Don’t Worry, Binge-Watching Netflix Can Be a Healthy Habit

Books are good. TV is bad. It’s the common perception of the world. But is that really the truth?

If you spend a day curled up with a book, then you’re deemed an intellectual. But when you spend a day watching TV, you become a so-called couch potato.

Candy gives you cavities. Tanning in the sun is bad for your skin. That’s common knowledge. And watching television kills off brain cells.

But what about reading books? Is it really good for you?

Groucho Marx once said — “I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book.”

But why is that? Why can’t watching TV be just as educational as reading a book? Like is there any real difference between watching Game of Thrones versus reading the book?

After all, there are all sorts of books. Some of them are amazing, while others are just horrendous. The same applies to shows as well.

So how is it possible to make such a simple categorization that books are good and TV is bad?

Why TV Gets a Bad Rap

Just like how jazz music was considered an “influence for evil” in the 1920s, TV is cast as a harmful product of our society today.

It makes you dumb. It corrupts children’s minds. It breaks families apart.

The fact that it feels so good to sit down and watch TV for hours on end makes us believe there must be something wrong with it.

Nir Eyal, author of Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products, describes his experience:

I love movies but I never watch television series. These shows are designed to keep you coming back by getting you to emotionally invested in the characters and plot line, making it hard to stop.

An episode typically ends on a cliff-hanger, leaving you anxious and ready to move onto the next episode. Unable to bear it any longer, you give into your cravings and put aside other plans.

But it’s not only the addiction. The thought of television conjures up images of violence and murder — which people fear leads to violence in real life.

Given our bias to remember intense and traumatic events, the focus on graphic imagery and dialogue overshadows pleasant, feel-good experiences that a show might have.

When you combine these two factors, no wonder TV seems so terrible. An addiction to violence sounds harsh, doesn’t it?

What Science Says About Books and Television

In 2013, Hiraku Takeuchi conducted a study on how television affected the brains of children. He found that as they watched more TV, the parts of their brain associated with higher arousal and aggression levels became thicker.

The frontal lobe also thickened, which indicated that their ability to reason verbally was reduced as well. The final result?

Their verbal test results worsened.

It didn’t matter where these kids came from. These negative effects in the brain happened regardless of the child’s age, gender, and economic background.

So is watching TV turning your brain into mush and making you an angry person?

Not so fast.

Before we jump to conclusions, a study from the University of Buffalo has found evidence that watching TV actually restores your self-control.

According to the researchers, our favorite TV show presents a “familiar fictional world” with characters that we know. Since they act as the digital equivalent of friends and family, watching them generates feelings of comfort, which is important in fighting impulses.

Nature shows, in particular, have a calming and energizing effect on viewers. Participants in a study were reported to feel more generous and positive after watching nature programs (must be the cute animals).

So how do books compare?

Gregory Burns and his colleagues at Emory University conducted a study on how reading a novel affected the brain. College students were asked to read Pompeii by Robert Harriss, a thriller based on the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in Italy.

Based on fMRI readings, the students had increased connectivity in the language-related parts of the brain. They also felt similar sensations to the characters in the story.

In other words, the students improved their language skills while being able to relate to the characters.

But the benefits don’t stop there.

Want to relax after a difficult day? Reading is a great option.

According to research at the University of Sussex, six minutes of reading can reduce stress levels by 68 percent. It beats listening to music (61 percent), drinking tea or coffee (54 percent), and taking a walk (42 percent). Those results are astonishing!

What’s the verdict on books versus TV, then?

Truthfully, it’s hard to say. Many studies have been performed on the effects of watching TV and reading books — and still, there’s no final conclusion on how well TV compares to books.

The Problem With These Studies

The problem with these studies is that the types of shows and books used aren’t reflective of many works released on those mediums.

Does reading the Twilight series enrich your language skills? Is it fair to put The Bachelorette and Breaking Bad into the same category?

After all, medium is just that: a medium.

A book ridden with plot holes can’t be compared to a literary masterpiece.

Likewise, a well written show with great actors and production doesn’t deserve to be lumped with a tacky reality show just because they’re both on TV.

As Ryan Holiday explains:

Documentaries can tell us about history and life just as well as any writer — in fact, as we see with Ken Burns, sometimes it takes an amazing writer teaming up with an amazing filmmaker to truly tell a story.

TV shows can even impact society in large ways. Awhile ago, the U.S. Congress passed an act to create more links between physicians and patients in the healthcare system.

The lawmakers were presented with clips of a popular medical drama that focused on a cancer patient who initially refused to accept treatment. After watching these clips, several of them said that they were influenced to vote for change.

Now that goes to show the power of television.

And let’s face it. These days, watching TV can be a lot more enticing than reading a book.

For the most part, book reading can be a solitary activity. Even if you read a great book, it can be hard to find someone to share your experiences with.

TV, on the other hand, is a more social activity. If you watch a great TV show, you’ll probably find someone with whom you can cry about the death of your favorite character.

Another issue with books is that, in our fast-paced world, they present a large time investment. A show lasts for 45 minutes at a time. But a book? It’ll take up an entire evening (and more).

Now, I don’t mean to bash books at all here. I get a lot of enjoyment out of both reading books and watching TV. They’re different, yet valuable in their own ways.

But watching TV is what you make of it. You can watch a show that makes you become a more interesting person by the end of it, or you can be the same old couch potato that you were two hours earlier.

How to Watch Shows that Pack the Same Punch as a Good Book

Great, informative shows don’t have to be boring.

In fact, the reason why I enjoy my favorite shows is because they provide interesting (and sometimes humorous) takes on a story. They let you see through the perspective of someone else, or reflect on a debated issue.

So how do you find these gems?

Here are two of my favorite ways:

1. Find movies and shows based on books.

Many popular books have been turned to film, such as The Martian, the TV series The Last Ship and of course, Game of Thrones. While fans often flock to see their favorite novels come to life, I find that the reverse is true for me.

I’m drawn to shows based on books because they tend to be well-thought out and based on a proven concept — a bestselling novel or an intriguing book. An added plus is that a good movie or show introduces me to a book that I often end up reading.

2. Recommendations from (trusted) people.

I have a friend who loves to recommend movies. She’ll gush about them non-stop until I cave in and watch — and then regret it.

But there are other friends and family who have similar interests to me. So when they recommend a show, film, or documentary, I usually follow their suggestions and end up enjoying it.

Here are some of my own suggestions:

  • The People v. O. J. Simpson: American Crime Story (TV series)
  • Silicon Valley (TV series)
  • The Hundred-Foot Journey (film based on a novel)
  • Better Call Saul (TV series)
  • Inside Job (documentary)

Judge the Work, Not the Medium

Instead of thinking of books and TV as two separate categories, maybe it would be wiser to judge works by their quality. Good books and shows go in one box, while bad books and shows go in another.

So viewers, don’t feel bad about letting your Netflix auto-play to the next episode. If a show teaches you something new, it’s good value for your time.

And maybe you’ll pick up an equally great book the next time you want to read.

Let’s Connect

Reading great books and watching informative shows helps you grow and become better at navigating life’s challenges. Are you up for the challenge?

If so, join me as I share insights on living and working better using a blend of research and stories.

You can join here.

Thank you for reading and I look forward to connecting with you!


Melissa Chu writes at JumpstartYourDreamLife.com, where she helps people live better and achieve their goals. For more ideas on success and making an impact, join the newsletter.

Also, thanks to Leonard Kim for his collaboration and feedback on this piece. Check him out on his site here.