Your brain on binge-watching

Hand holding a remote control pointed at a television screen. Text reads: You’ve watched 5 episodes in a row. Are you on a binge?

Before the rise of Netflix, Amazon and Hulu, we lived from week to week waiting for the next installment of our favorite television shows. Now with whole seasons released in one go and the autoplay feature queuing up the next episode, it’s easy to get caught binge-watching.

Though the term has its negative connotations, binge-watching has become a socially acceptable phenomenon. Deloitte conducted its Digital Democracy Survey in 2016 and found that 70 percent of Americans binge-watch an average of five episodes at a time. And about 30 percent binge-watch weekly.

So what’s your brain doing while you binge-watch?

An endorphin explosion

It’s easy to see the appeal of binge-watching when you explore its effect on the brain. The stimulation of watching a show releases endorphins—feel-good chemicals that make us relaxed.

When an episode wraps, however, the relaxing effects of the endorphins end abruptly. So we grow to associate relaxing with watching television, and get the urge to keep the show—and that good feeling—going.

We might also get emotionally attached to the characters in fictional shows. One study found that the participants’ brains released the stress hormone cortisol and the human connection hormone oxytocin while watching a particularly character-driven story unfold.

The pros and cons

Contrary to what you might think, there are some pros to binge-watching. For instance, deep emotional connection to characters and immersive stories may help us practice empathy—and boost our ability to gauge other people’s feelings.

Many binge-watchers also see the activity as having social value. It’s an easy conversation topic for bonding with friends and coworkers.

There are some downsides, though. For one, there is the lack of physical activity. Binge-watching usually means spending a lot of time at rest. It also might not exercise your mind as well as activities like reading can. And some critics have drawn parallels between binge-watching and some core elements of addiction.

Tips for binge-watching responsibly

If you’ve ever felt guilty after a binge-watching session, try putting more thoughtful planning into your screen time.

One of the easiest steps to take is disabling the autoplay feature in your apps. This encourages you to actively decide if you’re going to turn on another episode.

As for the lack of physical activity tied to binge-watching, there are a couple ideas you can try. The first is simple: Exercise while you watch TV.

And if you really want to get serious about cutting back while becoming more active, try telling yourself that you’re only going to watch as many minutes a day as you exercise. So if you worked out for one hour, then treat yourself to an hour-long show.

There’s no need to quit your favorite shows altogether, but your brain and body may feel better if you start putting some limits on your binge.

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