Binge-watching, otherwise known as the act of streaming many television episodes in one sitting, is more common and doable than ever. New and buzzy series are constantly added to Netflix, Hulu, etc. You can stream the entire multiseason backlog of shows such as “Game of Thrones,” “Billions” and “Big Little Lies” on HBO or Showtime anytime you’d like.
Though that might sound glorious to TV fans, it’s a bit worrisome to health experts across the country. With so much content available, and so much screen time becoming the norm — replacing hours devoted to fitness, socializing and sleeping — the potential health implications of binge-watching are becoming more obvious.
The research on the health effects of binge-watching is still in its infancy, but a few studies have raised concerns. According to a 2017 study published in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine, avid binge-watchers reported poor sleep quality, increased fatigue and more insomnia symptoms. Michigan State University researchers presented a link between binge-watching and poor lifestyle choices such as opting for unhealthy meals, unhealthy snacks and sedentary behaviors at the 67th Annual Conference of the International Communication Association in 2017.
Though there’s still more research to be done on the effects of our culture’s shift toward multihour TV sessions, here’s what experts believe can happen to a person’s health if binge-watching remains the norm.
Effects on many aspects of health
According to several experts, binge-watching can affect your cardiovascular system, your vision, your socialization and your sleep patterns — all of which can lead to other problems. For Sophia Tolliver, a family medicine physician at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, the first concern “is how sedentary you can become,” she says. “Studies show that sitting for long periods of time can increase one’s risk for metabolic syndrome, which can increase your risk of heart disease, stroke and Type 2 diabetes.”
In a 2018 study, researchers found that prolonged sitting for binge-watching is similar to prolonged sedentary behavior for long-haul flights or illness: It can increase your risk of developing conditions such as deep-vein thrombosis, a blood clot in the leg that can be fatal if it breaks off and travels to the heart or lungs. In the study, even ultimately achieving the recommended amount of physical activity was not enough to reverse the risk of clots during TV binges.
Tolliver also notes that binge-eating and binge-watching often go hand-in-hand. “Marathon sessions of TV, and associated mindless snacking, can lead to increased risk of obesity,” Tolliver explains. “In addition, research shows the majority of individuals binge-watch alone,” she says. “Studies have connected a lack of socialization to increased risks of heart disease and stroke, not to mention, fewer significant social relationships may increase the rates of depression and other mood disorders.”
Ronald Chervin, a sleep neurologist and director of Michigan Medicine’s Sleep Disorders Centers, says watching multiple episodes on Netflix before sleeping may cause you to lose more sleep, and beyond that night. “Electronic screens emit broad-spectrum light, including blue light,” he says. “In addition to delaying the release of melatonin, which keeps you awake, the blue light can actually reset your circadian rhythms to a later schedule.”
Because humans “have evolved to do best on a near-24 hour sleep cycle,” Chervin says, the shift to a later cycle can cause difficulty falling asleep, difficulty waking up and a general feeling of sleep deprivation. “We also see people who wake up in the middle of the night, and can’t go back to sleep, so they start watching television,” Chervin says. “There’s a wakeful element of social interaction to watching TV — people are talking, the adrenaline starts flowing. Watching in the night just cements the habit of being awake during times you shouldn’t be.”
Sleep deprivation has been associated with a number of health risks, according to Brad Lander, a clinical psychologist at Ohio State’s medical center: “depression, memory deficits, lack of coordination, accident proneness, heart problems and more.”
Finally, there’s also reason to be concerned about digital eyestrain. According to the Vision Council, 80 percent of Americans use digital devices for more than two hours a day, and 59 percent of them report eyestrain, neck and shoulder pain, dry eyes, headaches, and blurred vision.
How to better consume TV content
Lander says there’s nothing inherently wrong with the occasional TV binge. “Television has some positive psychological effects,” he says. “The problem is when you do it too much.” Though Lander says how much screen time is too much varies from person to person depending on “genetics, state of mind, age, personal traits and many other things,” there are still plenty of ways to set limits on your binge-watching to circumvent the biggest health risks.
First of all, a binge should never last hours without any movement at all. “Take regular stretch breaks,” Lander says. “Move around, every 30 minutes is best, or watch while standing for part of it.” Tolliver suggests building physical activity into your streaming schedule — and planning on it afterward. “Take a break in the middle,” she says. “Don’t be afraid to hit the pause button and do something else. Start or finish laundry, bake, walk the dog, go to the bathroom break.” After the binge, “walking or jogging are great ways to get moving,” she says. “Balance is key.”
And plan your snacks, she says. Prepare heathy foods that are binge-acceptable, such as cut vegetables or air-popped popcorn.
Lander also suggests simply setting your TV to turn off after a specified amount of time, because it can be easy to linger on the couch when you’re engrossed in a great show. “Many TVs have a turnoff timer built in.”
Also, make sure you don’t stream episode after episode right before bed, and then disturb your sleep cycle. “The best sleep routine is no screens a few hours before bed, but one to two hours at minimum,” Chervin suggests. “Don’t expose yourself to blue light. Settle into a nice, relaxing routine where you brush your teeth, get pajamas on, read a book, and then get to bed by a set hour; having a very regular schedule is important. People assume sleep is spongy [and you can make it up], but it’s really hard to recover.”
Finally, it’s best to binge-watch with others instead of making it an isolating habit that could strain your relationships. “Make it a fun activity with a partner or friend, Tolliver says. “Have dialogue after each episode, talk about what you liked and disliked.” Because it’s hard to watch several episodes of “Game of Thrones” or “Shrill” and not have thoughts, right?
Jenna Birch is a health journalist based in Michigan. You can find her @jennabirch.