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The Science of Binge Watching: Why We Do It and Should You Stop?

October 21, 2022

Are you super excited for the new season of “Stranger Things” so you set aside a Friday night and blaze through the whole series? Or are you wrapped in two fleece blankets on the couch with a half-gallon of Ben & Jerry’s Half-Baked on your lap as episode after episode of “Ted Lasso” scrolls by? Either way, you’re binge watching. And while sometimes that’s okay, Carla Schnitzlein, DO, a psychiatrist and medical director of Natchaug Hospital, said it’s important that you pay attention to your screen time for your mental health. > Connect with the Behavioral Health Network

Why do we binge?

Binge-watching is defined as watching two or more episodes of a series at one time. As streaming services have proliferated and as we have lived through a global lockdown, research is suggesting there can be negative consequences to this behavior, similar to other addictive activities such as online gaming. Schnitzlein, who admits to binging “Tiger King” at the start of the pandemic but doesn’t partake much, said people who are already dealing with depression or social isolation can find comfort in binging their shows. “It provides a sense of escapism,” she said. “But it can become an unhealthy coping skill.” Binging a show gives the brain a shot of dopamine, a hormone that plays a role in pleasure, motivation and learning, Schnitzlein explained. “It causes us to crave instant gratification, when what we need sometimes is tactical patience.”

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Tactical patience?

Tactical patience is a concept she learned during her Army service, Schnitzlein said. “Sometimes, you need to see how the battlefield evolves before you jump into things,” she said. “Not doing that can often cause worse problems.” The ability to binge episodes and receive quick rewards causes loss of patience, which can lead to mistakes and conflict. “If you used to be engaged in other activities, like yoga or gardening or taking a pottery class, and now you can’t get off the couch, then you are in an unhealthy feedback loop,” she said.

Does binge watching have other negative side effects?

Unhealthy amounts of binge watching can: If binge watching seems to be crowding out other aspects of your life, Schnitzlein recommends taking back control. First and foremost, she said, be conscious of your behavior. Understand that there is a problem.

So how do I stop?

Here are some simple steps to getting off the couch:
  • Use an app that monitors your TV time or overall screen time.
  • Delete streaming services from your phone.
  • Turn off autoplay so that the next episode doesn’t automatically begin.
  • Set a time limit for each day.
  • Use one to two episodes of a favorite show as a reward for a more healthy behavior.
Most importantly, she said, remember that bad habits take time to form and they also take time to shake. Small steps - like returning to a yoga class weekly or signing up for one pottery class - can help break the cycle. “Be present in the moment, be attuned, be mindful” she said. “Let (TV watching) be a part of your day, not all-consuming.”