The Science Behind Why We Binge-Watch
September 9, 2020
Binge-watching may not be a new concept, but it’s fast becoming the new normal.
Ten years ago, in those dark days before the advent of streaming services, DVD box sets and the occasional TV marathon were the only ways to get your binge-watching fix. These days, though, streaming services like Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime are making binge-watching — watching two or more (sometimes many, many more) episodes of a single series in quick succession — an acceptable and fast-growing practice.
According to a 2019 survey from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average American watches 2.8 hours of TV per day or nearly 20 hours each week. Much of that time is spent binge-watching — Deloitte’s 14th edition Digital Media Trends Survey found that among 2,103 U.S. consumers, 38% of them were binge-watching weekly for an average of 4.2 hours per session.
The term “binge-watch” was even Collins English Dictionary’s word of the year in 2015 (alongside, out of curiosity, “dadbod” and “ghosting”).
But while late-night The Office benders might be popular, a growing list of evidence indicates that binge-watching may not be the ideal way to consume your favorite TV shows. Researchers have linked binge-watching to lower sleep quality, and studies have found that binge-watching shows might actually be less memorable and less enjoyable than watching new episodes on a weekly basis. (Yikes!)
So why is binge-watching so popular if it just leaves us feeling bleary-eyed on the couch? The answer lies in how our brains function while we’re watching and how filmmakers and streaming services are engineered to keep us watching.
Binge-watching is an easy, feel-good fix
For many viewers, binge-watching gives us an escape from the day-to-day grind. Entertainment has always offered a way to escape from the pressures of daily life, and binge-watching is no exception. But, don’t just take our word for it. Cultural anthropologist Grant McCracken, who coordinated with Netflix on the above survey, sees a correlation between the rise in binge-viewing habits and our desire to escape a never-ending sea of bite-sized social media posts and YouTube videos. He explains:
“TV viewers are no longer zoning out as a way to forget about their day, they are tuning in, on their own schedule, to a different world. Getting immersed in multiple episodes or even multiple seasons of a show over a few weeks is a new kind of escapism that is especially welcomed today.”
Viewers seem to agree — a 2013 Netflix survey found that 76% of respondents said it’s a welcome refuge from the busy world we live in. And for many of us, it’s a much-needed break: a recent opinion poll from the American Psychiatric Association found that nearly 32% of respondents felt more anxious than the year before.
But there’s an even simpler reason behind why we enjoy binge-watching. To put it simply, it makes us feel good. In fact, according to one study, 73% of us have positive feelings about binge-watching TV — feelings that Dr. Renee Carr, Psy. D, a clinical psychologist, attributes to our body’s own natural response to enjoyment. She explains on NBC’s health and wellness blog, Better, that binge-viewing a show produces a continuous stream of dopamine in our brains:
“[Dopamine] gives the body a natural, internal reward of pleasure that reinforces continued engagement in that activity. It’s the brain’s signal that communicates to the body —This feels good. You should keep doing this!”
So, as it turns out, it isn’t the show we’re craving; instead, it’s the feeling of pleasure we get from watching episode after episode. “You experience a pseudo-addiction to the show,” Dr. Carr explains, “because you develop cravings for dopamine … Your body does not discriminate against pleasure. It can become addicted to any activity or substance that consistently produces dopamine."
“So, as it turns out, it isn’t the show we’re craving; instead, it’s the feeling of pleasure we get from watching episode after episode.”
It’s that dopamine hit — and the conscious decision to keep that feeling going — that gets people hooked on watching just one more episode as the clock ticks past midnight.
The line between enjoyment and unhealthy habits
Binge-watching can be a great way to relax and de-stress, but it can easily become a problem when you regularly prioritize it over other important activities.
Like gambling and other behavioral addictions, binge-watching activates the part of our brain responsible for “reward” functions, producing dopamine and making us feel good. Over time, though, our brains produce less dopamine from the same level of activity as we build up a level of tolerance. It takes more and more of the same activity to give us that same feeling of enjoyment, making binge-watching TV shows that much harder to stop.
When we’re forced to stop watching (usually when we finish the entire series), we quite literally “mourn” the loss — a kind of “post-binge malaise” — as coined by Matthew Schneier in the New York Times. That feeling of emptiness doesn’t do us any good — a 2015 study from the University of Toledo found that binge-watchers reported higher levels of stress, anxiety, and depression. Researchers have noted that binge-watching streaming media is directly related to a reduction in sleep quality — an effect that isn’t seen with traditional TV series when new episodes are only released once each week.
Given our preference for binging on new series, you might assume it makes for a better watching experience — but it turns out that’s not the case either. According to a 2017 study from First Monday, binging television shows might actually be less memorable and less enjoyable than watching new episodes on a weekly basis. Researchers found that binge-watching shows reduced participants' ability to remember details from the shows, and binge-viewers also reported lower enjoyment levels from watching the show than those who watched the same series only once a day.
Once that stimulation is gone, the only way to bring it back is to watch more episodes, even when it may be detrimental to our health and enjoyment — a fact of which filmmakers and streaming services take full advantage.
Making the most of binge-watching
Streaming services, along with the on-demand content they make available, are engineered to be addictive. Without commercials on most platforms, there are fewer opportunities for viewers to get distracted. Netflix even begins playing the next episode of a series while the credits for the previous episode are still rolling. Cliffhanger endings are there to keep us hooked so that we can’t help but start watching the next episode.
Netflix and other streaming services rely on these behaviors to inform their programming decisions and keep subscribers happy. Without the regular interruptions of traditional television, audiences are much more likely to keep watching instead of switching to another service — or even just another activity. In fact, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings famously said that sleep is Netflix’s biggest competitor.
“Without the regular interruptions of traditional television, audiences are much more likely to keep watching instead of switching to another service — or even just another activity.”
At the end of the day, making binge-watching socially acceptable is undoubtedly an important part of sustaining a streaming platform’s business model. Netflix even openly promotes binge-watching and “binge racing” on their blog, where they state more than 8 million subscribers have binge-raced at least one series.
According to Netflix Chief Content Officer Ted Sarandos, these changes are simply meeting the desires of their audience, helping to “free consumers from the limitations of linear television” and “lining up the content with new norms of viewer control for the first time.”
Love it or hate it, binge media consumption isn’t going away any time soon. So, what can we do to make sure binge-watching continues to be a positive experience?
Striking a good binge-watching balance
Binge-watching is a welcome stress reliever as well as a behavior that’s ingrained within us, so there’s no reason to feel guilty while clicking “I’m Still Watching” for the third time.
But it’s important to remember that there’s a fine line between healthy viewing habits and addictive behavior. Commit to only watching a certain number of episodes in advance, then cut yourself off and balance your binge-watching with activities like exercise or spending time with friends. These activities can provide additional sources of enjoyment, making it much less likely you’ll become addicted to watching that next season from start to finish in one go.
If you can stick to healthy habits and balance your binge-watching with other activities, then you’ll reap all the enjoyment of binge-watching — without suffering the negative consequences.