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Does Binge-Watching Affect Health?

The streaming era has undoubtedly changed the way people consume entertainment. Evenings out at the cinema have been replaced by nights at home on the couch watching films that were once exclusive to theaters. Studios dumping entire programming seasons on streaming in one fell swoop means viewers no longer have to watch a program paced out over an entire season, as on-demand streaming allows people to watch at their own pace.

One interesting behavior that has emerged out of the streaming age is the practice of “binge-watching.” Binge-watching is defined as the act of streaming many episodes of a program in one sitting, sometimes watching an entire season’s worth of episodes in a single viewing that lasts many hours. Programs can be streamed to a television, laptop, tablet, or cell phone.

Bing-watching is extremely common, with 60% of Americans admitting to binge-watching at least once a week; this number rises to 73% among younger people, ages 18 to 29 [source].

Given contemporary concerns about the effects of technology exposure on young people, should we be worried about these trends? In this article, we will look at what research says about the effects of binge-watching.

Potential Health Consequences of Binge-Watching

Studying binge-watching is relatively new, and the data is still being collected, but there have been several studies over the last seven years that give us a preliminary idea about how binge-watching affects the body.

Perhaps the biggest concern about binge-watching is that it keeps the viewer sedentary for long periods, and sedentary behavior has been linked to multiple poor health outcomes, such as heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, osteoporosis, strokes, excessive weight gain, anxiety, and depression (source). It is important to note that passive, sedentary behaviors like binge-watching are different from active, sedentary behaviors like desk work. A 2020 study by the University of Arizona suggests that passive sedentary behavior is far worse for physical health (source). This means binge-watching a program for four hours is not the same as working in front of your computer for four hours.

Binge-watching is also linked to unhealthy diet patterns, such as frequent fast-food consumption and eating family meals in front of the screen. This is also related to being sedentary: if a viewer is sedentary, he or she is more likely to resort to foods that are quick and easy to obtain, which are generally processed or otherwise less nutritional. Poor diet can be connected not only with weight gain but also with moodiness and stress.

Then, there are issues relating to sleep and fatigue. Sleep is obviously important for any healthy lifestyle and is especially necessary for young people whose bodies are still growing. A 2017 Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine study found that binge-watching was associated with symptoms of insomnia, fatigue, and poorer quality of sleep overall (source). The reason is that processing the visual-auditory signals from a screen stimulates your brain. Since it is common for people to binge-watch in the evening after the day’s work is done, this means binge-watchers are actively stimulating their brains right before bedtime. Therefore, it takes much longer to fall asleep, resulting in less time for rejuvenating sleep every night. Incidentally, this is also why it is recommended you disconnect from your devices and get off of screens at least a half hour to an hour before bedtime (source).

Finally, we should mention the social isolation that comes with binge-watching. Binge-watching and isolation have a mutually reinforcing effect. People who binge-watch tend to do so in isolation, and the more they binge-watch, the more they isolate themselves. Studies have demonstrated plausible connections between binge-watching, social isolation, and declining mental health quality (source), which can be exacerbated if binge-watching becomes an addictive habit. Whether binge-watching can truly become an addiction is still debated, but research has shown that binge-watching stimulates the pleasure-centers in the brain the same way other addictions do (source).

Yeah, but…

Given all this, you may think binge-watching is a demonstrably negative behavior that should be avoided. However, there is a little more to the story.

In 2022, a group of researchers decided to analyze all extant studies on binge-watching to get a big picture of the scientific consensus on the health effects of binge-watching (source). This study noted that binge-watching was considerably less problematic when it occurred as part of a planned routine (e.g., “I’m setting aside two hours today to watch my program”) instead of an unplanned behavior, for example, when someone intends to watch for only a brief period but ends up watching for hours and has difficulty shutting the television off. Thus, This study opened the possibility that binge-watching can be less risky if it is situated within an overall balanced daily routine.

Furthermore, while the 2022 study acknowledged the connections between binge-watching and negative health outcomes noted by other studies, it said that these connections fell short of being causative; in other words, there is a correlation, but not certain causation. For example. rather than binge-watching causing depression or anxiety, persons who already struggle with anxiety or depression may turn to binge-watching as a source of pleasurable mental stimulus. In these cases, binge-watching would be a symptom of depression, not a cause.

Another issue is that while studies agree that binge-watching has become more prevalent over the last few years, no one has considered the impact of COVID-19 and the lockdowns on these trends. In other words, it may not be that binging is becoming more popular with shildren but that pandemic-era lockdowns left people with few other forms of entertainment.

Overall, the 2022 study suggests further research into the connection between binge-watching and negative health outcomes while expressing caution about exaggerating connections that have not been demonstrably proven.

Balanced Watching

If you or your children are going to binge-watch, it should be done within the context of an overall balanced, healthy approach to viewing. Try to observe the following principles when streaming:

  • Plan Your TV Time: If you or your child want to watch multiple program episodes, plan it within the structure of your overall day. Do not let yourself get sucked into unplanned TV time.
  • Limiting Your Time: Commit to watching only a few episodes (e.g., two episodes of a show at a time). Once you have reached your limit, shut the television off.
  • No TV After a Certain Time: If you watch at night, decide when to turn off the TV and set an alarm. Do not watch any television or use screens after the alarm goes off.
  • A Balanced Routine: Make sure television is only one of many activities you engage in, including outdoor activities and other less sedentary outlets.
  • Watch TV Socially: Most binge-watching is done in isolation. If your children and their friends are fans of a certain show, consider having social TV time, where friends come over and watch shows together. This not only reduces the likelihood they will watch for extreme amounts of time, but it also makes the viewing from a passive, sedentary activity to something more active, as your children and their friends interact with each other while they watch.
  • Set A Definitive Bedtime: Besides ending your screen time at a set point each night, have a definitive bedtime to ensure you or your children get sufficient sleep.
  • Snack Healthy: Give some forethought to prepare healthy snacks for TV time to avoid recourse to processed foods, heavily salted snack treats, and DoorDash junk food. Even ten minutes of prepping some fruit or veggies will make a huge difference.

Do you have tips to share or questions to ask? I invite you to join us in our Catholic Homeschool Connections Community and start a conversation.

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