Five years ago, the only people who confessed to “binge-watching” their favorite television shows were diehards with DVD box sets and too much time on their hands. But with the rise of streaming services like Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime, the notion–nay, the lifestyle–has been adopted by most television viewers. Hell, Millennials now prefer it to boring old cable and tuning in for a new episode each week.
But for how readily we’ve accepted this form of entertainment consumption, we haven’t pondered the long-term effects it has already had on the TV-watching population. Good and bad, casual or critical, here are the ways in which binge-watching has altered our brains, our health, and TV itself.
It taps into the more self-destructive parts of your brain.
A recent study by the University of Texas at Austin found correlations between a two-to-six-episode binge (which is even relatively low, for some diehards) and depression, loneliness, and an inability to maintain self-control. The study—conducted by two researchers who admitted to their own TV binges—suggests that people use binge-watching to escape negative feelings. The researchers concluded their paper by saying, “This should no longer be viewed as ‘harmless’ addictive behavior.”
It gives you emotional whiplash.
Combine those chemical changes with the fact that bingers are spending hours invested in the lives of fictional characters. Robert F. Potter, PhD, director of the Institute for Communication Research at Indiana University explained to the Huffington Post that when you finish a sitcom episode, there’s no cliffhanger to keep your excitement levels up; instead, you feel detached from the characters with whom you were engaged just minutes before. Additionally, spending too much time in a fictional world (say, Breaking Bad) will color how you perceive the real one.
On the flipside, watching hour-long dramas packed with cliffhangers gets your adrenaline pumping and may correlate to some positives outside of TV, like increased affection toward a significant other.
It can kill you.
That escalated quickly, yes. But it’s undeniable: Whatever your emotional rollercoaster, your brain is being engaged while your body stays (mostly) sedentary. In mid-2014, a study out of the University of Navarre in Pamplona, Spain suggested that TV viewers should watch only one hour (!) per day. Based on an ongoing study of over 13,000 people started in 2006, the researchers found that those who reported watching three or more hours of TV a day were 44 percent more likely to die from heart disease or stroke, 21 percent more likely to die from cancer, and 55 percent more likely to die from something else. A medical professional from New York University (not involved in the University of Navarra study) pointed out that someone who spends that much time in front of the boob tube daily is also likely to have other sedentary behaviors, contributing to the possibly fatal health risks.
But just as binge-watching could shorten our lives, let’s look at how it has prolonged the lifespan of television itself.
It changes the structure of storytelling on TV.
TV writers, who consistently must reinvent the form as viewers’ tastes and social mores have shifted, have had to drastically restructure their series to accommodate binges. Current series have slashed the number of episodes in a given season, with plots arranged around midseason finales, or have broken a season up into two halves. No longer are there November and May sweeps; there may not even be enough episodes to span that much time!
For the most part, this downsizing has tightened up a series and refocused the plot, eliminating filler episodes. Hyper-serials (as Newsweek calls them) with a clear season-long arc must maintain that structure and surprise throughout. Then there are series that never live on a network, that are developed entirely on Netflix or Amazon Prime: These programs have fewer narrative constraints and more room for experimentation.
Networks have also conceived of new ways to present their programming: AMC, for instance, offers up “binge bonuses” to viewers who watch their Breaking Bad marathons. These five-minute clips provide a quick palate cleanser or behind-the-scenes look at a particularly wrenching moment. In the spring of 2014, ABC devoted an entire week to binge-watching, allowing fans to catch up on their favorite series.
It could be the saving grace for struggling shows.
In 2013, as binge-watching was hitting the mainstream and Breaking Bad was wrapping up, series creator Vince Gilligan credited binge-watching with keeping his show on the air. Though he said he couldn’t point to statistical data and this feeling came more from the gut, he said, “Under the old paradigm—using the old technology of simply having first runs and then reruns on networks—I don’t know that we would’ve reached the critical mass that we reached.”
It can make relationships…
Families are carving time into their increasingly busy schedules to watch entire series together—again, an evolution of the idea of tuning in together as a family unit once a week. Similarly, new couples can create fast intimacy by starting a show together—it becomes their “thing.” One woman even claimed that watching Breaking Bad with her husband saved their floundering marriage.
…or break them.
Netflix adultery is a thing: Even if it’s just jumping ahead an episode or two, it betrays the experience you and your significant other (or best friend) were building. You can never get away with it, because Netflix keeps a record of your cheating. And even if you offer to rewatch the episode with them, it’s not the same.
Celebrities want to help you binge-watch safely and responsibly.
As with anything that captures the public’s attention, binge-watching has spawned its own in-jokes. And if you won’t listen to doctors who warn you about the dangers of sedentary marathoning, then how about the actors affected? This cheeky PSA from Entertainment Weekly rounds up the casts of How I Met Your Mother, Parks and Recreation, Veronica Mars, Lost, and more to advise you on the right (drink plenty of fluids) and wrong (don’t do a double-header of Breaking Bad and True Detective) ways to binge. More than ever before, binge-watching narrows the divide between viewer and entertainer, allowing both to share in the experience of creating and consuming great TV.