The weather is dreary and we’ve got Netflix, Amazon Prime and now a new season of Sex Education to watch. Yep, we’re well and truly into binge-watching season.
But while we love a good marathon TV session, the desire to watch “just one more episode” before bed can spiral. Earlier this month, the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy confirmed it knew of three patients in the UK being treated for “binge-watching addiction”.
So when does binge-watching go from harmless entertainment to addiction, and what impact is it really having on our brains and bodies?
GP Dr Paul Stillman explains that binge-watching can have a very real affect on our hormones, which can in turn impact our mental health and wellbeing.
“Binge-watching TV can create a ‘high’ then a significant emotional downturn when we’ve finished watching,” he says. The high is caused by the production of chemicals such as dopamine which are released during any pleasurable activity – and that includes watching your favourite TV show.
“When binge-watching TV your brain is continually producing dopamine. You experience something like an addiction as your brain starts to create it. Simply getting immersed in the lives of characters, story lines and caring what happens in a TV show can become addictive.”
If you’re ditching friends and family or cancelling social engagements to watch a boxset, it can be a sign you’re becoming too reliant on that “high”, he adds. Other signs to be aware of included snacking rather than cooking meals and not sleeping as well.
Dr Roger Henderson, a GP and UK medical director of Liva Healthcare, says there’s “mounting evidence that heavy binge-watching may have an impact on our health” – particularly when it comes to sleep. “Electronic screens emit blue light which can impact on our production of melatonin – a key hormone involved in getting a good night’s sleep,” he tells HuffPost UK.
Sleep can also be impacted by the fact that binge-watching is a sedentary activity, adds Dr Stillman, who is working with the MindYourBack campaign.
“First if you sit in one position for a long time it may cause back pain which can prevent you from getting a good night’s sleep, second it can tempt you to sit every longer as you want to find out what happens next, third, violence and suspense before going to bed can leave you anxious and wide awake so that you can’t get to sleep,” he says.
Short-term, sleep deprivation can lead to fatigue, lack of concentration and a short temper, while research suggests longterm deprivation can increase the risk of serious health problems such as heart disease, heart attacks, stroke and high blood pressure. Sitting in one position for too puts an unhealthy strain on certain ligaments and muscles, says Dr Henderson, which can impact your posture.
“Certain positions are worse than others for this. So to prevent bad posture, avoid sitting slumped to one side, keep your feet supported, do not strain your neck for long periods while looking at a screen and avoid sitting for an extended period without taking a break,” he advises.
Long periods of focusing on one screen – or multi-screening – may also be detrimental to our eyes, adds Dr Henderson. “This can cause eye strain, particularly if you are on your phone switching between screens,” he says. “Eye strain can cause increased headaches, blurred vision and difficulty focusing. Be sure to visit your optometrist if you are suffering from any of these symptoms.”
You needn’t cancel that Netflix subscription altogether, but having an awareness of your behaviour and staying tuned to impact on your body is key to keeping healthy. “The best way to binge-watch is for an hour or two in the day rather than at bedtime or late in the evening, and ideally to avoid screen use for an hour before going to bed,” says Dr Henderson. “Try to take a break from watching after an hour or so even if you are engrossed in a show.”
And if you know you’re going to graze in front of the TV, prepare some healthy snacks beforehand, he says, rather than bingeing twice over on TV and crisps.