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come binge with me: the problem with netflix

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It’s human nature to want more of a good thing, and if it’s available to utilise in big amounts all at once (i.e. by binging), many people will. Merriam Webster defines a “binge” as ‘a short period of time when you do too much of something.’ We’re all familiar with binging, for we overindulge in all sorts of things – food, drink, even a simple activity like shopping. More recently, millions of people worldwide have been binging on something else.

Television.

In 2013, the second most popular word was binge-watching. Oxford Dictionary defines binge-watching as ‘watching multiple episodes of a television program in rapid succession.’ Dictionary.com says to binge-watch is ‘to watch (multiple videos, episodes of a TV show) in one sitting or over a short period of time.’The term’s most precise quintessence, however, comes from streaming media services like Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu. In a Harris Interactive study, 73% of Netflix users described binge-watching as ‘watching between 2-6 episodes of the same TV show in one sitting.’ By this definition, subscribers spend over one billion hours per month binge-watching; 61% of them binge-watch shows at least every few weeks. That’s a whole lot of binging and watching.

Classic compulsive binging problems include binge-drinking and binge-eating. According to Rochester Medical Center, alcohol overconsumption is detrimental in that ‘binge drinkers have increased risk of killing someone, killing oneself, domestic violence…’ Binge-eaters ‘struggle with feelings of guilt, disgust, and depression’, all the while worrying about what ‘compulsive eating will do to their bodies and [beating] themselves up for their lack of self-control.’ Binge shopping – think Isla Fisher in Confessions of a Shopaholic. She takes ‘shop till you drop’ to another level, shopping so often she drowns in debt. Although the film is meant to be comedic, the binge shopping problem isn’t. In fact, it’s a serious problem psychiatrists have dubbed Compulsive Buying Disorder, or CBD. The Illinois Institute for Addiction Recovery says CBD can ‘result in interpersonal, occupational, family, and financial problems.’ Binge shoppers also ‘experience anxiety or depression as a result of spending or shopping, which may interfere with work or school performance.’

Now think of binge-watching. It contains the word ‘binge’, so that should tell us binge-watching is a compulsive, abnormal behaviour. But is that the way we think of binge-watching? Not at all. We don’t typically associate binge-watching with anything negative; to us, it just means watching a lot of TV.

I’ll be the first to admit I love to binge-watch. It’s right at the top of my hobbies list, next to eating, sleeping, and breathing. Last summer, I frequently pulled all-nighters watching fifty minute-long episodes of Supernatural on Netflix, until I finished all nine seasons. All 216 episodes. That’s 10,800 minutes – 180 hours – the equivalent of seven and a half days of nonstop streaming. I’ve spent many weekends binge-watching House and Once Upon a Time. For one-hour breaks between classes, I catch up on a Gilmore Girls episode. I view an extra half-hour before class starts as an opportunity to watch an episode of The Office.

Yes, staring at a small lit-up screen in a dark room for hours on end is extremely unhealthy, but binge-watching is like being on a high; once you start, you’re hooked, and it’s difficult to stop.

According to cultural anthropologist Grant McCracken, ‘Getting immersed in multiple episodes or even multiple seasons of a show over a few weeks is a new kind of escapism that is especially welcomed today.’ It’s this feeling of escapism that drives people to be involved in compulsive, addictive, and potentially deleterious activities like binge-drinking, binge-eating, even taking drugs.

It’s also because of escapism, ‘an activity or form of entertainment that allows people to forget about the real problems of life’, that society has become so comfortable with binge-watching. It allows us to zone out, immerse ourselves in a different world, and gives us complete control over what and how much we watch.

Streaming services like Netflix and Hulu provide viewers with something that cable television cannot: instant gratification. With cable television, viewers have a limited selection of movies to watch depending on what airs, and they’d have to wait weekly for episodes of a show to be released. Now, TV fanatics no longer have to wait to be satisfied; a titanic amount of shows, released by seasons instead of episodes, and a variety of movies from multiple genres, are available at a button click or finger tap. The convenient nature and immediate enjoyment are what make digital streaming platforms so addictive. It’s revolutionised the way we watch television and has led to the advent of a binge-watch culture – and it’s become a real problem. We basically can’t cope with waiting for the next high.

According to Columbia Professor John Black, ‘You take a dosage of a drug and have a certain amount of reaction to it. But if you keep doing it, it takes more and more of the same drug to get the same reaction.’ You need to keep watching in order to fulfill a desired level of satisfaction, and streaming services feed this addiction by automatically playing episodes after one ends. This constant craving to keep watching can cut into sleep, negatively affecting mental and physical health. Black also states ‘too much TV-watching also increases the risk of weight-related chronic diseases, such as Type 2 diabetes’ and obesity.

But the problem can be fixed, right? Let’s stop binge-watching right now, start exercising, and everything will be alright. Wrong. Going to the gym or continuously running laps won’t negate all the hours spent watching Breaking Bad. The consequences of being a couch potato aren’t allayed by exercise. The damage is done.

Binge-watching is a phenomenon we’ve become scarily comfortable with, but as unhealthy as it may be, quitting cold turkey is a tad extreme. Find a middle ground. Next time you have a free Saturday or a spare hour, turn off the TV or close the laptop. Go for a run or read outside and bask in the sunlight. You can always binge-watch later.

Christina Bui hails from San Jose, CA and currently lives in New Haven, CT, where she is attending Yale University. When she isn’t busy with schoolwork, Christina loves reading, watching Netflix, and swimming.

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