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Binge Watching

Three Ways TV Affects Your Health

Streaming platforms are changing the way we watch television. With access to thousands of TV shows, movies and documentaries, we can watch just about anything we want, commercial-free, at any time, day or night.

There's a good chance you spent the past year streaming more video than ever before. In fact, according to market research firm Nielsen, the total amount of time people spent per week streaming video in 2020 increased by nearly 75% compared with 2019.

Watching anywhere between two and six episodes of a TV series in one sitting is a behavior called binge watching, and it can have a negative impact on your health. Before you curl up for your next binge, here are three health considerations you should know.

Binge Watching Is Like a Drug

Who knew binge watching your favorite series could produce a "high?" It's true.

When you're engaged in an activity you enjoy, your brain produces dopamine — a chemical that promotes feelings of pleasure, excitement and happiness. The release of dopamine helps us feel good, and it results in a "high" similar to that induced by drugs and other substances with addictive qualities. Your brain craves more and more, and as long as you continue to binge, your brain produces dopamine.

No wonder 73% of people surveyed by Netflix reported they have positive feelings when they binge watch.

"Our behaviors and thoughts, when repeated over time, can become actual neural patterns and habits that are hard to break or change," says Northwestern Medicine Psychiatrist Danesh A. Alam, MD.

And like other addictive behaviors, binge watching can create a pseudo-addiction to the show, explains Dr. Alam.

As a result, marathon viewing can adversely affect your relationships, goals and commitments. You may struggle to control how much time you spend watching TV, or you may find that you need to continually increase the time you spend watching TV to experience the same degree of satisfaction. You may become defensive, irritable or unreasonable when asked to stop, and you may even start lying to cover up your binging.

Binge Watching Isolates You

Watching TV has traditionally been a way to wind down. It can bring temporary relief from the daily stress of work, school and parenting.

However, binge watching makes it easy to disconnect from other people. With multiple streaming accounts and multiple ways to view a show, it's easy to retreat to your corner of the house and zone out for hours at a time.

Binge Watching Interferes With Sleep  

Research shows that watching back-to-back episodes of your favorite show may excite your brain, and as a result, interfere with your ability to sleep. Squeezing in just one more episode can cause you to stay up late at night, leaving you feeling tired and drained the next day.

There are other negative health effects:

  • Depression and anxiety. Research has found that the more lonely and depressed people reported to be, the more likely they were to binge watch TV.
  • Back problems. Posture is an important part of spine health. Poor posture while watching TV can cause your spine to be curved or weak, leading to back pain and musculoskeletal issues.
  • Respiratory function. Research has shown that respiratory function is greatly decreased among healthy young men sitting in a slumped position compared with healthy young men sitting with proper posture.
  • Lack of physical activity. If you're spending more time on the couch and less time exercising, your risk for heart disease, including stroke, is higher.

Tips for Managing Binge Watching

  • Limit yourself to a certain (small) number of episodes, like two or three at a time. When you've reached your limit, turn off the TV and move on to something else.
  • Set a time limit. Decide the amount of time you watch TV per night. Use a timer for accountability.
  • Balance TV-viewing with other activities, such as physical exercise, seeing friends and reading.
  • Keep lights turned on in the viewing area and your house so you don't lose sense of time.
  • Make it a social thing and invite a friend, spouse or kids to watch TV with you. Chat with fellow fans about characters, plots and cliffhangers.

You may start out planning to just watch one show, but if you burn through an entire season in one sitting, it may be time to reassess.