Visual media is one of the greatest gifts of technology. People have been glued to their screens for decades, whether they be the silver screen or not. The advent of the television brought viewers even closer to the entertainment. No longer bound by the need to buy one’s way into a theater, viewers gained the ability to view visual media at home. At first, their options were limited, but as TV stations continued to appear consumer’s choices continued to grow. Such an abundance of media was a wonderful thing! Never before had so many projects, so many artist’s visions been realized and enjoyed by others on the screen. This was only helped by the introduction of the internet, which later in its history developed into the greatest source of media delivery yet known to man. But this is not necessarily a good thing, as it brings with it a threat to the psychological and physical health of media consumers everywhere: binge-watching. Binge-watching, also called binge-viewing, is a relatively new issue that faces the people of the world. Considered to be the viewing of more than one episode of television or movie in a single sitting, binge-watching is fast becoming a culturally accepted phenomenon. This should scare many people, American’s especially, because of binge-watching’s deleterious effects on society. Firstly, watching multiple episodes of any television show takes viewers on a ride of so many emotional highs and lows, that by the end they are emotionally over-taxed. Secondly, binge-watching reinforces a trend already pervasive within our society, instant-gratification. Thirdly, binge-viewing is highly addictive, creating a relationship between consumer and entertainment provider akin to addict and dealer. Lastly, binge-watching forces viewers to engage in a sedentary lifestyle, which has been linked to serious health complications and a shorter lifespan. It is for these reasons that I have concluded that binge-watching is mentally and physically detrimental to society. In order to better frame my point, I must first take a moment to explain how this issue first came about, and how it has been exacerbated by services such as Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime. It is noted in an article by Tjitte Vries, writer for Photo-Historical Magazine, that the beginnings of commercial film can be found in the Lumiére brothers, Louis and Auguste, in the mid 1890’s (Vries, 2009).The first television was successfully demonstrated in 1927 by Philo Farnsworth, a young inventor (Barnouw, 1990). The invention of these two technologies thrust communications and entertainment forward into the future. At first, these innovations were, and should be, heralded as some of man’s greatest successes. However, the introduction of a vast number of television networks created an issue, open time slots. Without programming to fill these spots, networks found a brilliant way to fill said time,reruns (Kompare, 2005). Thus, the marathon was born, the practice of airing multiple episodes of the same television show in succession, or multiple films in succession. A debate exists over when the practice began, but this is the advent of binge-watching. This practice fills the long, idle hours of boredom experienced by many of us who inhabit the first world. Video On-Demand (VOD) services such as Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime have given viewers the power to marathon any show of their choosing, at any time of their choosing. While one must appreciate the empowerment of consumers, the consequences of this empowerment are far worse than the benefits. One such consequence is emotional over-taxation. The emotional attachment viewers form with characters in television and film can be powerful, even more so when binge-watching. Season after season, film after film, the bond between character and audience grows stronger. As Raj Devasagayam (2014), Professor of Marketing at Siena College, is quick to point out, binge-watching creates an emotional reliance on television and characters. But the constant flood of episodes and movies that comes from binge-watching, the concentrated character development and interaction, slowly kills that link. Greg Dillon, a former Associate Professor of Psychiatry and Public Health at Weill Cornell Medical College, stated that, “Even a single episode has so many highs and lows that by the end of it you’re so beaten up, you’re less receptive to the emotional and intellectual ideas being put forth. Yet still we click and watch another one” (Smith, 2014). By scoffing down so many episodes, the content loses some of its meaning for the viewer. Similarly, Mitch Hurwitz, head writer of Arrested Development, warned viewers against binge-watching as it would lead to “comedy fatigue” (Ladue, 2014). This is ultimately degrading to not only the viewer, but to the content as well. Advocates for binge-watching, namely Robert Thompson, director of the Bleier Center for Television & Popular Culture at Syracuse University, submitted that some shows are better watched and enjoyed on a binge (Smith, 2014). An improved grasp of the storyline and greater attention to detail are the main reasons why binge-viewing has such advocates (Smith, 2014). However, I would posit that television is just as much about the emotional connection between actor and viewer, empathizing with their situation, as it is about the general storyline. After all, television is a format designed for longer storylines and in-depth character development, but when you do watch, it’s better to refrain from over-indulgence. This desire to overindulge when watching television can sometimes result in what has become pervasive throughout our society, a problem with instant gratification. Instant gratification is as it sounds — choosing impulsive behavior over patience. Actions and services of this nature are based in people’s desire for a hasty response to their demands. One can find traces of this trend in everyday life: instant messaging , fast food , binge-drinking , etc. It is in these trends, and many more, that we find issues concerning self-control, patience, and unhealthy behavior. A study produced by the American Medical Association indicated that binge-drinking, a high consumption of alcohol in a short period of time, was quite popular among students at four-year universities; students engaged in binge-drinking fully aware of the health risks, simply seeking to become drunk quickly (Wechsler, Davenport, Dowdall, Moeykens, & Castillo, 1994). Interpersonal issues, increased instances of violence, increased instances of unprotected sex and sexual assault, and a slew of other side effects were found by researchers; this is just one example of how binge behavior related to instant gratification is destructive and disruptive to its participants (Wechsler, Davenport, Dowdall, Moeykens, & Castillo, 1994). Binge-watching embodies the essence of actions based in a need for instant gratification. Instant gratification is at the root of binge-watching culture, but it is concentrated most highly in the youth of the nation. Deborah Jaramillo, assistant professor of television studies at Boston University, said that the younger generations growing up with VOD services will know only instant gratification (Smith, 2014). One can say with confidence that this unhealthy trend is likely to intensify with time. In his article Will Netflix Kill TV, Mike Ladue posits, “Netflix is like an indulgent parent – offering unlimited sweets without any responsibility on the child’s behalf” (Ladue, 2014). Viewers are likely to get a “stomach-ache” from all the shows and movies they consume, and companies like Netflix are not helping. Netflix instant play, a feature included when watching any season of any television show, queues the next episode in line. The function gives the viewer a 15 second window in which to decide if they would like to exit out to the main menu of Netflix, choose a new episode, or allow the timer to run out and play the next episode. In this way, the instant play feature places power in the hands of the viewer, but when laziness gets the better of you, the continued stream of visual stimuli becomes no better than allowing a McDonalds employee to stuff one’s mouth full of cheeseburgers in rapid succession. As pointed out by Jonathan Steuer, chief research officer at TiVo, the idea that television is something that one can control is a very attractive prospect (Stone, 2014). That control is to the benefit of the consumer, but when it results in over-indulgent, instant gratification seeking behavior, the consumer suffers in ways that bridge to other facets of life. Television and movies are consuming a huge amount of our present leisure time. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), in 2013 the average american had between 5.9 and 5.2 hours of leisure time per day, 2.8 hours of which was typically devoted to watching television (Bureau of Labor Statistics [BLS], 2014). The same report stated that Americans between the ages of 15 and 19 were likely to read a book for an average of four minutes per weekend day, while spending 52 minutes playing games or using the internet (BLS, 2014). Including the fact that television and movies can be viewed on the internet, slower activities like reading among young people have almost disappeared. New generations will know little of literary excellence if this continues, and only what has been transcribed into film or televised form. These statistics and this dire situation have only been reinforced by a troubling study that was released recently. Produced by Annalect Primary Research, the study revealed that binge-watching has displaced activities and hobbies that take time and patience, activities from which a great amount of joy is derived (Marsh, Ferrao, & Gintare, 2014). Television is an instant source of pleasure, as opposed to arts, crafts, sports, and other leisure activities that require physical activity and patience. TV shows and movies are removing the hobbies that give us the most pleasure, all in the name of instant gratification. We are, in effect, addicted to getting everything immediately. The Marshmallow Experiment – Instant Gratification – YouTube Binge-watching, helped along by our desire for overindulgence and instant gratification, has become an addiction. Addiction is classified as the continuation of any repetitive behavior despite adverse consequences placed upon the abuser, which binge behaviors could and should be considered. Binge-eating results in obesity, depression, heart disease, and a lack of energy, which are all clearly deleterious effects, based on a study published in the International Journal of Eating Disorders (Davis et al., 2008). Binge-drinking, as has already been discussed, results in a great deal of physical impairments and social stigmas (Wechsler, Davenport, Dowdall, Moeykens, & Castillo, 1994). Binge-watching has a great number of psychological and physical ramifications coupled with its practice as well, including but not limited to emotional battery, physical withdrawal, and a shorter lifespan (Smith, 2014) (American Heart Association [AHA], 2014a). Binge-watching is a form of addiction, along with a number of binge behaviors, and should be treated as such. The psychological effects of binge-viewing make one think twice about watching that second episode of “Orange is the New Black.” To begin, Robert Thompson, a professor at Syracuse University, explained that after the pleasurable act of binge-viewing, the withdrawal makes one physically sad (Smith, 2014). To better understand why this happens, we must turn to Dr. Robert F. Potter, an Associate Professor at the Institute for Communication Research at Indiana State. In the view of Potter and other academics like him, something called the orienting response has us doomed from the start; the orienting response has animals pay attention to changes in their environment (Heid, 2014). The orienting response was originally intended for animals to stay safe from potential predators and find new food sources, but in the case of television, the constantly changing visual stimuli retain our attention (Heid, 2014). Potter then states that after a short period of time, thought processes shift from the left brain to the right brain (Heid, 2014). The right brain is associated with creative thinking and emotion, so one is stepping away from logic as viewing continues. If only this were the worst that happened while in the throes of an Arrested Development binge. Dead Dove Do Not Eat – YouTube It is at this point that a surge of endorphins, chemicals that cause a calm and pleasurable feeling to wash over a viewer, enter into the brain; these endorphins continue to flood in as long as one continues to watch television (Heid, 2014). An action that is pleasurable, but has a known consequence; one should already see that this is textbook addiction. Continuing on, after multiple hours of viewing, which can be classified as six-plus episodes of television or one-to-two movies, a shift occurs. This extended period of viewing will have given viewers a foray into the world and characters of their visual media, allowing them to form opinions on the characters they both like and hate. It is at this point that one’s mind engages its approach and avoidance reactions, meaning that you are watching to see characters you don’t like fail, and characters you do like succeed (Elliot & Church, 1997). After this, as Dr. Thompson stated, the physical sadness comes. Similar to withdrawal from a drug, the lack of endorphins being pumped into the brain after hours of pleasure is depressing and results in a lack of energy (Heid, 2014). The fact that after one watches television for extended periods of time, they feel physically sad and tired is akin to withdrawal from drugs like cocaine and heroin. One would assume that this would result in binge-watching becoming taboo, yet its never been more popular or more accepted by the public (Stone, 2014). The cause of this can be traced back to the practices of Video On-Demand services. If one would consider viewers to be addicts, then Video On-Demand services should be considered the dealers. Their drugs of choice are hit TV shows and award winning movies, peddling them on the assumption that “You watched [BLANK], so you might enjoy [BLANK]” (Netflix, 2014). They entice viewers with fantastic deals on unbelievably frugal services, providing more content than a person could consume in a lifetime. Netflix claims that their customers have access to over 100,000 titles for streaming and DVD rental (Netflix, 2014). With access like this, consumers are happy to ignore the psychological distress that follows binge-viewing. In a piece penned by Jeff Stone (2014), there is a list of shows that viewers simply must watch, one of many lists throughout the web. A scholarly work of Raj Devasagayam (2014) explains how viewers will binge-watch shows just so they can discuss it with their friends. The simple fact of the matter is that television has become a social structure, one by which your friends and family will judge you. In a recent survey conducted by the public relations firm Edelman, 72% of respondents watch so they ‘know what happens next’ and 57% noting that they do so to ‘feel caught up’ (Anonymous, 2014). Television shows and films are now important topics of conversation; it’s almost impossible to go anywhere now without someone blurting out, “Did you see who died last night on Game of Thrones?” Companies like Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, and HBO are all capitalizing on this phenomenon, providing and producing content that will attract more viewers. This has worked incredibly well, as viewers continue to flock to Netflix, Hulu , Amazon Prime , and HBO Go in droves, ignoring all the harm they inflict upon themselves. Companies are able to do this because consumers enjoy a great number of choices, and there is still a lively debate on whether or not the power now vested in viewers is a good thing (Smith, 2014) (Ladue, 2014). It is this debate, coupled with practices like Netflix’s instant play feature and the wondrous amount of content available to users that perpetuates the addiction of binge-watching. And as binge-viewing continues to grow in popularity and social acceptance, the issue will only worsen; the same can be said of a binge-watcher’s body. Watching a television show or a movie is a sedentary activity, implying that binge-watching demands a sedentary lifestyle. A sedentary lifestyle has been linked to numerous diseases and physical ailments. Obesity, possibly one of the gravest issues facing America today, has been linked to sedentary activities such as binge-watching, with a truly staggering 68% of adults and children being considered obese (AHA, 2014b). The human body is meant to be in motion throughout much of the day, but the advent of the television and computer have made society more prone to sitting than staying on your feet. A sedentary lifestyle, which is lacking in that necessary physical movement and activity, poses serious health risks to binge-viewers. A new study published in the Journal of the American Heart Association has found that increased television viewing is directly linked to a higher rate of death (American Heart Association [AHA], 2014a). The article specifically outlines that, “the risk of death was twofold higher for participants who reported watching three or more hours of TV a day compared to those watching one or less hours” (AHA, 2014a). But an increased likelihood of death is only the most morbid of the effects of binge-watching. The array of misfortunes and health issues that come with binge-watching are depressing to say the least. Obesity has also been linked to cancer of the pancreas, esophagus, breast, thyroid, and a number of other organs and body parts (National Cancer Institute [NCI], 2012). Binge-watching should be considered a slow killer for causing obesity which causes cancer, but still it causes more health risks. Inactivity such as binge-viewing has been linked to cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, and osteoporosis (Medibank, 2008). Inactivity can also be the cause of musculoskeletal distress, bone-density issues, and severe spinal problems (Medibank, 2008). What every source has said, and what every source this author saw and didn’t read probably said, is that binge-watching, or sedentary behavior, or inactivity, is linked to issues with every part of the human body. Binge-watching is a slow, silent killer not causing unbearable pain through malicious wounds, but through debilitating disease and bodily neglect. Think about that the next time you decide to marathon Scrubs or How I Met Your Mother instead of going on a run. It is at this point I must ask the reader to contemplate what might happen if this trend continues. In Jeff Stone’s article on the possible death of television, it is suggested that more people are likely to engage in binge-watching, and more still will find it a culturally acceptable practice; thoughts such as this provoke reflection, and a better understanding of where this trend may lead the world (Stone, 2014). This does not constitute a wild vision of a world inhabited by mindless TV drones, morbidly obese and filled with cancerous tumors as mega conglomerates of entertainment lord over the world, but something more realistic. If the market continues to develop in favor of the Video On-Demand service, the format of television is not only likely to change, the industry will demand it. Netflix and HBO produce shows that are not built with commercial breaks, but instead are intended to be viewed in succession (Ladue, 2014). Show’s such as Orange is the New Black and House of Cards have been designed to be viewed according the viewer’s preference, for some an episode a day, for the majority it is binge-watching (Netflix). If this catches on, if Amazon Prime and Hulu enter into the television production industry more seriously, then it begs the question of how will networks compete? Television networks like NBC, ABC, and CBS don’t have easily navigable content backlogs, readily available for viewers to sort through and find their favorite episodes of TV shows like Netflix and Hulu; the same can be said of studios like Paramount, Relativity, and Universal. Binge-watching has changed the way people digest and enjoy visual media, and as responsible viewers who wish to continue this ‘Golden Age’ of television, we need to ask the question: What is binge-watching doing to the mental and physical state of viewers?
Binge-watching is one of the most deleterious practices currently engaged in by the people of the first world. It affects not only the viewer, but the company that produces content, the format of television, and the movie format. Binge-watching is not only emotionally draining for the highs and lows each episode and movie brings, because it also threatens the visual media industry as a whole. Binge-viewing is not only reinforcing the trend of instant gratification, it is creating a generation that will grow up accustomed not to weekly episodes, but seasonal releases. This phenomenon is not only highly addictive and effecting many people across the planet, it has created a system in which companies must prey on the customers loosening mental faculties and social anxieties to make a profit. But worst of all, binge-watching is contributing to or should be considered a source of serious physical and mental health issues. It no longer brings me joy to binge-watch my favorite television shows, like a sour wine well past the time it should have been consumed. The knowledge that my friends, family, loved ones, and random strangers on the street are slowly killing themselves has placed a bad taste in my mouth. The sad, depressing truth of it all is that reading this will change the habits of few people. We have become too attached to media, visual or not, to let it go, which means let’s all curl up with our computers and TVs, watch an episode or two of our favorite shows, and go quietly into the night.
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