Eager to unwind after work and catch up on her latest TV show, Rachel plops down on the couch and opens her Amazon Prime app on her tablet. Suddenly her cell phone rings, jerking her back to the present. Fumbling to find the phone beneath the cushions, Rachel realizes time got away from her again and she just watched four episodes back to back. “What a jerk! I lost track of time again... But what else is there to do since I can’t hang out with my friends these days?” Feeling lonely yet annoyed at herself, Rachel goes about her evening, winding up watching two more episodes before finally falling asleep.
“Most of us know how easy it is to get sucked into watching TV.”
Have you ever found yourself so entrenched in screen activity that you don’t realize what you’re doing until sometime later? 2020 has been a tough year in the screen time department for many of us! Let's examine binge-watching TV and mental health in light of recent circumstances which have altered our usual behaviors. For the sake of definition, the term “TV” used in this article includes watching traditional television, videos, or movies on programming, DVDs, or streaming.
Americans love to watch TV. In fact, it’s American’s, Australian’s, and Western European’s choice leisure activity. Eighty percent of Americans watch TV on any given day, according to the 2018 American Time Use Survey. [i] Generally speaking, Americans age 15 and older spend over 2 hours and 45 minutes watching TV per day. In fact, the survey found that the older people are, the more TV they watch. Those who are unemployed watch even more.
By the end of April, consumption of traditional TV increased by an additional 8.3 million US viewers since COVID-19 lockdowns hit in March. [ii] In Austria and Spain, TV and video streaming increased by over 40 percent in mid-March alone. [iii] Why are we flocking to entertainment TV? Perhaps the question you would ask instead is, “What else is there to do besides watch TV when you’re mandated or strongly encouraged to stay home?”
What can cause us to flock to the television set or computer screen, especially in light of changes in 2020? Disrupted routines due to COVID-19 have negatively impacted individuals in multiple ways, therapist Krystin Henley explains.
When stress levels increase, so does the desire for an escape. Escape can come in many different forms: food, entertainment, self-seeking pleasure, anything numbing to the mind or the ability to get a dopamine hit from the pleasure center in your brain. Thus, it's no surprise to see a striking increase in binge-watching TV as well as an increase of chronic social media use. [iv]
Most of us know how easy it is to get sucked into watching TV. We may even be aware how quickly watching entertainment can result in both binging behavior and addiction as we seek to escape stress, seek entertainment (pleasure), derive social interaction, or find relaxation.
Let’s define binge-watching TV and briefly discuss TV addiction. Binge-watching is seeing multiple episodes of the same TV series in a row. Among those who watch TV, many admit that their TV habits are problematic and possibly have an addictive nature. But the same people adamantly argue that they are not “genuine addicts.” [v] However, when you are no longer able to control how much time you spend watching TV and crave the satisfaction of viewing TV, addiction is imminent and can result in negative life consequences.
Ten percent of Americans admit to being addicted to TV, although this number is on the rise. [vi] This addiction can lead to generalized apathy, neglecting responsibilities, negativism, fantasy, reduced engagement in hobbies, ignoring job or family duties, and more. [vi] But even if you know about your behavior, you may still continue it despite persistent or reoccurring physical or psychological problems! Binge-watching TV shows and TV addiction can result in numerous other negative consequences including anxiety, depression, insomnia, poor quality sleep, fatigue, loneliness, lack of self-control, and mood disturbances. [vii]
Let’s say you’re ready to manage your binging habits (TV show, movies, Instagram, etc.), how do you address your core thoughts – your self-talk? It can be easy to have the “it’s already too late, I may as well just continue” mentality after we realize we’ve been sucked into the black hole of time spent engrossed with our screens. This mentality is actually the common cognitive distortion called All-or-Nothing Thinking. This distortion implies you need to do it all or do nothing at all. So, those who are trying to limit their screen time and who have had a setback might then say, "Well I already messed up so I might as well just spend the next half hour scrolling." For others, they might have some entitlement to the escape and tell themselves, "I've worked so hard and I'm so stressed. I deserve this!" [iv]
Others, like Rachel, may have self-talk associated with the distortion Labeling/Mislabeling. Because Rachel recognized that her TV show used a significant portion of her evening, she called herself a jerk and went about her evening feeling like a failure. Thoughts and feelings of guilt can cause us to label ourselves negatively, which can easily feed into the negative mental health ramifications of binging TV. (You can learn more about cognitive distortions in our article Don't Believe Everything You Think.)
Whenever you find yourself engaged in some sort of unwanted activity, it's time to check your thoughts. Addressing your silent self-talk is one step toward breaking the addictive cycle of binging on TV. You can ask yourself the following questions:
“When we replace one pattern with another, we are far more likely to make a change than when we are asked to simply give something up.”
Engaging in activities that are frontal lobe-enhancing is far healthier for you in the long run. Embracing this concept is imperative for you to work on breaking your TV viewing habits. As you work to break the addictive cycle of TV, it’s helpful to find practical, healthier patterns to replace the ingrained habit with. When we replace one pattern with another, we are far more likely to make a change than when we are asked to simply give something up.
There may be times when you feel the desperate need to “escape.” In these times, it may be helpful to listen to relaxing music, a podcast, or an audiobook since these tend to be activities that stimulate the frontal lobe rather than suppress it. If you find yourself in front of your screen because you’re stressed then it’s time to find other stress coping skills, such as journaling, taking your dog on a walk, or birding. Check out our article 14 Ways to Reduce Stress for more ideas. Reading a book, spending time outside, going on a walk or hike, practicing deep breathing, or getting out in the garden are also good activities to replace watching TV. You can also play a board game, take up a new hobby or resume a hobby laid by the wayside, like a language, instrument, painting, birding, biking, baking, singing, coloring, etc. If you are binge-watching because you are feeling lonely, try calling a friend, scheduling a social event, or even buy a goldfish and watch it swim around a bit (this is actually really relaxing!). [iv]
As you challenge the reasons you resort to watching TV and begin replacing this habit with healthy ways to “escape” and also properly process what’s happening in your life, you’ll begin combating the negatives that result from binge-watching TV. Would you like to sleep better, take pleasure in day-to-day living, resume hobbies, have more meaningful time with loved ones, and begin combating your depression and anxiety? Replacing binge-watching TV with some of the healthy behaviors laid out in this article can help you begin taking control of your life. Cutting out entertainment TV for at least twenty weeks can provide your body and brain with the opportunity to engage in peak mental performance activities, setting you up for all manner of success relationally, academically, professionally, and personally.
So next time you find yourself into episode three of your latest TV show, remember that it’s not too late to shut it down and go outside for a short walk. If you need to find an accountability partner and put time constraints on your devices, do that right now! You have the ability to control yourself and change your behaviors. The reward of having more time, experiencing less stress and irritability, sleeping better, and being the master of your schedule is well worth the efforts to break up with binge-watching TV.
Enroll in the educational course Optimize Your Brain ONLINE to learn more about why it’s best for the body and brain to limit entertainment TV. This course also gives strategies to combat unhealthy thinking patterns, tips for eating for maximum health, and tools for improving emotional intelligence.
Please contact us first before publishing this or other Let’s Talk Mental Health articles.
[i] Rachel Krantz-Kent, “Television, capturing America's attention at prime time and beyond,” Beyond the Numbers: Special Studies & Research, vol. 7, no. 14 (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2018), https://www.bls.gov/opub/btn/volume-7/television-capturing-americas-attention.htm
[ii] Fitzgerald, T. (2020). For The First Time In Almost 10 Years, Time Watching TV Is Up. Retrieved July 28, 2020.
[iii] Watson, A. (2020). Coronavirus impact on video streaming consumption worldwide 2020. Retrieved July 28, 2020.
[iv] Henley, K. (2020, June). Phone interview. Learn more at https://www.nurturingcharacters.com/
[v] Flayelle, M., Maurage, P., & Billieux, J. (2017). Toward a qualitative understanding of binge-watching behaviors: A focus group approach. Journal of behavioral addictions, 6(4), 457–471. https://doi.org/10.1556/2006.6.2017.060
[vi] Sussman, S., & Moran, M. B. (2013). Hidden addiction: Television. Journal of behavioral addictions, 2(3), 125–132. https://doi.org/10.1556/jba.2.2013.008
[vii] Umesh, S., & Bose, S. (2019). Binge-Watching: A Matter of Concern?. Indian journal of psychological medicine, 41(2), 182–184. https://doi.org/10.4103/IJPSYM.IJPSYM_279_18