Binge-watching is hazardous to health

NEW YORK • Watch out, if you binge-watch.

Binge-watching, the act of streaming many television episodes in one sitting, is more common and doable than ever.

Though that might sound glorious to TV fans, it is a bit worrisome to health experts.

With so much content available and so much screen time becoming the norm - replacing hours devoted to fitness, socialising 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 and snacks as well as sedentary behaviours at the 67th annual conference of the International Communication Association in 2017.

Though there is still more research to be done on the effects of the cultural shift towards multi-hour TV sessions, here is what experts believe can happen to a person's health if binge-watching remains the norm.

According to several experts, the habit can affect your cardiovascular system, vision, socialisation and sleep patterns - all of which can lead to other problems.

For Ms Sophia Tolliver, a family medicine physician at Ohio State University Wexner Medical Centre, the first concern "is how sedentary you can become".

"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 behaviour during 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.

Ms 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," she said.

"In addition, research shows the majority of individuals binge-watch alone. Studies have connected a lack of socialisation 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."

Dr Ronald Chervin, a sleep neurologist and director of Michigan Medicine's Sleep Disorders Centres, said 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 noted. "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," Dr Chervin said, the shift to a later cycle can cause difficulty falling asleep, problems waking up and a general feeling of sleep deprivation.

Finally, there is also reason to be concerned about digital eye strain.

According to the Vision Council, 80 per cent of Americans use digital devices for more than two hours a day and 59 per cent of them report eye strain, neck and shoulder pain, dry eyes, headaches and blurred vision.

There are ways to set limits on binge-watching to circumvent the biggest health risks.

A binge should never last hours without any movement at all.

Take regular stretch breaks, move around or watch while standing for part of the show.

Ms Tolliver said, after a binge, "walking and jogging are great ways to get moving".

Plan your snacks, she added.

Prepare healthy foods that are binge-acceptable, such as cut vegetables or air-popped popcorn.

Another suggestion: Set your TV to turn off after a specified amount of time, because it can be easy to linger on the couch when you are engrossed in a great show.

Finally, it is 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", Ms Tolliver said.

"Have dialogue after each episode, talk about what you liked and disliked."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 10, 2019, with the headline 'Binge-watching is hazardous to health'. Print Edition | Subscribe