Orange Is The New Black, but is binge watching the new mental health issue you need to worry about? Victoria Stokes discovers that when it comes to Netflix and chill you really can have too much of a good thing.
You’re groggy, your mouth is dry and the remnants of last night’s bad food choices are strewn across the floor. No, you haven’t been out on the booze, you’ve been up all night watching box sets.
It’s no secret that binge watching has become a massive phenomenon. Research carried out in 2013 by Harris Interactive on behalf of Netflix, showed 61 percent of people binge on their favourite shows regularly, and in the same survey, 73 percent of respondents admitted to compulsively consuming between two and six episodes of the same show in one go. Forget Saturday night FOMO, these days we’re more likely to feel left out if we miss the latest episode of Riverdale.
Still not convinced that we’re a generation hooked on streaming? Consider that bingewatch was named word of the year in 2015 and you start to get a feel for how addiction-level telly-watching has become an intrinsic part of our daily lives.
The physical ill effects are obvious; six hours of lying in bed, eyes strained, surrounded by miscellaneous snacks doesn’t exactly say vision of health, does it? But what’s it doing to your headspace? Are box sets Breaking Bad on your mental health?
For Rathfarnham-based psychotherapist Fiona Hall the answer is a firm yes. “Endless hours of TV on a persistent and consistent basis can have a negative impact on your mood,” she confirms. “If we’re feeling upset, alienated or feel an injustice has been done to us, binge watching TV with similar topics can compound a low mood and encourage people to ruminate.”
That’s bad news for anyone who uses their favourite show as a means of escapism. Find yourself digging deep into a tub of ice cream and kicking back with a series for hours on end after a particularly stressful day at the office? “You’re no longer watching for enjoyment, but instead using it as a tool to avoid reality,” Fiona warns. “It’s become a vehicle to evade your life and that can become detrimental to your psyche.”
What’s more, Fiona reckons that our compulsion for binge watching is a direct side effect of our culture for consuming vast amounts of information online. In a world where we’re firing off tweets every couple of minutes, checking our Snapchat on the bus and scrolling through countless online articles, we require something to help us step out of the “pervasive pressures and demands” everyday life throws at us. That’s where those can’t-go-to-sleep-until-I-watch-one-more-episode obsession level shows come in. Sadly though, spending hours in front of your screen doesn’t give you the mental headspace you crave, it just increases your agitation further.
The research is equally alarming. One study from the University Of Texas found that the more lonely and depressed you are, the more likely you are to binge watch, while further research carried out by the University Of Toledo discovered that confirmed binge watchers had higher levels of stress, anxiety and depression, compared to those who rarely watched TV.
Aoife, a 25-year-old professional from Wicklow says “I’ve always been a binge watcher, but never really noticed a negative effect until I started to get hooked on true crime,” she admits. “It all started with Making A Murderer. It was such an addictive series that I finished it in a few days. Afterwards, a friend recommended similar documentaries, like The Jinx, and I fell into this black hole of grim TV.”
After a few weeks, Aoife realised that endless hours of murder docs were really starting to mess with her head. “When I came back to my apartment, I felt nervous opening the door and walking up the stairs, almost as if I was expecting a madman from the series I’d watched to jump out and attack me,” she recalls. “I definitely found myself being on edge when I was in the house alone – one tiny noise and I was freaked, whereas usually I’d shrug it off and it wouldn’t faze me. Once I realised the impact these shows were having on me and my anxiety levels, I switched over to Gilmore Girls and noticed myself feeling calmer when coming home in the evenings,” she confesses.
Fiona has similar advice for kicking the habit. “Identify first what binge watching contributes to your life and how often you do it,” she suggests. “If it’s a consistent form of behaviour to the extent that it’s impacting negatively on your life, ask yourself how you could better use this time.” The fix could be as simple as changing your preferences, think watching a sitcom instead of something more gritty and heavy.
Is a schedule that doesn’t include binges of your favourite shows on a daily basis really achievable? We can’t say for certain, but Stranger Things have happened.
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