Fear not: Binge-watching isn’t as bad as you think


By Miles Smith

The familiar Hannibal theme blares through the tinny speakers of the cheap TV in my living room as another episode draws to a close. I look to my roommate Alex, who has a big smile on her face, and then to my roommate Bryce, who’s still trying to come to terms with the twist ending. I glance at the clock—it’s getting late, or, I should say, early. Nevertheless, I return to my seat on our ratty couch, because after a cliffhanger like that, we can’t just leave it. The next episode starts automatically, taking our binge to five episodes today. I look at my roommates again, glued to the screen, and sigh contentedly. This is heaven. But it isn’t long before the little voice in the back of my head starts up: You’ve just watched five hours of TV in a row. Yep, I have. That can’t be healthy. Well, maybe not. That can’t be normal. Well, both my roommates are doing it. But the questions start to take shape in my head: am I isolating myself by spending so much time watching TV? Does everyone binge as much as I do? I’ll set out to find the answers, right after this episode.

Binge-watching is quickly becoming the new normal. Many people assume it is unhealthy, that watching one episode after another is lazy at best and isolating at worst. But that couldn’t be more wrong. In fact, the opposite is true, regardless of what you watch, the speed at which you watch or whether you binge alone or with others. Binge-watching is not the activity of a social pariah. For many people, it helps them connect with others watching the same shows. Though by no means a healthy behaviour, binge-watching is no more physically, emotionally or socially harmful than the old way people used to watch TV.

Because binge-watching is still a relatively new phenomenon, it’s hard to nail down a definition for it. According to Matthew Pittman, a media studies professor at the University of Oregon School of Journalism and Communication, it’s watching three or more episodes of a TV show in one sitting. Of course, that definition does leave some wiggle room. Three episodes of a show like Family Guy, for example, would amount to only 66 minutes of viewing time, but three episodes of The X-Files would be 135 minutes. Still, given that there is no generally accepted definition for binge-watching, Pittman’s is a good one to start with.

The amount of time we spend bingeing has changed, even over the past five years. “I think the negative connotations surrounding binge-watching and the hedonism aspect is slowly going away,” says Pittman. If anything, bingeing has become our default way to watch TV. More than 64 per cent of American respondents ages 18 to 34 prefer the “Netflix way,” according to a 2017 survey by YouGov, an online national statistic and polling company. Netflix seems to recognize this fact and tailors its software to increase the ease of watching for longer and longer periods of time. The waiting time between episodes automatically playing is no more than 25 seconds and, in some cases, as few as five seconds. Unlike in the past, when TV shows were aired only at specific times and you only had one chance to tune in (now known as appointment viewing), today, you have to be intentional about when to stop watching before you get sucked into another episode.

There are three main reasons why people binge-watch: it can provide a form of social currency, it can be used as a way to procrastinate and it can provide a sort of companionship. The social aspect of binge-watching is especially powerful as it results in a kind of social currency. For many, the only isolation associated with binge-watching comes from not binge-watching enough. “I wanted to be able to get to the same spot as my friends, so we could actually talk about the same stuff,” says Noman Morad-Azimi, a third-year game design and development student at Wilfrid Laurier University, in Brantford, Ont. He says he would feel uncomfortable if his friends were talking about a series that he wasn’t “current” on. Nicole Troskot, a fourth-year health studies student at Wilfrid Laurier, agrees. “My roommates finished Stranger Things, like, a week before I even started. They would start talking about it, and I had to leave the room because I wanted to watch it for myself.” So, to the extent that binge-watching is isolating, it’s often only because of a desire to catch up with what your friends have watched before they spoil it for you.

Similarly, many people choose to binge-watch in order to gain a type social currency—the ability to take part in a shared discussion about a show, even if they accumulate that currency on their own. “Let’s say I spend six hours in isolation watching something, but then I might spend two or more very contented hours with friends talking about what happened in season whatever it is of some show,” says Tim Blackmore, a media studies professor at Western University, in London, Ont.. “That also brings me in contact with people because I share the text with them, so I’m sharing an experience even though I have had that experience alone.” Although the bingeing experience is solitary, it can result in a currency that can transcend many social boundaries in person and online.

The second main reason why people binge-watch is to procrastinate. TV shows are what media theorist Marshall McLuhan described as a cool media (other examples being comic books and seminar discussions). In other words, they are passive media that need the audience’s participation to convey their messages. This need for constant attention is why TV and Netflix are such effective distraction tools. For viewers to engage with what they’re watching on TV fully, they have to give it their full attention; it becomes an all-consuming activity. “In my experience as a therapist, a lot of times what primarily motivates binge-watching is escapism,” says Blair Wilson, who practises in Hamilton, Ont. He says people who struggle to connect socially may find it easier to engage with the world through TV, although that can become a form of avoidance. They end up watching TV instead of trying to do the harder work of making connections with other people.

Troskot says she uses Netflix as a way to relax during stressful times. Specifically, she turns to Friends. She originally watched the show during a difficult time at school and, as a result, now associates it with comfort and escape. She says she has to return to her “baseline show” at least once a day to relax, and when things get stressful, she watches more of the show. “Sometimes during exams, I’ll work all day, and then I’ll get into bed at, like, seven, and watch from seven to midnight, straight.” While some people might think that illustrates the negative perception of binge-watching, therapist Todd Adamowich, of Hamilton, Ont., says that’s not necessarily the case. “It would make sense that a person who has had a bad day takes a day off to stay home, nurture themselves and maybe catch up on a few episodes of something they enjoy,” he explains. “If that is an infrequent behaviour, and one rooted in a coping strategy, I think in the short term that could make sense.”

The third reason why people turn to Netflix is that it can be a form of companionship. Many people will put on a TV show they have already seen for background noise and a sense of company. “I’m not scared to hang out with myself, but everyone has that, ‘I don’t want to be alone’ kind of thing. I think that’s a factor of why I would put it on, even if I’m not paying attention to it,” says Sinclair Kemp-Griffin, a 21-year-old marketing student at Bishop’s University in Sherbrooke, Que. “It’s almost like I feel like I would feel more isolated if I didn’t have it on.” While this may seem like isolating behaviour, it’s actually normal and is not just typical of  millennials. “We use the radio in the same way, where you might be alone at home or at work and have the radio on sort of as background noise,” says Blackmore. “Although we may be alone physically, we may not want to be completely and utterly cut off. We probably want to have some background noise on; otherwise, we may start to feel uneasy. It makes sense that the next generation will use the television as the same kind of a comfort device.” In other words, binge-watching like this isn’t self-isolating. Rather, it is rooted in combatting isolation.

 Even while it seems clear that binge-watching is not always a socially isolating activity and can encourage social connections through a shared passion, there are times when it can be unhealthy. Therapists Adamowich and Wilson consider binge-watching an addictive behaviour and something that a watcher could become more dependent on emotionally. They say people with depression or anxiety could have their illnesses worsened by binge-watching, particularly if they’re doing it alone. “Any addiction serves the purpose of an escape, and if a person is sitting in their home, power-watching season after season after season of a show, that keeps them very distracted. It keeps them isolated. It keeps them not mindfully present of what they’re experiencing in a moment,” says Adamowich. “That, for me, is what qualifies it as an addiction.uch as smoking marijuana or eating junk food.

For me, though, as I return to the question that started me on my journey many months ago, I can say that the misconceptions about binge-watching are just that. It is not automatically an isolating activity. It can, in fact, promote connections by giving people a shared social currency. Although it can be used as a procrastination tool, it’s wrong to blame binge-watching alone for that. It is as much the result of television. And now, as my investigation draws to a close, so does Hannibal. The thrilling conclusion is still buzzing around the room as my two roommates and I fervently discuss it. Without hesitation, we launch into our next show: all 10 seasons of The X-Files. As the theme plays through the TV’s tinny speakers, I know this is exactly where I am meant to be.