What’s the most recent show you’ve binge-watched? If you said “nothing,” you’re in the minority. A recent survey estimated that more than 80 percent of American adults have watched several episodes of a television show back-to-back, and plenty do it with regularity. And it’s now easier than ever to sit down for one episode, press “play” just once, and suddenly realize that four hours have passed — thanks to the beauty (or curse!) of the autoplay feature.
What is this doing to us, from a psychological standpoint? The answer is it depends. When it comes to the emotional effects of our viewing habits, two big questions stand out. Do you feel guilty about it? And do you feel like it is a choice within your control?
The word “binge” itself has long carried an uneasy, shameful vibe. A binge — no matter what you’re bingeing — typically represents a lapse where we let our habits get the best of us. It evokes a mindless round of consumption: not knowing when to say when (or refusing to). The word “binge” screams “you’re out of control!” and connotes having so much of something that it actually harms you, removing any potential benefits or pleasure.
And therein lies the difference between binge-watching that’s not great for you versus simply choosing to spend a few enjoyable hours with your favorite show. Are you being mindful in your decision about how to spend that time? Are you getting something out of the experience and embracing it as a positive? Or do you feel guilty and frustrated with yourself after the fact, regretting having “wasted” your evening?
If you are moving on to episode three, four and five (or eight, nine and 10) as a way of avoiding something else you’re supposed to be dealing with, then binge-watching is likely to make you feel worse. When you procrastinate on tasks and beat yourself up about it afterward, or you try to distract yourself from stress but then feel guilty for being “unproductive,” then you’re not doing yourself any favors. Similarly, if you are drowning yourself in a comedy or drama to try to feel less lonely but emerge from your Netflix stupor feeling even more ashamed of having spent the weekend by yourself on the couch, then you’re using binge-watching as an escape route from negative feelings — and your feelings are being made even worse. You’re trying to numb yourself, rather than truly being entertained and engaged.
Sometimes, the key is just letting yourself off the hook and deciding that you deserve the mental break. When you choose to say, “I’m going to watch three episodes of this show and have fun doing it,” and you stick to your limits, that’s arguably as worthwhile a pastime as anything. You’re embracing the experience and choosing to get something out of it. But when you’re simply too exhausted (or demoralized) to stop the autoplay and have now cheated yourself out of three extra hours of sleep or other self-care, you’re bound to feel gross about it in the light of day.
Interestingly enough, there’s evidence that we don’t remember the details of the shows that we’ve binged as well as those of the ones we’ve spread out over time. So the next time you’re starting a new, long-awaited season of an old favorite but are alarmed by the fact that you have no clue what any of the characters are up to, consider spacing out your watching a little more this time to better savor — and retain — the experience. Added benefit? You’ll get to have time to actually look forward to each new episode as its own reward.
Finally, want to make your binge-watching feel even more worthwhile and less guilty? Connect with others during or after it. A shared, social experience is often more rewarding in its own right — and gives you added possibilities about what to make of that cliffhanger.
Need a new hobby that doesn’t involve the TV? Try macramé!