TV Shows, Pop Culture

These are the real causes and effects of binge-watching, says science

The dark side of Netflix that you would rather not know about.

Binge-watching is all the rage, these days, thanks to streaming services like Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime.

Peruse any social media app and you’ll find users joking about having to pull themselves away from their computers or TVs because they just have to finish the latest season of Stranger Things. Some go as far as contemplating calling in sick or pushing back their homework so that they can spend more time online. Hopefully, they are actually joking. Spending too much time on such a sedentary activity can come with unwanted health risks (as well as retaliation from one’s employer if they neglect their responsibility).

Health and professional risks aside, have you ever wondered how binge-watching, defined by Merriam Dictionary as watching many or all episodes (of a TV series) in rapid succession, affects your viewing experience as a consumer? That’s the topic I spoke about with Matt Johnson, a researcher at Hult International Business School, who holds a Ph.D. in Cognitive Psychology and Neuroscience from Princeton University.

Keep reading for three possible side effects of binge-watching, as well as a little bit about why we feel compelled to binge in the first place.

You Might Not Remember All That You Binged

Think of a show you binged, and one that you watched traditionally. Chances are, you can recall the show watched over weeks better than the one you binged.

Sure, you might be able to remember major plot points, but that one-liner that people are raving over? The shocking reveal from that B-character? You probably have no recollection of it. This happens because binging doesn’t allow enough time to actually process the information we’re digesting, according to Johnson.

“There is a lot of evidence that your memory for events in long streams like this is not as strong as it would be if the information was broken down into larger chunks.” The reason, Johnson continued, “is that memory needs to time for consolidation – the process by which the brain (via the hippocampus and nearby regions) takes experiences and lays them down into long-term memory,” so watching a show that originally aired over three years in three weeks, probably isn’t enough time.

You Might Not Enjoy What You Do Remember

Ever experience what I call post-episode(s) depression? It’s that period when the high you achieved from being inundated with a constant stream of something you enjoyed wears off, and you end up feeling kind of, well, bummed. Johnson says this may be due to “short term enjoyment at the expense of longer-term satisfaction.” He reasoned that we can “enjoy these experiences as they’re happening, but there’s evidence to suggest that we actually regret them in retrospect. Watching in smaller chunks, spread out over a longer period of time requires more deliberate choice and effort” Johnson continued, “and these types of decisions usually incorporate a better understanding for our longer-term sense of well-being/satisfaction,” so we regret them less.

You Might Grow Emotionally Dependent On The Fictional Worlds

Though there’s no formal research available to support this, it’s possible that there may be a link between the blues you experience after completing a binge and an increased emotional dependency to the fiction world you’ve spent hours and hours immersing yourself in. “We may feel compelled to binge-watch because of this emotional connection, or the emotional connection might be the result of binge-watching.  It’s unclear which way the causality goes.”

As for as the reason we binge-watch at all, it’s possibly influenced by Netflix’s post-play feature (which causes one episode to play after another) according to Johnson. “This really compels us to binge more than we otherwise would, because it takes individual episodes and makes them feel, psychologically, like one large seamless experience. This compels us to continue via the Ziegnarik Effect – we have a difficult time stopping something when we feel like we’re in the middle of it.”

Well, that explains it.