut out for binge racing. This activity is for the champions.
Is Binge Watching Problematic?
I am not the first or only one to have considered how the phrase “binge watching” can be triggering for some people, especially given its incipience as an extension of terms such as “binge drinking” and “binge eating.”
People who deal with eating disorders might find it difficult to hear the phrase being used so prevalently. Especially when watching TV is employed by many people as an escapist method, often to get away from the complicated relationship they have with food. Not to mention the fact that we also have to consider the amount of agency involved in binge watching (a lot) versus binge eating (not that much).
Image Source: Canva
While in today’s media-oriented culture, it is unrealistic to expect people to stop using a term they are so accustomed to using, this is definitely a conversation that should be more visible when it comes to binge watching.
An alternative proposed by Lisa Glebatis Perks in her book, Media Marathoning: Immersions in Morality, is marathon-viewing. If you think this is better, and if you have any suggestions of alternatives that we might be able to use instead, do not hesitate to strike up a conversation in the comments.
How Binge Watching Sneaked Its Way Into Our Homes: A Brief Timeline
- 1927 -> This is where it all begins: Philo Farnsworth designs the first TV ever
- 1948 -> Cable TV is brought to Arkansas, Oregon, and Pennsylvania
- 1997 -> Netflix is co-founded by Reed Hastings & Marc Randolph, to offer online mail-rental DVD services
- 2000 -> Video on demand, interactive TV, and subscription video on demand were brought by cable companies
- 2007-2008 -> Streaming services offered by Netflix, Hulu, and Apple TV
- 2016 -> 50.8% of the population of the United States watched digital TV
- 2019 – 2020 -> Disney launches its streaming channel Disney+, marking the beginning of a new era of binge watching for all of us in love with Disney characters, Marvel heroes, villains, and amazing secondary characters, everything related to Star Wars franchise and universe (and pretty much everything that is new, exciting, and probably connected to our favorite science fiction movies, fantasy stories, superheroes, and classic adventures).
While binge watching may have existed prior to the launch of popular streaming services, if we were to pinpoint the moment when binge watching became “a thing,” that would probably be when Netflix made “Mad Men,” “The Walking Dead,” and “Breaking Bad” available to the public for streaming in 2011.
In fact, Vince Gilligan, creator of “Breaking Bad,” credits Netflix for the overall success of the series and for it making it past season 2.
Since then, Netflix and chill became synonym with binge watching. And, truth be told, some of the best binge-worthy shows of all times come from Netflix, with Stranger Things, Black Mirror, and lately, Lucifer taking the cake.
The fact that Netflix chose to create its own original series (starting with “House of Cards”) that they release the full season of at once really upped the game in terms of binge watching.
In fact, binge watching Netflix has become a common practice nowadays. Netflix was followed by other streaming services such as Hulu, HBO GO, Amazon, Comcast, and more.
For fans at home, the sheer number of available streaming services encouraged and facilitated binge watching to levels that few people could predict. If you know from personal experience the hype you felt watching or binge watching shows like Mindhunter, Game of Thrones, Westworld, Stranger Things, The Mandalorian, Castlevania, Lost in Space, You, Love, Death and Robots, Chernobyl, Dark, and more, you know that binge watching is now, more than ever, not a fad, but a lifestyle.
Image Source: Freepik
Binge Watching Technology & Queued Streaming
When discussing the incipience of binge watching, we should also remember technology, which played a massive role in the proliferation of this practice. Tech development really made it easier for us to sit in front of our screens for hours on end.
Netflix’s post-play feature, which ensures you don’t have to press play on another episode, but just sit back and watch them automatically queue after one another, is worth mentioning as well.
Binge Watching Statistics
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The Psychology Behind Binge Watching
The reason why we become so immersed in other people’s emotional stories (even fictional people) can be summed up in just one word – empathy.
We, as human beings, have the capacity to notice feelings in others, which makes us involved in their stories, and can even help us see things through their perspective. But that doesn’t explain the bingeing part. What does then?
Image Source: Pixabay
In Uri Hasson's 2008 study into neurocinematics he and other researchers determined that movies like Hitchcock’s “Bang! You’re Dead” elicit a more prominent response in the cortex of participants than plainer visuals like a concert in the park. This is due to the way the images and actions are arranged for audience control, which is what TV shows nowadays do.
Binge Watching as Escapism
According to a study commissioned by Netflix (and conducted by Harris Interactive) in 2013, 76% of people saw bingeing as a refuge from their busy lives, similar to what I was mentioning earlier about the desire to escape reality through fiction.
Interestingly enough, this escapism is immersive and engrossing, as opposed to mindless and idle.
For Your Watching Satisfaction
The uses and gratifications approach discussed in an article by Matthew Pittman and Kim Sheehan considers the idea that people have certain needs that they seek to satisfy by engaging in activities that have to do with the mass media. They actively comb through the multiple sources available to find the best one. Nowadays, they do so both on TV and on the internet.
Control Freak Friendly
Planning is necessary for binge watching, and binge watching gives the viewer control over how they view media.
What could have been considered binge watching on television in the past, with a network that showed several hours of a program at once, is not comparable to modern binge watching, since the networks were the ones controlling what people watched.
A Sense of Community
We also binge watch because it makes us feel as if we’re part of a community (fandom). The community aspect is very important when it comes to binge watching. People get together to watch shows, discuss it afterwards with their peers, watch shows following recommendations, or because the show is extremely popular and many people are watching it (think Game of Thrones).
In lack of an actual community, companionship can be offered by the characters in the show. Someone binge watching a show might find one or several characters that they can identify with and that can become something akin to a community.
If 2020 taught us something, it taught us that the online environment is the future. Forever connected through so many means, we can now turn the old book clubs and fan talks into veritable online agoras where we can share our passions and opinions.
How many times did you engage in the past in a hot debate regarding Dark on Facebook? How many Game of Thrones-related memes did you share on social media? How many times did you reference the Mind Flayer in every day conversations?
Streaming services and our binge watching inclinations opened new communication venues, helped us make new friends, allowed us to discover people and groups with similar interests as us, introduced us to other shows and movies we might have never seen otherwise, and made us feel like belonging to a community.
Image Source: Freepik
Many studies also reference hedonism when looking at binge watching behaviors, as pleasure triggered by immersion in a fantasy world and becoming a part of enticing fantasy stories. In this context, binge watching can also be seen as a reward. During a long day at work, the promise of watching a couple of hours of your favorite show can (seemingly) make everything more bearable.
Similar to hedonism, voyeuristic pleasure is another reason why people binge watch, according to Pittman and Sheehan. However, this can trigger a feeling of guilt in the person watching, especially if we consider the connotations of the term “to binge.” That does not mean that people will stop binge watching, but that they will feel guilty about doing it, which can lead to more serious problems down the road, if this behavior continues.
There are few things I hate more than ending an episode in a cliffhanger and not being able to find out immediately what happens next, and I’m sure I’m not the only one. This attitude of wanting things and wanting them now (instant gratification), coupled with the idea that we deserve to know things whenever we want to, has definitely contributed to binge watching.
We binge watch because we need closure and because we are eager to find out what happens to our favorite characters. If that wasn’t a possibility when watching shows on TV in the early days, it is one now, and we are fully taking advantage of it. I honestly wonder what will be the consequences of this.
Why Are You Watching That Particular Type of Show?
Pittman and Sheehan also mention that the genre of show you are watching says a lot about why you are watching it. For example, some people watch shows about social issues to become more informed and educated, while others prefer comedies because they help them relax, pass the time, and mentally recharge.
It is no secret that some television shows engage the viewers more than others. Take Legion, for example, a show that I personally love, but one that I can’t watch when I’m extremely tired, because I wouldn’t be able to understand all of its nuances. On the opposite spectrum, I can watch a show like Friends even after a long day at work without feeling like I’m missing out on something.
The Netflix Effect
As it is quite obvious from the statistics above, Netflix has become synonymous with binge watching. That is because most people who binge watch do so on Netflix, and because Netflix introduced the practice of releasing full seasons of a show, which has unequivocally helped perpetuate the trend.
This trend is discussed more in depth in “The Netflix Effect: Technology and Entertainment in the 21st Century”
Speaking of Netflix, they don’t seem to like the term binge watching. While we don’t know exactly why, it might be because of the bad connotation of the word, and the fact that Netflix do not like their brand associated with this practice.
Binge Watching Job
However, interestingly enough, you can apply for a Netflix binge watching job that involves watching hours and hours of TV series in order to place them in categories.
Netflix’s relationship with binge watching is a complicated and often contradictory one. In their 2015 April Fool’s day campaign they asked actors to record messages for people watching more than 2 episodes back to back. The messages urged them to stop binge watching and go outside, such as this one Michael Kelly did.
Allegedly, Netflix also sent a message to one of its users to check if he was okay after he had been binge watching “The Office” for about 10 days. While there is no proof of this, it is clear that Netflix is aware of the dangers of binge watching, even if people doing this is great for their business.
The Scary Part
Physical Consequences of Binge Watching
Binge watching effects are both physical and psychological. In the section below, I look at those affecting the body.
- Sleep problems (insomnia, poor sleep quality, fatigue) because of foregoing sleep in order to keep watching. People who binge watch might not be able to fall asleep, tend to wake up during the night, or very early in the morning without being able to fall back asleep. Why? Due to mental stimulation (pre-sleep arousal) that keeps people alert before going to bed. Interestingly enough, this goes against what most people look for when binge watching, which is to wind down at the end of a long day. A large sleep debt – the amount of sleep you need vs the amount you get – is not uncommon in binge watchers.
- Weight gain and lack of physical fitness: eating unhealthy food and snacks.
- Sedentary behavior which leads to a higher mortality risk, as well as life-threatening illnesses like type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, obesity, cardio-metabolic disease, chronic disease, risk of pain in children, blood clots due to poor circulation, spine trouble, shrunk lung capacity, muscle softening, disability in older adults, or cancer. For more information on the effects of passivity on our lives, check out the cool infographics provided by Daily Infographic and Adioma.
- Eye trouble.
- Difficulty concentrating & short attention span due to the constant video stimulation that binge watching offers.
Image Source: Pixabay
Psychological Consequences of Binge Watching
These are the most important effects of binge watching on your brain.
- Passivity, which can affect the social and academic life of students.
- Correlation between binge watching and depression, which we will examine more in the next section.
- High level of loneliness, which can lead to an even more urgent need to binge watch.
- More likely to feel stressed and anxious.
- When we binge watch, we tend to starve ourselves of emotions and disconnect from people around us. The experience can be isolating if you’re not doing it with someone else. However, there is yet no significant correlation between binge watching and loneliness.
- Attachment anxiety.
- Binge watchers enjoy a program less than people who watch it on a weekly basis.
The psychological effects of binge watching are more complex and challenging to pin down, especially considering there isn’t that much binge watching research out there just yet.
What happens to your brain when you binge watch? Well, when we look at its mental effects, we must mention its drug-like quality. Watching TV releases dopamine in your brain, which can make you feel as if you were high.
I should also explain that binge watching is not the same as problematic television use. The latter shows addiction elements and is done by people despite serious consequences associated with it. While binge watching is close to that threshold, it does not reach it, so it is slightly inaccurate to talk about a binge watching addiction just yet.
Post Binge Watching Depression
Before discussing binge watching and depression, it is important to establish the difference between causation and correlation. According to the studies that are currently available, there is no clear causation between the two, but just mere correlation, in that people who identify as binge watchers are more likely to report feeling depressed. Moreover, there is a higher risk of moderate to severe depression for people who spend more than 6 hours a day watching TV.
While binge watching might not cause depression, it does tend to mess with the healing time of people who are already depressed, since it encourages sedentary behavior and it can be mentally exhausting. That said, some people who suffer from depression might find it counterproductive to binge watch.
A Toxic Cycle
The more depressed people are, the more they tend to watch TV. However, it is yet unknown if people are already depressed and this is why they gravitate toward binge watching, or if binge watching is making them depressed because they feel guilty about doing it.
Situational Depression and Malaise
The term “post-binging malaise” illustrates the feelings of emptiness and abandonment that people feel when they stop binge watching. This correlates with situational depression, which in this case, comes as a result of the lack of more episodes to watch once you finish a season or the entire show.
The Depression Paradox
Paradoxically, watching TV has also been proven to help people cope with negative moods. Books have a similar purpose, and we can read as much as we want in one sitting without being conditioned by anyone. Yet, there is no term that makes you feel guilty about reading for 12 hours straight, and this is a matter worth investigating further.
A Young People’s Problem
Apparently, people aged 18-24 are more likely to feel depressed, anxious, empty, and lonely when they finish watching a series than people over the age of 55.
On a More Positive Note
The Positives of Binge Watching
With all this negative talk about binge watching, it is time to examine: “Is binge watching good too?” Below are some (un)expected benefits and positive aspects of binge watching.
- People have positive feelings about this activity.
- Binge-watching helps relieve stress. Does watching TV relax you? You’re not the only one.
- It can serve as a break from what happens in your daily life.
- It brings you closer to people – this is particularly relevant in long-distance relationships. For example, when I was in a long-distance relationship, me and my partner used to watch “Friends” together almost every night by hitting play at the same time and commenting throughout. This activity, while not ideal or fit to replace actual interaction, did make us closer and it was a nice way to spend some time together virtually.
- There are many brilliant shows out there which make for amazing experiences.
- Binge watching, you notice things you wouldn’t have if you hadn’t watched an entire season in one sitting.
- You develop relationships with the characters, which makes a lot of people feel less alone.
- Shared experiences that you have with TV shows and movies can be considered a form of interaction with other people.
- One of the most obvious things – you don’t have to wait for the next episode to be released.
- No more cliffhangers: there are people who hate that – like myself – but there are also people who like them, so this doesn’t apply to everyone.
- You don’t get that many spoilers, because there’s no time for them to reach you if you manage to watch the entire series in just a few days/hours.
- Episodes seem more like chapters in a book when you watch them one after the next.
- Binge watching (and watching TV in general) can make you smarter, despite popular belief. Television has long been considered a lowbrow form of entertainment, and one that does not particularly aid your intellectual development. However, anyone who is familiar with the many remarkable TV shows of our time would agree that this is not at all true.
- Binge watching provides an immersive experience that makes you think. Of course, this is not true of all shows, but depending on your choices, you can immerse yourself in a complex, challenging universe.
- Exposure to different cultures and time periods. There’s probably a TV show out there about every time period and culture imaginable, so if you don’t have access to them through other means, television can be a great one.
Image Source: Pixabay
How to Stop Binge Watching
Is there a magical binge watching cure out there? No. However, the tips below can help you break with this habit more easily.
- Accept that there are moments in life when boredom is inevitable, and what we do with that boredom is up to each and every one of us.
- Come to terms with the fact that binge watching is a problem for you, which is a crucial step whenever you have a possibly addictive problem.
- Track the amount of time you spend watching TV.
- Find alternatives to binge watching (reading books, spending time with people, exercising, going on walks, taking classes).
- Consider that if you binge watch, you will finish your favorite show very quickly, and then you will have to wait for at least a year for another season.
- Watch just shows that you truly love – you’d be surprised how many people tend to watch shows from inertia, because someone recommended them, or because they used to love them in the past.
- If you always end in a cliffhanger, you are more tempted to keep watching, so you should stop watching when there isn’t that much happening.
- Set a certain number of hours you want to watch each day (and use an alarm to track them).
- Disable the autoplay feature on Netflix.
- Use TV as an incentive, and that way, you will do other things as well and limit your time binge watching.
Bonus: Use the StayFocusd Chrome extension.
…And If You Can’t, How to Binge Watch Responsibly
- Take breaks to avoid the autoplay feature controlling you.
- Download the exact number of episodes you want to watch and stick to them.
- Use apps that filter blue light.
- Use a laptop or TV to watch, not a phone, because the screen of a smartphone is way too small.
- Allow yourself at least 30 minutes after watching something before you go to bed to have a more restful sleep.
- Try to watch in the early evening or on weekends, to avoid feeling really tired the next day, and to fully enjoy the experience and not feel guilty about it.
- Don’t do it when you have other things to do – it will make you feel guilty and tempt you to procrastinate even more.
- Make sure you eat healthy (avoid a lot of snacks and take out) – you can try cooking for yourself beforehand, and then just heat up the food when you need it. This will also give you a chance to get off the couch for a while.
- Keep hydrated.
- Do some stretches every time you stand up to go to the bathroom – it won’t take long, but it will make a difference.
- Get comfy – wherever you choose to sit, make sure you sit up as straight as possible and have some back support.
- Make sure you have a complete binge watching survival kit at your disposal before you start watching. You may find most items on that list funny and unnecessary, but keep in mind that a pillow for your back or neck will spare you hours of pain later on.
- As tempting as it might be, try to keep at least a minimal amount of contact with the outside world – it will remind you that there’s something out there that you can return to once you’re done binge watching shows.
Image Source: Pixabay
Celebrities Binge Watch Too
If you thought just regular folk like you and me binge watch, you were wrong. Here are some celebrities that have admitted to binge watching and their drug of choice.
- Sterling K. Brown – The Americans
- Jonathan Groff – Alias
- Dascha Polanco – Jessica Jones
- Michael Kelly – The Fall
- Jodie Foster – Breaking Bad
- Holt McCallany – The Sopranos
- Ilana Glazer – Westworld
- George R.R. Martin – Ozark
- Abbi Jacobson – Succession
- Holland Roden – The Kardashians
Gif Source: Giphy
5 Free Favorite Series Tracking Tools
I don’t know about you, but I cannot keep track of all the shows I watch without a little help from a tracking tool. I also don’t want to spend money on them, so I’m always on the hunt for free ones. Here are 5 of the best.
- TrackSeries: one that I use and love
- EpisodeCalendar: another one that I use – great overall, but it has a limit of 20 shows you can stock on the basic plan (not that much for a true TV fanatic)
- Trakt: very nice design
- Next Episode: if you prefer an app for Apple & Android
- TeeVee 3: app for iOS devices only
If you want to calculate how much time you’ve spent watching TV, you’re going to love the Tiii.me website.
Binge Watching Wrap Up
My relationship with binge watching is – like that of many people – a love-hate one. I do it (and I’ll probably keep doing it), but I’m also aware that it’s not great for me. Overall, I think if people know how to binge watch responsibly, they can still engage in it without feeling guilty.
If you’ve read this guide, you’re probably as fascinated by and interested in binge watching as I am, in which case I would love it if we could start a lively discussion about it down in the comments section.
Are you a binge watcher yourself or do you have friends who do this and fall off the face of the Earth for days on end? Share this article with them!
If you were to look for me most days of the week, you would find me either in front of my laptop watching TV shows, or reading a book with my cats beside me.
I enjoy keeping up-to-date with TV shows and movies that strive to provide positive and accurate representations of different aspects of society and groups of people. Moreover, I am a geek at heart when it comes to franchises like Harry Potter and Star Wars. If you think I own too many Harry Potter bits and bobs, you’re definitely right.
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