If you're someone who prefers waiting until a TV show has released all its episodes of the season to watch it all in one go (instead of keeping up and being in suspense week after week), there's arguably never been a better time for you to be watching TV. Thanks to Netflix, Amazon Prime, and Hulu, we're never short on things to binge-watch, and you'd probably be hard-pressed to find someone who's never binged on a show. A survey from 2017 found that 73% of Americans say they've gone through multiple TV episodes in one sitting (with binge-watching being most popular amongst millennials and Gen-Z).
"When you’re binge-watching a show, the areas of the brain that light up when you’re watching are the same areas that light up when you’re using an addictive supplement," says Gayani DeSilva, MD, a psychiatrist at Laguna Family Health Center. "It’s a dopamine mediated pleasure activity — all this dopamine gets released in your reward system and it generates a feeling of euphoria or pleasure and that’s why it becomes so enticing."
You might not be addicted to TV on a clinical level, but when you're on your fourth episode of 13 Reasons Why for the night, your brain is telling you that it feels good, and that you should keep doing it. Before you know it, it's 3 a.m. and Netflix is asking you for the fourth time if you're still watching.
All this dopamine gets released in your reward system and it generates a feeling of euphoria or pleasure and that’s why it becomes so enticing.
Gayani DeSilva, MD
"Anytime you [binge-watch], that releases a lot of dopamine and during that time, your brain begins to prefer seeking that activity over something more subtle," Dr. DeSilva says.
Plus, some shows might just be more binge-able to you than others, whether because you relate to it, you get sucked into the fantasy of it, or the show exposes you to a world that's different from your own. Or you just might prefer binging a show that you can enjoy and not thinking too hard to figure out timelines and put together the puzzle pieces in the plot.
For the most part, Dr. DeSilva says binge-watching is a great way to relax and de-stress, unless you're of a certain age. Because your brain does a lot of developing between the ages of 13 and 23, she says, your rewards system (which is activated when you're binge-watching) might have trouble developing if you're binge-watching a lot at an early age.
"For adults, it's okay, but if you’re using [binge-watching] to avoid a lot of serious reality, then of course that can be harmful because it becomes more like an addictive or dependent behavior that you need to pay attention to," she says.
If you notice that binge-watching is affecting your mood and making you sadder or more withdrawn, or that you're using it to avoid reality to an extent that's unhealthy, that's when it might be a problem.
"Be aware that you are escaping reality for a while, so go back to it," Dr. DeSilva says. "Limit the time that you’re binge-watching, make sure you’re getting enough sleep and tending to basic needs like food and exercise."
Other than that, though, it can be totally healthy to avoid our current reality and escape into TV for just a little while.