With access to thousands of TV shows, movies, and documentaries, we have the luxury to watch just about anything we want, commercial-free at any time. The term binge-watching has become a normal jargon in light of this growing trend. “Binge”, a traditionally negative word that means to do something in excess, has become positive.
“Who am I harming?” usually echoes when the subject is brought up and it becomes a justification for the habit, according to addiction expert and sobriety coach, Kevin Sullivan. In March, most countries began practising social distancing and living in lockdowns due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Binge-watching, it could be argued, has saved the sanity of many.
Streaming during the pandemic
Streaming media viewing in the US rose by 101% in April compared to the first week of March, according to aggregator and search engine Reelgood. Based on a three-week survey, Netflix owned 42% of total playback, while Amazon’s Prime Video came second with 22.1%, and Hulu had 17.2%. The Americans aren’t the only ones guilty of binge-watching. In 2017, Malaysians topped the list of binge-watching television series in Asia, according to the world’s leading online video streaming service Netflix. The study revealed that Malaysia ranked ahead of Singapore, Philippines, Taiwan, and Hong Kong.
Netflix, which dubs these fans as “Binge Racers”, revealed that the 10 most binged shows in Malaysia in that year included Stranger Things, Narcos, Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life and Marvel’s The Defenders. Vice President, Original Series, Brian Wright, stated, “There’s a unique satisfaction that comes from being the first to finish a story – whether it’s the final page of a book or the last, climactic moments of your favourite TV show. Netflix allows you to watch in a way you never could before and there’s nothing better than seeing a show engage our members and ignite a passion for viewing.”
What binge-watching is
Binge-watching addiction is similar to other types of addictions. Sullivan, who recovered from alcoholism at the age of 26 knows this only too well. After slowly getting his life back together, he became invested in the topic of mental health, homelessness and working with the youth to lead them into living healthier lifestyles. Sullivan says that acknowledging addiction is not that easy, especially when one doesn’t even notice that it had already begun in the first place.
“In the beginning, one will probably start watching a show recommended by a friend. Then one episode turns into the next and it continues on for several more episodes,” he explains. This pattern is similar to those with alcoholism. “It always starts with one drink and then it just progresses to more drinks until the person enters the next stage, which is an obsession,” Sullivan continues.
“When we talk about the subtlety of movements, particularly binge-watching television, I may watch one episode as recommended by my friends and tell myself I’ve got time for another one, and the next thing you know I’m involved in a series of movements that’s difficult to detect,” he elaborates. Once a person is in that state of behaviour, they are the last to know that the line of obsession has been crossed.
The effects of binge-watching
One might find themselves falling asleep in the midst of binge-watching. The next thing you know, you’re late for work and may also lose concentration due to the lack of sleep. Although those issues have come into play, you probably cannot stop yourself from repeating them. “The behaviour that is hurting you in some way is also giving you relief,” Sullivan says.
This addiction can also lead to an obsession with personal devices. Having your own gadget takes you away from your physical surroundings. While cable and satellite TV operate similarly with online streaming, the major difference is that it is only available on one device. This situation in a way forces a household to sit together to watch the programmes.
Having to sit together to watch a programme encourages interactions with others living in the same household. Having commercial breaks help break the viewing pattern too, and allows short breaks at the same time. However, cable and satellite operators like Malaysia’s Astro are jumping on the bandwagon with apps like Astro GO, which enables one to access shows through their mobile phones and tabs. Its Video on Demand app also gives access to various content like online services do.
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“A friend who’s in the health profession pointed out that when someone is looking at their phone or laptop while resting has their head and neck tilted and a forward-leaning posture. She found it interesting because that is a posture of a depressed person,” says Sullivan. “If you look around you when you’re at restaurants, going for a walk, or even at home, many are engrossed in their phones in this position. Physically, everyone is together but not mentally, and to me, these are red flags.”
Many researches also indicate the negative effects of continuous TV watching are most harmful in children and adolescents because their brains aren’t fully developed yet. “We’ve had conversations regarding the electromagnetic frequencies that are transmitted through these devices. The effects it has on the brains and bodies of younger people are more accentuated than fully developed adults,” Sullivan says.
Adults aren’t fully immune either. For aging brains (people over 45), passive stimulation isn’t encouraged by neurologists. While binge-watching uses the same neurological networks every time you binge-watch, the neurological networks not being used and not being regularly exercised are put into “buzz” mode.
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It’s not easy acknowledging you have this type of addiction unless you come to a realisation that you’ve wasted several valuable hours a day just watching TV shows when you could have used it to go to the gym or socialising with friends. “Bingeing itself is a negative issue to my health, mind, and spirit. So how much is it safe?”, Sullivan stresses. At the end of the day, moderation is the key. Like everything we indulge in, enjoying TV shows should not be at the expense of normal daily activities, work or relationships, and should not get in the way of living our lives.