Why you should binge-watch responsibly

Digital models for sharing and enjoying multimedia content have led people to develop new habits. On-demand freedom has been a source of great enthusiasm, but what effects does it have on our health and behaviour?

It all started in 2013, when for the first time you had the opportunity to watch an entire TV season in one go. To many it must have seemed like a bizarre idea. But judging by what has come from this intuition, it seems that many were wrong. House of Cards had arrived, Netflix had arrived, and with them a new way of enjoying multimedia content.

This was a real revolution. Both for the television networks, condemned to run after the on-demand model, and for the users, so conquered as to immediately develop new habits of the spectator. Above all, binge-watching.

Binge-watching madness

Of course, watching a disproportionate number of episodes from the same TV series in a very short time was not a completely new behaviour: TV marathons already existed, and boxes that collected all the episodes from a TV series on DVD seemed to have no other purpose than this. Yet, you can’t but credit Netflix for having cemented binge-watching as a widespread and shareable activity. A survey by the same company, dated 2013, shows this: 73% of respondents considered binge-watching a "socially acceptable" practice. And who wouldn’t bet that percentage is higher today?

Another number to persuade even the most sceptical: according to Nielsen, 361,000 Americans watched all the episodes of the second season of Stranger Things on the day of publication.

If you still thought you had to hide your serial viewer attitude, rest assured: there has never been a better time to come out into the open.

The causes of the Netflix addiction

A lot of us binge-watch and do it a lot: obviously, there must be something gratifying about it. Research confirms this (yes, you can even use science to defend yourself!): when you are involved in a pleasant activity, your brain produces dopamine. If you look at a series without ever stopping, your brain never stops producing dopamine. This is how a pseudo addiction develops, the same one that, much like when using a smartphone or scrolling down a in a social media, prevents you from raising your eyes from the screen even when you should.

But there are other factors that contribute to Netflix addiction: the areas of the brain that are activated when watching TV are the same as when you are experiencing an event first-hand, so some stories can be so engaging that you want to never take your eyes off the screen.

Moreover, binge-watching can be a real (albeit temporary) panacea against stress: few things fill the mind like immersing yourself completely in a story, blocking at least for a while the flow of worries and negative thoughts that sometimes seems unstoppable.

Seen in this way, binge-watching isn't so bad – quite the opposite actually. However, if there wasn't a price to pay the story wouldn't be so interesting, would it?

The effects of binge-watching on health

A New York Times journalist, Matthew Schneier, coined a specific expression to indicate the condition that often follows an intense binge-watching session: "Unseasonal affective disorder: post binge-watching malaise".

After watching all nine episodes of Master of None in a few days, Schneier fell victim of what he then discovered to be a rather common malaise: post-binge-watching depression. When a series ends, many people get the feeling of a real loss experience, and fall into a state similar to that of depression.

There is not much research on the subject, but the correlation between binge-watching and depression is now almost certain, both in a causal and in a predictive sense: in a study conducted by the University of Toledo, a group formed by respondents who identified themselves as binge-watchers (142 out of 408) reported higher levels of stress, anxiety and depression.

Texas A&M University has also identified a link between binge-watching and feelings of loneliness and depression, and The Conversation magazine, as reported in an article published by the Guardian, has personally conducted a research that found that those who identified themselves as binge-watchers were more prone high levels of stress, anxiety and depressive symptoms.
It has to be repeated: there is nothing certain at the moment. However, those who have been involved in this matter have recognised some signs that should ring some alarm bells. Above all, the risk of social isolation must be kept under control. If you often find yourself preferring a Netflix evening to an outing with friends, perhaps you should try to reconsider your media diet: Frank Underwood and Eleven will understand.

On the other hand, spending too much time in front of the TV had already been associated with health problems such as obesity, diabetes and depression itself.

In short, even if the screens shrink and the modes of use change, the risks remain the same. It goes without saying that, though it is extremely enjoyable to be glued to the screen, there is still no comparison between the benefits of a real marathon and the marathon sessions of TV series that we watch.

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