In the Cambridge Dictionary, the act of ‘binge-watching’ is defined as “to watch several episodes of a television series or programme, one after another.” Although we all go through binge-watching sessions every once in a while (or every week, no judgement here), the term is often paired with the unsaid implication that it is unhealthy to do so. And while it should be noted that it has its (obvious) negative consequences on health and mood if misused in certain ways, researchers have found there are actual benefits to it too.
Nowadays, people will say they’ve been binge-watching whether they’ve streamed a reasonable three episodes of a TV show in a row or even the whole season in one sitting—let’s be real, we’re all guilty. This ambiguous use of the term is part of the reason why so many of us see the act as somehow unacceptable in society. Sure, I wouldn’t hide the fact that I spent my last Sunday hungover, streaming Sex and The City for hours on end and feeling sorry for myself, but I wouldn’t really brag about it either.
The lack of analysis behind the term’s definition is also why some researchers believe we’re too quick to ignore the benefits it also provides. “What is a binge? That’s something we’re still trying to define,” explained Allison Eden to Mashable. Eden is an associate professor in the Department of Communication at Michigan State University (MSU) who researches the effects of entertainment on people’s well-being. For its story, the publication decided to call it around three or more episodes, “as some have suggested.” We’re going along with the same defining quantity.
First of all, binge-watching can decrease stress and, in turn, promote relaxation. “Watching a number of shows in succession can result in feeling relaxed or decreasing stress levels,” Morgan Ellithorpe, an assistant professor in the Department of Communication at the University of Delaware who researches media effects and psychology, told Mashable. Some people allow their brain to shut off by doing so while others prefer reading a book, playing music or going to the cinema. Either way, there’s nothing wrong with wanting to loosen up after a long day.
Binging also allows you to find meaning and insight, let me explain. When you’re engrossed in a series, you’re engaged with the content you’re watching—which means you’re finding meaning in it. “That’s great,” said Eden. Here again, the same process can be found with people who prefer to get lost in a book.
The third and final benefit that comes with binge-watching might surprise a few of you. As Eileen Anderson, a medical anthropologist at Case Western Reserve University who researches the well-being of young adults in changing cultural environments told Mashable, “a lot of people use [binge-watching] as a social connection.” While our first instinct is probably to see it as one of the most unsociable activities, for many, binge-watching is a way to share an experience with the rest of the world.
Here’s an example: when Tiger King launched on Netflix at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, many of us watched the whole show in one go, locked inside our respective homes. Doing so allowed us to connect with others by discussing it with friends and sharing memes about Joe Exotic and Carole Baskin online. We might have been physically alone but binge-watching Tiger King made us feel connected to an incredibly large demographic—a part of a collective, if you may.
“Everything in moderation,” goes the saying. Back in 1778, the English writer, schoolmaster, and priest Vicesimus Knox wrote, “There is another evil arising from a too early attention to novels. They fix attention so deeply, and afford so lively a pleasure, that the mind, once accustomed to them, cannot submit to the painful task of serious study.” Long story short, Knox saw novels and their captivating potential as a negative influence on the human brain.
It then comes as no surprise that streaming consecutive shows was received in a similar manner, if not worse. When a new form of entertainment comes along, it is often viewed suspiciously and is first misunderstood—especially if it works with the help of technology. But devouring stories, be that in the form of a book or a seven season-long TV show, is inherently human. Only the latter represents the most modern way of indulging in such storytelling.
“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, told Mashable in a 2019 article.
Interestingly, there also seems to be a scientific reason behind the fact that most of us tend to prefer watching fictional television at night. It is when earlier hunter-gatherer societies, too, would immerse themselves in storytelling. “We’re wired to attend to these fictional stories as winding down the day or getting ready for bed,” Anderson added.
So why not treat yourself today and spend some time binge-watching your favourite show? It’d be the perfect start to a new year, plus it’s bound to cure that nasty hangover you have going on from yesterday’s party.