In Binged, Mashable breaks down why we binge-watch, how we binge-watch, and what it does to us. Because binge-watching is the new normal.
It's 2 a.m.
Empty plates specked with crumbs surround you.
The house is pitch dark, save the blue-tinged luster from your laptop.
You edge your slightly trembling hand forward — and press play.
Binge-watching TV — a widely-practiced cultural phenomenon — is celebrated by Netflix. The media streaming giant knows that its 130 million global subscribers like to binge, and it annually announces the most binged series of the year. While the obsessive watching of shows, from Breaking Bad to The Haunting of Hill House to Making a Murderer, isn't necessarily bad for you (unless it becomes a life-altering, addiction-like behavior), this on-demand, unchecked streaming feeds off our more primitive, evolutionary instincts.
We're primed to binge.
"We're pleasure seekers. We're wired to seek pleasure," Allison Johnsen, a clinical professional counselor at Northwestern Medicine, said in an interview.
Pleasure-seeking behavior — like indulging suspenseful works of fiction — can be an advantageous adaptation, so long as it's not regularly abused (One 2017 study found it could lead to sleep-deprivation). It can help maintain emotional health, even if that means hours of binge-watching.
"We have to keep ourselves happy," said Johnsen. And binge-watching is "accessible, it provides social conversation or social reference points, it's a stress reliever, and it can be positive," she said.
It's understandable why the dramatic plots, relatable characters, and Hollywood-style production developed by the likes of Hulu, HBO, and Netflix gets binged. Episodes build upon episodes for years, plots twist, and as inherently social animals, we become immersed in the lives of characters. Take the conflicted Game of Thrones character Jamie Lannister — who's still alive after seven seasons, 67 episodes, and one lost hand.
"It's why sometimes people have trouble distinguishing between actors and their characters," Catherine Salmon, an evolutionary psychologist at the University of Redlands, said over email. "They feel as if they know them because they 'know' a character they played."
In our more primitive, ancestral environments — thousands of years before the advent of electricity — we became deeply socialized and invested in characters surrounding us, Salmon added. The instinct to become immersed in people's lives is a trait that's embedded into our highly-evolved species. It's a survival-oriented instinct.
What's more, humans have been deeply enamored with characters and storytelling for millennia.
"I imagine binge-watching is only a technologically enhanced version of a behavior that has been around, at least in rudimentary form, for at least 50,000 years," Joseph Carroll, a literature professor at the University of Missouri–St. Louis and editor in chief of the academic journal Evolutionary Studies in Imaginative Culture, said over email.
Then some 3,000 years ago, epic storytelling arose with the Iliad and Odyssey (and later Beowulf). The stories likely left listeners entranced, said Carroll.
"The bards chanting such tales must have sung for many hours to halls full of warriors deep in their cups but still entranced by the singers’ words," Carroll mused.
Oral storytelling evolved to increasingly widespread reading — which people still binge on today. It's similar to how Hulu and Netflix watchers binge.
"Readers commenting on works offered on Amazon or Audible often remark that once they had started, they couldn’t stop, didn’t sleep, and had to force themselves even to eat," noted Carroll. "There is no reason to suppose that a Japanese reader of the 11th century, delving into The Tale of Genji, would have been less eager to binge than a modern reader of Edward St. Aubyn’s Patrick Melrose novels."
But when it comes to TV, the human fascination with literary, dramatic storytelling, might be all the more enhanced.
As social psychologist Satoshi Kanazawa contends in the research paper "Bowling with our imaginary friends," the human brain did not evolve to understand the strong sensory experiences and characters on TV. Consequently, our subconscious psychological mechanisms "may respond as if the people they see on television were their friends," Kanazawa wrote in the academic journal Evolution and Human Behavior.
After assessing data from the U.S. General Survey — a long-running opinion research center at The University of Chicago — Kanazawa suggested that both men and woman "feel as if they have more friends if they watch more television." Critically, Kanazawa concludes that watching TV really isn't that bad for one's social well-being.
"...there is nothing shallow about the community we experience by watching TV, or so our brain thinks," wrote Kanazawa. However, this isn't necessarily a free pass to binge-watch so much you stop interacting with others or lose too much sleep.
When does binging become a problem?
Just because you spend the entire day or night binging doesn't mean it's a "bad" or unhealthy activity. Watch out, however, when binge-watching becomes "more akin to addictive behavior," said Morgan Ellithorpe, an assistant professor in the department of advertising and public relations at Michigan State University who researches the effects of media on health and well-being. For instance, "it becomes a problem when you choose binge-watching over other important activities," like sleeping, on a regular basis.
"We all binge-watch," noted Allison Eden, an assistant communications professor at Michigan State University.
Maybe you sit down on Sunday and tear through nearly a whole season of Stranger Things, or six heady episodes of The Young Pope. "That's okay, that's functional," said Eden, whose research focuses on understanding media use from a psychological perspective. "Most of us make it work just fine."
Image: Shutterstock / TheVisualsYouNeed
"Intrinsically, on its own account, I see nothing particularly disturbing about spending hours or days reading a long novel, or spending a whole weekend taking in The Wire or The Americans," added Carroll.
Signs that your binge-watching is getting out of control include experiencing withdrawal, building a tolerance, and letting it conflict with your job — and your sleep. There's a relationship between the problematic binge-watching of streamed media (like Netflix) and worse sleep quality, noted both Eden and Ellithorpe. Interestingly, researchers have not found the same relationship with traditional TV, which typically releases episodes weekly, so you can't watch an entire series in one sitting.
Perhaps it's because streaming doesn't give you an option to escape. When folks tuned into The Twilight Zone in the late 1950s, there were commercial breaks and dramatic changes of genres between shows.
"There were more opportunities for people to turn off the TV and make better choices," said Eden.
Now, it's all too easy to binge. We like it. It's fun. "I have my shows," noted Johnsen. But it doesn't interfere with her life.
"Everything in moderation — it's boring but true," she said.
"Moderate binging" might sound like an oxymoron. But it's part of our 21st-century existence. The growing streaming media giants have proven profitable and award-winning. The shows will keep coming. And we'll be watching, sometimes excessively and obsessively, into the night.
"You're totally normal," said Eden. But, she suggests, "Maybe watch the series on the weekends. Maybe don’t watch it every night till 2 in the morning."