Binge-watching television shows is a relatively new phenomenon. 10 years ago, you could buy your favourite show on DVD and watch to your heart’s content, but it wasn’t until Netflix started dropping whole seasons of original content at once that binge-watching became common. This format allowed for plot arcs and cliffhangers that would have enraged traditional television audiences who might have to wait a week or a whole summer to see what happens. While you would have had to wait months to find out who shot Agent Cooper, you can watch a whole season of House of Cards in a day, if you have the stamina.
While this level of convenience satisfies our demand for instant gratification, binge-watching television shows is not great for your mental health. Here’s why watching for hours can make you feel depressed.
You spend too much time sitting.
If you spend most of your day inside staring at the television, you are not getting much exercise. Your joints start aching and you feel sluggish. If you’re watching something exciting, you might not even notice you’ve barely moved in three hours.
Real life is boring by comparison.
A good show has lots of tension and conflict. The hero gets into trouble, then gets out of it because he–it’s usually he–is uncommonly brave, resourceful, and competent. Most importantly, he has a purpose. He has to do something that’s both important and clearly explained. Real life, in comparison, is always murky. Most of the important things we do are rather mundane–making dinner, going to work, helping your kid study for his biology test. The stakes rarely appear very high and we’re often unsure what we’re supposed to do. It feels like a letdown. There is also a biological component to this. The tension and resolution in exciting shows give us little hits of adrenaline and dopamine. Just as with drugs and alcohol, when we have to deal with normal levels of excitement, it feels rather dull.
We miss our fictional friends.
We get used to people we see on television. We are invested in their success and we are troubled by their failures. We know what difficulties they have endured what matters most to them. Our brains are not very good at distinguishing fictional friends that we spend many hours with from real friends. That’s why celebrities have so many weird encounters with fans. When the show ends, we miss these people the way we miss real friends. We often miss them more because we understand their motivations better than those of our own friends. They are often more attractive as well. Losing our fictional friends makes us feel a little sad, even if we feel silly admitting it.
As with all things, television is best in moderation. It can be wonderful to help you relax and have a laugh, but spending a whole day eating junk food and watching every episode of anything will leave you feeling depressed.
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Page last reviewed and medically fact-checked | January 29, 2020