To Binge Or Not To Binge?

A good book, a particular filmmaker’s catalogue, a TV series – it gets under your skin and becomes an all-consuming passion/love affair that won’t let go until you’re done or exhausted or played out. But is binge watching a harmless time-waster, or are we all doomed. ANDREW JOHNSTONE explores.

Geoff Lealand– straight up guy, enquiring mind, doyen of the University of Waikato School of Media Arts and go-to man for all things cinema in New Zealand – has some reservations about binge viewing.

Lealand recently retired and at his farewell, we had a chat about the subject.

“I have a couple of reservations about binge viewing, especially in respect of complex television series,” Lealand says.

“With multi-layered narrative and complicated characters, especially morally ambiguous characters, I think you need a good space in order to ponder on what you have just seen, as well as anticipation of what might happen next… a healthy mix of reflection and expectation.

“Also, my experience of binge watching sometimes leads to the ‘so what’s next?’ feeling. You feel a little disappointed – a bit like that kind of post-coital feeling. I guess it also had much to do with the style of film or TV you grew up with.”

Yet binge watching seems to be the way to watch these days, at least for many of us. Light up your inner addict’, says Lightbox in a preview of a new comedy show, while NME’s Facebook page notes, ‘Binging season is here’, in reference to Netflix’s 2018 schedule.

So what do we mean by binging? Miriam-Webster says it all, neatly and succinctly, defining a binge as ‘an unrestrained and often excessive indulgence’.

It’s not just TV of course, with binging extending to food, shopping, drinking, reading, films, sex…

There is a wide variance in what commentators consider to be binge watching. One writer talks of his recent binge of a popular show in terms of one episode a night for 13 straight nights (the length of the show’s first season).

He seems quite astonished, if not mortified, by his indulgence.

I am more taken with his discipline and find myself in the more common camp whose wry cry of ‘just one more episode’ can mean anything up to four or five 50-minute episodes in one go, or an entire season over the course of a day.  

Binge watching/marathon viewing is defined by a Netflix survey from 2014 as six or more episodes in a stretch. It can be several different shows, but mostly when people say binge watching they mean one show.

“The birth of the binge-watcher has been an intriguing, unexpected development in the past five years,” Jordan Gaines Lewis, PhD, science communicator and postdoctoral researcher at Penn State College of Medicine, says in Psychology Today.

Meanwhile, social psychologist and Psychology Today writer Bella DePaulo, PhD, notes: “If you have ever watched three or more episodes of a series in a single day, congratulations! You are a binge-watcher.

“But,” she adds, “if you think that makes you special, sorry. You share that experience with 92 percent of the people who participated in a 2015 TiVo survey. Ninety-two percent! Binging like this is something new.”

Geoff’s words set me to wondering about my own habits.

I grew up in a time when broadcast television ruled the roost. A series was played out one episode at a time, once a week, and I well remember the sense of anticipation leading up the next instalment.

This scenario has been playing out since time immemorial and any village storyteller worth their salt knew that part of the art was leaving your audience primed for the next instalment.

Before TV, radio was king and the serial was just as potent then as it was in the movie house, the other great contender before gaming came along and blew everything out of the water.

My Dad speaks fondly of his addiction to Buck Rogers whose adventures played out on the local cinema screen for 30 minutes every Saturday throughout his childhood.

The same scenario goes for books, including ones that aren’t part of a continuing series. A good novel is exactly the same art as film, television or multi-layered gaming and upon completion it is normal to be left feeling bereft and listless as one examines the empty chasm the end has wrought.

As for my experiences of binging, it is a wide open landscape of many adventures that begins with books, morphs to audio-books, films, then television. Along the way there have been adventures with comics, notably The Phantom (The Ghost Who Walks).

As for films, that’s a long story but it can be summed up with Akira Kurosawa, the Japanese film director whose films I discovered back in 2010. I watched each and every one, one after the other and when I finished his catalogue I started again.

When Kurosawa was truly done I happened across the first season box-set of Breaking Bad, a series everyone I knew had been talking about. I rented it and was a goner.

Since talking to Geoff I have done a lot of reading on the subject and have come to the conclusion that most of the research confirms what we already know about the human condition: That we are prone to compulsion and obsessiveness, a duo of emotional conditions that stalk every facet of our lives.

While they have their downsides and dangers, these emotional states can be tremendously positive, especially where creativity, invention and survival is concerned. We all need to escape reality from time to time and being obsessed with a narrative can help us refresh ourselves when we are worn down by the demands of living.

As for Psychology Today’s Jordan Gaines Lewis and Bella DePaulo’s assertions that series binging is a new phenomenon that has arisen only recently – well… no.  My first modern era binge experience was with videocassettes in the early 2000s. It was Star Trek Voyager and it wasn’t just a season, it was the whole shebang – all 172 episodes over the course of three weeks.

That’d be some eight episodes a day. I’m not sure how I managed that, with work and everything. My guess is the weekends came into play a lot.

What do I remember of it? No specifics, just that I was going through an emotionally difficult time and that it was comforting.

A good book, a particular filmmaker’s catalogue, a TV series – it gets under your skin and becomes an all-consuming passion/love affair that won’t let go until you’re done or exhausted or played out.

Some might say it’s only bloody TV but story in all its forms and formats is essential to the human experience and it is through story that we learn about ourselves, each other and the wider world we exist in. We get to examine ideas, thoughts and feelings. We pause for self-reflection and are given cause to explore various emotional states including conscience, and while we examine the past, present and future and we get to exercise imagination, that foundation upon which all human endeavour rests.

What follows is a summary of the latest research into television binging and it tells us nothing we didn’t already know about ourselves – that sometimes our personal activities are unhealthy and sometimes they aren’t and that we shouldn’t get too overwrought about stuff and that a little discipline and restraint are often the best cure for what ails us.

As for Geoff’s words, I have put them into action and have found some enjoyment from restricting myself to one episode a week, as in the old days, but I also throw a little binging into the mix because frankly, I can’t help myself.

The Effects Of Binging On The Brain, Body And Psyche

“When engaged in an activity that’s enjoyable such as binge watching, your brain produces dopamine,” explains Dr Renee Carr, Psy.D.

“This chemical gives the body a natural, internal reward of pleasure that reinforces continued engagement in that activity. It is the brain’s signal that communicates to the body, ‘This feels good. You should keep doing this!’

“When binge watching your favourite show, your brain is continually producing dopamine, and your body experiences a drug-like high. You experience a pseudo-addiction to the show because you develop cravings for dopamine.

“The neuronal pathways that cause heroin and sex addictions are the same as an addiction to binge watching. Your body does not discriminate against pleasure. It can become addicted to any activity or substance that consistently produces dopamine.”

A 2017 research paper from Belgium’s Leuven University, meanwhile notes that: “The way we watch television has dramatically changed over the past decades. New technologies such as digital recorders and streaming services have ended the era of appointment viewing.”

According to the study, published in the Journal Of Clinical Sleep Medicine, more than 80 percent of young adults identify themselves as binge-watchers, with 20.2 percent of them binge-watching at least a few times a week.

Those who identified as binge-watchers were 98 percent more likely to have a poor quality of sleep than those who did not identify as binge-watchers.

“We found that the more often young people binge-watch, the higher their cognitive pre-sleep arousal,” said the study’s lead author Liese Exelmans, “That, in turn, negatively affected sleep quality, fatigue and insomnia.”

“Bingeable shows often have a complex narrative structure that makes viewers become completely immersed into the story,” added co-author Jan Van den Bulck, a professor in the Department of Communication Studies at the University of Michigan. “This intense engagement with television content could require a longer period to ‘cool down’ before going to sleep, thus affecting sleep overall.”

Writing in the journal First Monday, a team from the University of Melbourne said they discovered that watching too many episodes of a programme in one go led to ‘significantly less enjoyment’ than if they were viewed on a weekly basis.

It could also affect how well you remember what happened, with binge-watchers forgetting the show’s content more quickly than weekly viewers.

“Participants in the binge-watching condition reported significantly less show enjoyment than participants in the daily or weekly viewing conditions.”

Yoon Hi Sung, Eun Yeon Kang and Wei-Na Lee from the University of Texas at Austin conducted a survey on 316 18- to 29-year-olds on how often they watched TV, how often they had feelings of loneliness, depression and self-regulation deficiency, and how often they binge-watched TV.

They found that the more lonely and depressed the study participants were, the more likely they were to binge-watch TV, using this activity to move away from negative feelings.

Their findings also showed that those who lacked the ability to control themselves were more likely to binge-watch. These viewers were unable to stop clicking ‘Next’ even when they were aware that they had other tasks to complete.

“Even though some people argue that binge-watching is a harmless addiction, findings from our study suggest that binge-watching should no longer be viewed this way,” Sung says.

“Physical fatigue and problems such as obesity and other health problems are related to binge-watching and they are a cause for concern. When binge watching becomes rampant, viewers may start to neglect their work and their relationships with others.

“Even though people know they should not, they have difficulty resisting the desire to watch episodes continuously. Our research is a step toward exploring binge-watching as an important media and social phenomenon.”

Researchers said their results showed correlation, not causation, meaning binge-watchers report more mental health issues but the study didn’t find evidence that they report more because of their television habits.

“We don’t know if depression, stress, and anxiety are caused by binge-watching, or if it is the other way around,” researchers wrote. “In other words, people might binge-watch as a way to temporarily alleviate preexisting feelings of stress and anxiety.

There are also studies out of Harvard showing that among people who spend two hours watching TV the risk of diabetes goes up by 20 percent, the risk of heart disease by 15 percent and early death by 13 percent.

We’re all doomed.

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