Two of my friends are Netflix terminators. Their phones brim with the notifications of new series or the new season of shows the all day long. Sometimes, I suspect they eagerly wait for them.
Because I know they never want to miss any.
I have been addicted to Netflix and have watched shows in a row like sitting for almost 6 hours. But I am not a person that can compete with my friends.
I always wonder what goes in our mind while watching a screen for hours, and how our neurons manage our brain chemicals during screen time.
I decided to talk to one of them who has been a binge-watcher lately. She lives alone in New Delhi and has ample time when she is free from her official responsibilities. It was a long conversation encompassing more of the feelings and content and less of behavior.
Isolation is a big reason for many to binge-watch. Sometimes, I don’t know how to spend my time. Meeting friends is an investment. Often, you have no clue whom to meet, why and where. Even if you want, it requires travel if they are far away. Two years back, I spent my time reading mostly, but it needs following a discipline. I could not become a binge reader. Talking to people on the phone is also an effort. After a while, it goes into saturation. Then I discovered Netflix. It was effortless and entertainingly engaging. Also, it felt comforting. Binge-watch made me prepare for the haunting part of my life.
As far as I understand, binge-watchers like me are not necessarily those who are always searching something specific. Sometimes I watch because people flaunt. Regularly we are under news stories bombarding with flash headlines of ‘100 famous shows challenge you should binge-watch’ or consider yourself a noob. So, there is undoubtedly the fear of missing out (FOMO). It would be best if you were relevant and it’s a pressure. You don’t want to feel stupid in the crowd.
I remember I had very few options available earlier. The question was how and where to locate the best and great films and other cross-cultural video content. YouTube was not like that. Finding suggestions of the best films in a year or a country cinema was such a huge task and was dependent on experts’ convenience and mood. As I shifted to Netflix, all these problems had already solved. You could find best of everything, tailored and curated according to choices, at your will and convenience. Now it was a problem of plenty. I know, this is the trap, of binge-watching. But what to do. When you start getting engaged, you find yourself immersed.
I could not realize this. Earlier I was giving my 6 to 8 hours daily watch time. On weekends and holidays, it spiked at 12 to 15 hours a day. I remember, my sister took leave from the office and finished seven seasons of Game of Thrones in just eight days. She was watching 18–20 hours a day. Corona lockdown converted me into a binge racer. I started watching in the early morning, paused it for the mid-day meal, started again and watched till late at night. This had become a routine. I ordered food from outside and did not do anything except essential domestic chores. I felt anxious but did not know where all that was coming from. Was it due to the shows I was watching, or it was born out of me only? I was sleep deprived too.
One thing I noticed that storylines were also affecting me adversely. I deeply identified with some of the characters, and they became part of my day and night real world. One of that character was Jean Holloway, the name of actress Naomi Watts in web series Gypsy. I wished I could meet her in person and kind of missed her in my life. A person with whom you feel so close. If you look into these characters, they are real-life, like very much of us, complicated and irritating. They (Netflix) do not generate stereotypes. This was so enchanting.
Now I realize that all my binge-watching was limited to just 8–10 emotions. Actually, you make a list out of the shows Netflix run, and you will be surprised that all the content is boxed under some kind of color- coding. And these codes are mainly emotions of horror, fear, disgust, sexual desire, anger, suffering and sadness etc. As I am more into the relationship genre, it was mostly about open marriages, BDSM, lesbianism, sexual fantasies etc. I hardly found a series based on the emotions of joy, relief, calmness, satisfaction and nostalgia. These are the least covered or missing. I rarely encountered a bright and sweet relationship series or films like Notting Hill. The happy ending is rarely on their agenda. For me, Netflix content is blunt, bold and triggering. Indeed, it was not of a soothing kind. They make sure to reflect on our living.
I happened to watch a crime thriller series Mindhunter. I binge-watched the first season because it was all based on real stories. This is the example of how information about serial killers without gore and blood could be so engaging. Unbelievable is also a crime drama based on a plot where a girl denies that she was raped. I was mesmerized by the suspense it creates. I like The Affair because it plays above the taboos of morality. There are several series I binge-watched but remember Blacklist. Because it’s more than 100 hours of content in 152 episodes, it took me for a month to complete it along with my daily job responsibilities.
Not only this, in her heydays of binge-watching, she made it a point to share her weekly watch list positively on her Facebook page. Sometimes her list contained 3 to 4 shows of at least six episodes each. It was a kind of challenge to others in her tribe. Whenever a new show hit the ground, she finished it on the same day. It also helped her foster relationships with others who had been watching the same shows.
For the last two months, my friend has excused herself from this habit and started reflecting on her life.
I don’t know anyone in my Facebook fraternity who could binge race with her. Binge racer is a term company coined in 2017, categorizing those millions of viewers who finish a full season of a show within 24 hours of its release.
Is Netflix Trying to Hack Your Bio-Clock?
This world is cruel for sure. It can seduce you, immerse you in imaginative worlds, numb your senses and rob you of your most precious thing, sleep.
Over the Top (OTT) is the name of this game. And Netflix is the boss of this addictive content engineering.
This content addiction incarcerates your mind and keeps you awake indefinitely. Company CEO Reed Hastings had already declared his intentions three years back when he said, “we actually compete with sleep.”
This was really an audacious statement.
Competing with sleep means hacking human bio-clock.
To achieve that they needed robust and highly sophisticated content that stimulates insatiable and compulsive urges.
Netflix achieved this on its platform, in which once you enter; you are served with lots of high-quality delicacies. You are tossed from one to another season or another film. This infinite journey is completed with the help of cliff-hanger endings to keep you hooked.
The auto-play function which takes viewers from episode to episode is enabled by default. Next episode begins while the credits for the previous one is still rolling. There are no interruptions like adverts. You are bound to watch and can’t switch to other activity.
Netflix serves this addictive viewing experience to its over 182 million subscribers worldwide.
The company declared binge-watching a new normal in 2013 itself. It sponsored research in 2014 to study viewing patterns, in which anthropologist Grant McCracken claimed that today’s TV streamers are not the dead-eyed couch potatoes of the past. According to him, they are purposeful seekers of new experiences. The survey said: “67% of people will risk embarrassment, awkwardness, and spoilers to watch their favourite shows and movies in public.”
Two years later in 2015, Collins English Dictionary declared Binge-watch as the word of the year.
CEO Reed Hastings has frequently encouraged binge-watching and coined a new word binge-racing. As sleep disorders and social life disturbances started being reported, the company has lowered the use of both terms.
But the damage had already been done.
American Academy of Sleep Medicine survey in 2019 found 88% of adults reporting a lack of sleep due to binge-watching TV and streaming series.
According to Nielsen, 361,000 people watched all nine episodes of season 2 of ‘Stranger Things,’ on the first day it was released in 2017.
Assistant Professors at Michigan State University, Morgan Ellithorpe and Allison Eden found the connection of worse sleep quality with the problematic binge-watching of streamed media.
We Are Addicted to Immersive Stories
We, humans, are story lovers and pleasure seekers primarily. And story corporations like Netflix already know that. Who would not avail this experience without expending oneself?
I think Netflix has cracked this formula. It fuses the long dramatic plots of a story twisting in episodes, with real-life complex characters produced under excellent production quality at our comfort. It gets us binged for hours.
Experts credit it to hormone dopamine, like gambling and other behavioural addictions. Clinical psychologist Renee Carr says that dopamine “gives the body a natural, internal reward of pleasure that reinforces continued engagement in that activity… 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.”
As for my friend, character identification is a real thing — a psychiatrist at Laguna Family Health Center in California, DeSilva seconds that. “‘Identification’ is when we see a character in a show that we see ourselves in… ‘Wishful identification,’ is where plots and characters offer opportunity for fantasy and immersion in the world the viewer wishes they lived in. Also, the identification with power, prestige and success makes it pleasurable to keep watching. ‘Parasocial interaction’ is a one-way relationship where the viewer feels a close connection to an actor or character in the TV show.”
For some viewers, these characters play an emotional companionship in their real lives too. In such situations, they feel attached to them. It works as a stress management technique. But all of this is an escape from mundane routine and temporariness.
It’s All The Same When the Binge Is Over
According to the Cambridge Dictionary, binge-watch means watching several episodes of a television series or programme, one after the another.
It just happens. You reach home after a long day work; you want to relax watching your favourite TV show. Suddenly you remember the social media discussion about the new season of web series Breaking Bad. During the evening shower, you plan out to finish it. You start watching at 9 pm, and as you go ahead, it’s 4 am now. Woah! Non-stop 7 hours watch.
In the latest study in 2020 in Jagiellonian University (Poland), researchers found that the excessive forms of binge-watching can involve symptoms of addiction, such as lack of control, adverse health and social effects, feeling of guilt, and neglect of duties.
Psychologists also suggest that binge-watching keeps us on a high. New episodes leave us with more questions and more drained emotionally.
Cases of people being treated for “binge-watching addiction” have already been reported. This year three TV addicts were treated for the binge-watching in the UK. It put the job at risk and made it impossible to form a romantic relationship for one of the 35-year-old person.
All studies point out to the fact that binge-watching may hamper your routine. In a study done by the University of Toledo, 142 out of 408 participants identified themselves as binge-watchers. This group reported higher levels of stress, anxiety and depression than those who were not binge-watchers. New studies suggest that binge-watching is becoming a behavioural excess and thus cause of concern.
Matthew Pittman of the University of Tennessee and Emil Steiner of Rowan University (2019) also found that “the degree to which an individual pays attention to a show may either increase or decrease subsequent regret, depending on the motivation for binge-watching.”
“This Could Be You If You…”
Is this how a typical binge watcher looks like? Online gambling prepared 3D models of a normal man Eric and woman Hannah. These pictures better detail the health conditions binge-watching can produce.
The company claimed that they “conducted a study on the impact that binging Netflix has on your health.” These male-female figures show how binge-watching may affect our body in the future if we don’t rectify our habits.
According to this study, binge-watching causes dead butt syndrome, the threat of amputation of limbs caused by diabetes, obesity, poor posture along with rounded shoulders. These signs are seen across both genders.
How to Binge-Watch, Responsibly!
Like every other hack, there is a ‘how-to’ available for binge-watching too. In the mid-2018, PCMag.com published an article — 22 Tips to Boost Your Binge-Watching. It was a kind of guide book for those who were overwhelmed with the binge-worthy content available. But “Best to Binge-Watch” listicles are very common these days.
In a series run by Wikihow, the three steps strategy for responsible watching has been described.
First is getting set up. You have to clear your schedule. Find a comfy spot — stock up on snacks. Drink more water.
Secondly, choose your show. Sign up for a trial of a streaming service. Watch with a friend’s account if you don’t have one. Pick the show you’re going to watch.
Third, stay comfortable- Order food delivery, so you don’t have to cook. Stay active while watching. Turn off the screen 30 minutes before bed.
Not only that, there are calculators available to manage the time when and how you binge-watch.
Do this how-to cover every issue? I think no. Is there a way, someone can binge-watch responsibly? According to experts set parameters for the time you spend with your screen. And there are three things to keep in mind.
Set a predetermined end time for the binge.
Make sure that you are balancing your binge with other activities.
This should not be the only source of pleasure. Create an additional source.
Glueing to your couch or sofa, with an urge to finish the new series on Netflix can be a charming idea. But have you ticked all dos on the checklist?
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