A marathon session of watching your favorite TV show sounds harmless enough. Thanks to on-demand viewing and online streaming, it’s easy to catch up on several episodes or even a whole season at a time. But binge-consuming anything — whether it’s TV, booze or food — may be a sign that something is missing in your life. One recent study linked binge-watching TV to loneliness and depression.
For the study, researchers from the University of Texas at Austin surveyed more than 300 young adults, ages 18 to 29. The more lonely and depressed study participants were, the more likely they were to binge-watch TV. This suggests that they were trying to escape unpleasant feelings by getting lost in a show.
But like drinking a whole bottle of wine or eating a whole bag of chips, watching a whole season of “House of Cards” at once can lead to problems. In the study, binge-watching TV was associated with low self-control. The bingers just kept clicking “Next” even when they had other things they needed to do.
Streaming Your Addiction
Binge-watching refers to viewing multiple episodes of a TV series in one sitting — a habit that’s on the rise, thanks to streaming services such as Netflix, HBO Go, Showtime Anytime and Hulu. In a survey commissioned by Netflix, 61% of Americans who stream TV shows said that they regularly watched multiple episodes back-to-back. And three-quarters of TV streamers said that they felt good about binge-watching.
It’s easy to see why. It can be satisfying to immerse yourself in the lives of interesting characters, and it may be just as rewarding to escape your own stressful life for a while. When you’re working to overcome an addiction to alcohol or drugs, substituting a craving for “Dexter” or “Game of Thrones” sounds like a smart trade.
But like almost anything else, binging on TV can go too far. As time goes by, you may find that you need to watch more and more episodes to feel satisfied. You may spend so much time watching TV episodes that you start neglecting your family and friends. You may catch yourself sneaking a peek at your show when you should be working. And you may get really cranky if you aren’t able to watch your show as planned.
In short, you may start behaving like a TV addict. If you’re recovering from an alcohol or drug problem, that’s a sign you still have some unresolved addiction issues to deal with.
Binging on Shows and Snacks
Research suggests that there might also be a link between binge-watching TV and binge-eating — in other words, consuming an unusually large amount of food in a short amount of time while feeling out of control. One study included 116 overweight adults who were trying to lose weight. Those who watched a lot of TV were more likely to binge-eat.
This study didn’t specify whether participants were watching TV and scarfing down food at the same time. But it’s no secret that many people snack indiscriminately while sitting in front of a screen. Research has shown that the more hours of TV people watch each day, the more unhealthy foodbeh they tend to eat.
Even if you avoid overeating, sitting and staring at a screen for hours at a time is unhealthy. A study in the Journal of the American Heart Association showed that adults who watched three hours or more of TV per day doubled their risk of premature death, compared to those who watched one hour or less.
It’s not that TV per se is bad for you. In fact, distracting yourself with an engrossing show can be a good way to unwind for a little while. But if you watch the show for hours on end, the combination of sitting and being inactive increases your risk for health problems, such obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disease. If binge-watching triggers old issues with binge-eating or addictive behavior, that only magnifies the potential toll on your health.
Hitting “Stop” on Binge-Watching
The best TV shows pull you into their world and make you want to stick around for another episode, and another, and another. Pretty soon, you’ve spent a lot more time watching the show than you meant to — and a lot less time preparing dinner, taking a walk or reading to your kids. These tips can help you avoid that trap:
- Watch TV intentionally. Don’t automatically turn on a screen as soon as you sit down. Instead, consciously decide how much time you’ll spend watching TV shows each day — ideally, no more than an hour. Then carefully choose the shows you want to spend your viewing allowance on.
- Have an exit strategy. Let’s say you decide to stream an hour-long episode of your favorite show. Plan how you’ll extricate yourself; for example, by hitting “Stop” as soon as the action ends without waiting for the closing credits. Also plan what you’ll do next; for example, walking the dog or laying out your clothes for work tomorrow.
- Build real-life connections. Schedule fun, healthy, non-TV activities to share with others, such as going to yoga class, cooking dinner for friends or checking out a weekend art show. Enjoy yourself! The lives of TV characters may hold less allure when your own life is beckoning brightly.