Binge-Watching and Your Health

The research on health effects and how you can break the cycle

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The streaming era has changed everything about the way people view television. You no longer have to wait for a new episode of your favorite show because many entertainment companies are releasing entire seasons and series of shows at once. This has lead to a new concept called binge-watching.

Binge-watching—the act of steaming many television episodes in one sitting­­—is become more and more common with all the streaming options available to consumers, including Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Video, among others. You can stream these services on your television or on another electronic device, such as a laptop, tablet, or cell phone.

But as great as all these options might sound, health experts warn that because people are replacing time once spent exercising, socializing, and sleeping, they are increasing their risk for many serious health conditions, including cardiovascular disease (heart disease), depression, sleep problems, and behavioral addictions.

Much of the research on the health effects of binge-watching is new, but what is available does focus on and raise some serious health considerations. Here is what you need to know about the health risks associated with binge-watching and what you can do to cut down your TV time and potentially reduce your risk for adverse health outcomes. 

Woman watching TV
LaylaBird/Getty Images.

Research

Binge-watching has become common behavior. In fact, a 2018 poll found that 60% of American adults who use on-demand streaming services binge watch. Percentages are higher with younger audiences, with 73% of 18 to 29-year-olds binge-watching at least once a week.

Binge-watching behavior has health consequences and researchers from Arizona State University were determined to figure out what exactly these might be. Their study results are published in the August 2020 journal BMC Public Health. Here, they sent out an 18-question survey to 926 adults who had a television and at least one more device they used to stream television shows. 

Researchers wanted to know how much time people were spending on their devices, what their diets looked like, how much sleep they got and the quality of that sleep, how much stress they incurred day-to-day, and their physical activity levels, body mass indexes, and binge-watching habits.

What the researchers found was the heaviest screen time watchers were averaging about 17.5 hours per day across all devices. These users also reported the least healthful diets and poorest health outcomes in comparison to those who were moderate or light screen users.

The researchers also noted that heavy screen time habits can lead to unhealthy diet patterns like frequent fast-food consumption and eating family meals in front of a television. Heavy screen time use was also associated with perceived stress.

Arizona State University researchers concluded poor diet and negative health consequences would become more evident as viewing time increased. They also felt more research was needed to better understand what types of screen-related behaviors might affect health behaviors and outcomes. 

Potential Health Consequences

Over time, binge-watching may harm your health in ways you may not expect. Among the concerns researchers have raised are decreased physical inactivity, sleep problems and fatigue, blood clots, heart problems, poor diet, social isolation, behavioral addiction, and cognitive decline.

Physical Inactivity

According to the National Institutes for Health (NIH), a mostly sedentary lifestyle is causally linked to a number of poor health outcomes, including obesity, heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, osteoporosis, strokes, and mood disorders like anxiety and depression.

The more sedentary you are, the higher your risks are for these conditions. A sedentary lifestyle can also increase your risk of premature death.

A study reported in April 2020 in the International Journal of Environmental Research suggested a comparison between active sitting, such as working at a computer at a desk, and nonactive sitting like watching television. Non-active sitting, as the researchers suggest, might be linked to up to a 25% higher body mass index and body fat in younger adults.

The connection between body mass and body fat wasn’t as high with active sitting. And here, researchers stressed the importance of reallocating sedentary time to active time in order to reduce the risk for conditions associated with inactive sitting. 

An Unhealthy Diet 

Binge-watching is also liked to unhealthy diet habits, according to researchers from the University of Michigan. At the 67th Annual Conference of the International Communication Association (2017), researchers discussed the link between binge-watching and poor lifestyle choices.

Here, they noted that binge-watching encouraged foregoing sleep, consumption of unhealthy meals, unhealthy snacking, and sedentary behavior.

A study reported in March 2020 in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition associated television watching with distraction eating. And distraction eating, according to the researchers, leads to overeating and weight gain.

Distraction eating usually involves food choices that are not the healthiest and may include things like junk foods, sugary beverages, and alcoholic drinks.

When people are eating this way daily or nightly, this starts to add up, eventually causing weight gain and increased risk for obesity-related conditions, such as high blood pressure and diabetes.

Sleep Problems and Fatigue 

You need sleep because it plays an important role in your mental and physical health and your quality of life. According to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI), sleep is necessary for proper brain function, maintaining physical health, and promoting healthy growth and development in children and teens.

Sleep deficiency can lead to serious mental and physical health problems, injuries, loss of productivity, and a higher risk for early death.

An August 2017 report in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine, finds binge-watching is connected to poorer sleep quality, increased fatigue, and insomnia symptoms. Here, the researchers found a state of engagement while binge-watching doesn’t allow the brain to shut itself down.

As a result, it takes longer to fall asleep, and if you are falling asleep closer to morning and not getting the amount of sleep your body needs, the body unable to do necessary restoration and repair work.

Blood Clots

Hours you spend binge-watching your favorite series might feel great, but your blood vessels might not agree. In a 2018 study reported in the Journal of Thrombosis and Thrombolysis, researchers found prolonged sitting for binge-watching is similar to prolonged sedentary behavior for long flights or during illness—it can increase the risk for deep-vein thrombosis (DVT).

DVT is a blood clot in the leg that can be fatal if it travels to the heart or lungs.

In this study, researchers found people who were sitting for long periods while watching and streaming television had an up to 70% higher risk for developing a blood clot than people who seldom watched TV. And that risk remains even if a person is not overweight and still being physically active.

Heart Health

Sitting for long periods can affect your heart health, and certain activities might be worse than others.

A study reported in 2019 in the Journal of the American Heart Association aimed to compare two types of sedentary behavior—TV watching versus occupational sitting, such as at a desk job. The goal of the study was to determine if these activities were equally harmful or if one was more harmful than the other.

Researchers found that excessive television viewing was associated with a higher risk for cardiovascular disease (CVD) events and all-cause mortality (death rate from all causes) while occupational sitting wasn't associated with either outcome.

Regularly watching four or more hours a day of television could increase the risk for CVD or early death by up 50%, compared to people who are watching two or fewer hours daily. They concluded that reducing the amount of time watching TV was more effective for reducing CVD and morality risks than reducing occupational sitting.

Social Isolation

People who binge-watch tend to do so in solitude and researchers believe the more people binge-watch the more they isolate themselves. According to a report in the December 2017 issue of the Journal of Behavioral Addictions, links exist between social isolation, binge-watching, and poor mental health outcomes.

While the report’s authors did not specifically dive into those links, they confirmed how easily binge watching could become addictive and overtake a person’s social life. They concluded by noting the importance of managing these growing problematic behaviors.

Another study—this one from 2015 out of the University of Texas Austin—found people who are lonely and depressed were more likely to binge-watch, and the lonelier and more depressed someone is, the more binge-watching they will do.

Binge-watching among the study group was found to be a way to manage negative feelings. and those who struggled with self-regulation were more likely to binge-watch. The researchers suggested that binge-watching was particularly concerning here because the effects of watching too much television while dealing with feelings of loneliness and depression could lead to physical fatigue, obesity, and other serious health problems.

They further noted that binge-watching could affect work responsibilities and personal relationships because it could cause people to neglect these things.

Behavioral Addictions

Binge-watching might be considered a behavioral addiction. Having a behavioral addiction means you are dependent on and crave a particular behavior. Behavioral addictions can include anything from gambling to sex and videogames and yes, even, binge-watching.

According to a 2017 report in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine, binge-watching may affect the pleasure centers of the brain in some people in the same way that other addictions would. Binge-watching might give a sense of satisfaction causing a person to overindulge to the point that binge-watching affects daily activities and commitments, including work and school.

A review of studies on television addiction from 2013 in the Journal of Behavioral Addictions suggests dependence features of TV watching make it difficult to stop. These factors resemble neurological features seen in addiction.

According to the review’s authors, people who spend a lot of time watching television can experience various role, social, and sedentary physical consequences when their viewing is not under control. And as with other addictions, binge-watching isn’t their only addiction. Here, the review’s authors suggest this evidence is an indication of a credible need for prevention and treatment approaches to television addiction.

Cognitive Decline 

If you are spending hours binge-watching, you may want to consider the effect this may have on your brain health. A study reported in 2019 in the journal Scientific Reports suggests binge-watching could lead to cognitive decline down the road.

In this study, researchers used data from 3,000 adults over age 50 who were watching more than 3.5 hours of television daily. They found watching this amount of TV was associated with poor verbal memory after six years and this effect was strongest for people who had initially performed better at the start of the study.

The researchers suggest that instead of spending long hours watching TV, people should engage themselves in mind-building activities. This includes activities like reading, puzzles, games, and physical exercise. 

How To Break the Habit

The best way to reduce the effects of binge-watching is to make television watching an occasional pleasure and not an everyday thing. Some ways to break this habit include:

  • Limiting yourself: You may want to watch a small number of episodes, i.e., two episodes of a show at a time. Once you have reached your limit, turn the TV off and find something else to do.
  • Setting a time limit: Decide on an appropriate amount of time you will watch television every night. Then set an alarm or timer to keep yourself stay on course.
  • Finding a balance: Balance your TV-watching with other activities, including exercise, reading, a hobby, or spending time with a friend.
  • Making TV watching a social thing: If you invite someone else to watch with you, you likely won’t spend as much time watching and you won’t get sucked into hours of streaming. 
  • Making sure you have a bedtime: Binge-watching can cause you to sacrifice hours of sleep, which can affect you the next day and harm you in the long-term. It might help to set a bedtime alarm, so you don’t lose track of time watching television.
  • Deciding to snack healthy: Rather than eating unhealthy snacks while watching TV, opt for snacks that have more nutritional value. Fruits and vegetables are healthier options over salty, fatty foods.

A Word From Verywell

There is nothing wrong with sitting down to catch up on your favorite show or watching an entire season over an occasional weekend. But when you start to have trouble taking care of your responsibilities and giving up on other activities, including time with family and friends, your TV time can become a serious problem.

If you find your TV viewing starts to have a negative impact on your health, your relationships and keeps you from living your life, talk to a therapist. This is especially important if you are unable to reduce your streaming time on your own.

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