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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.

Most Americans choose to binge-watch a TV series, often finishing an entire season in one week or less, rather than taking their time. In fact, more than 361,000 people watched all nine episodes of “Stranger Things, Season 2” on the first day it was released.

Spending hours watching a single TV show is a popular pastime for many Americans, but it can also be harmful to your health. Before you curl up for your next binge, here are three things 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 that 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 those induced by drugs and other substances. Your brain craves more and more, and as long as you continue to binge, your brain produces dopamine. 

No wonder 73 percent of people surveyed by Netflix reported they feel happy 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 Danesh A. Alam, MD, a board-certified addictions psychiatrist with Northwestern Medicine Behavioral Health Services.

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 with controlling 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 brings temporary relief from the daily stress of work, school and parenting.

But, binge watching makes it easy to disconnect from other humans. 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 Your ZZZZZs  

Research shows that watching back-to-back episodes of your favorite show may excite your brain, and as a result, interferes 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 anxietyOne study found that people who watch more TV suffer from anxiety and depression (possibly due to the isolation).
  • Back problems. Poor posture can cause your spine to be curved or weak.
  • Lack of oxygen. Sitting for long periods of time shrinks your lung capacity by a third.
  • Lack of physical activity. This increases your risk for heart disease and stroke.
  • Bigger waistline. You’re less likely to exercise and more inclined to snack on junk food.

And these negative effects can be noticed after just two weeks of binging.  

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 per night. Use a timer for accountability.
  • Balance TV-viewing with other activities, such as physical exercise, seeing friends, reading or taking up a hobby.
  • 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 with you.
  • Chat with fellow fans about the characters, plot and cliffhangers.

You may plan to watch just one show, but if you burn through an entire season in one sitting, it’s time to reassess.  

Danesh A. Alam, MD
Danesh A. Alam, MD
Nearest Location:
Health System Clinician, Feinberg School of Medicine
  • Primary Specialty Psychiatry
  • Secondary Specialty Addiction Psychiatry
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