The Science of Binge Watching

The Instant Gratification of Binge Watching Television:
You watch an episode of your favorite TV series, it’s a cliffhanger!  You see the credits, and feel the pangs of sadness because you will have to wait another week to find out what happens next.  Ten years ago, this was the normal way to watch a television series.  Today, technology allows you to push a button (or just sit back and wait) and your next episode can be viewed right away.  Its a beautiful advancement in these modern times.

Binge-watching, also called binge-viewing, is the practice of watching television for longer time spans than usual, usually of a single television show. In a survey conducted by Netflix in February 2014, 73% of people define binge-watching as “watching between 2-6 episodes of the same TV show in one sitting.”  Binge-watching as an observed cultural phenomenon has become popular with the rise of online media services such as Netflix, Hulu and Amazon Prime where the viewer can watch television shows and movies on-demand.

The idea of assembling several consecutive episodes of a television series in order and watching them in rapid succession originated with the marathon, networks themselves programmed several hours’ worth of reruns of a single series. This practice began in the 1980s and is still popular among subscription television outlets in the 2010s.

Your Body and Mind on a TV Binge:
Here are a few ways the science of binge watching affects your mind, body and soul.

1. The Non-Walking Dead
The effects of sitting for long periods of time have been well documented, and it is generally understood that being sedentary for most of the time is harmful to your health.   Since you’re sitting with your spine in a C shape, it can cause cramped muscles, spinal pressure, and bad posture.  This is a sedentary behavior and if not moderated can lead to weight gain – You are simply not burning many calories if you are not moving your body around.

2. Friday Night Lights
The effects of fluorescent light on the brain have been studied and long term TV watching can have the same effect – too much exposure has been linked to headaches, eye strain, seasonal affective disorder, problems sleeping, poor immune function, hormonal disruption, and anxiety among other symptoms.  Getting out into the sunshine more during the morning and daytime has been shown to combat the negative effects of too much fluorescent light exposure.

3. TV is the new Ice Cream: Depression and Loneliness
Some recent findings on binge-watching associated people who binge on television with depression, loneliness and an inability to control their behavior.  This however, was only a correlational study, and not concluded to be a direct cause and effect relationship.  As mentioned above, this can also be a symptom of too much flourescent light exposure, so its possible these issues are connected in some way.

4. Breaks are for Quitters: Persistence and Resiliency
There are positive effects of binge watching as well.  Based on a survey commissioned by Netflix in December, Three-quarters of 1,500 online respondents reported having positive feelings in binge watching and that binging was a welcome refuge from their busy lives. Nearly eight in ten people said binge-watching a TV show made it more enjoyable than watching single episodes. It would seem that people are craving the long narratives that today’s good television can provide. In today’s world of shortened attention spans, binge watchers have shown an ability to be resilient and focus on a task for long periods of time.

5. This Show is Like My Life Story: Cognitive Empathy
We may become glued to complex, emotionally-charged stories, and want to consume a lot of them, because of our ability to recognize the feelings of others.  In addition to identifying others’ discomfort or elation, this branch of “cognitive empathy” examines how humans can also adopt others’ psychological perspectives, including those of fictional characters. Research has pointed to this occurrence more often with reading fictional texts as opposed to watching a fictional film or television series, in that a more profound emotional reaction occurs while reading as opposed to watching.  But perhaps Binge watching creates more of an emotional bond to characters and scenarios than a shorter time duration.

What it Means to “Binge”:
“Binge” is defined as a short period of time in which you do too much of something.  Inherent in the definition, is a judgement that the behavior is excessive, or somehow suggests the binger is “out of control.”  For some activities like eating, or drinking alcohol, there are real, immediate threats to your well being and these are considered harmful activities.  Perhaps “binge” watching television is not the proper term.  Many people prefer to watch television series this way, and are otherwise responsible, balanced individuals who can moderate their entertainment consumption.  So “binge-watching,” although a very appropriate buzzword to describe the activity, creates too negative a connotation. A few hours is not as excessive as all day marathons.  Getting to watch something you desire is a pleasurable activity, and so if a viewer takes some breaks from sitting for long periods of time, or stretches often enough, the pros and cons can balance out.  Moderation, with all things in life, is the key here.


Some media may contain mature content. Discretion is advised when viewing with students.

The Dangers of Binge Watching (College Humor - Mature Content):

Celebrities warn against the dangers of binge watching TV:

Why do we binge watch TV?:
Lesson Plan

Learning Objective: Binge watching television is popular culture’s newest pastime, and in this lesson you will get to know more about your peers’ binge watching habits, and determine if there are commonalities to this phenomenon.

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Lesson tags: biology, Eleventh, Featured, Health, media studies, Ninth, Pop Culture, Psychology, Science, Television, Tenth, Twelfth

Melissa Pelletier

Melissa has a Masters in Educational Communication and Technology from NYU. She has worked in academic publishing, games, and the educational toys industries.