Binge Watching: Just as Addictive as Drugs?

by Camille Bautista

It could happen to anyone. Maybe it's your roommate, or your grandma —but let's face it, it's probably you. First it's just a one-time thing. Gradually, you start noticing it every other weekend, then almost every night. A little New Girl here, some Downton Abbey there. And sure, you have a few hours to squeeze in some Game of Thrones. Five days of your life you'll never get back later, you finally admit it: you've got a binge TV watching problem.

I started watching Breaking Bad when its fifth season had just begun on AMC. I heard the hype, and I needed to know what it was for myself. So I did what any reasonable 20-something would do: I spent a whole day under the covers watching the show's entire first season. I barely left my bed for a meal and only pulled away from Walt and Jesse for bathroom breaks. It was infinitely better to spend time with crazy Tuco than to go outside in the polar vortex.

Then it became a problem. My friends wanted to hang out but I had prior engagements — that weekend I was going to find out if Walt still had cancer. When my boyfriend asked what I wanted to do that day, I knew I wanted Jesse and his crew to be part of our date.

Yes, binge watching is a real problem, and even Netflix knows it — even though they are our main enablers. Netflix recently announced it will let its viewers disable "Post-Play," the site's feature that automatically plays the next episode of whatever you're watching. The company posted a step-by step guide to turn off automatic playback, and even launched a new campaign showing how you can turn your addiction into a healthy fitness motivator.

Yes, binge TV watching appears to be the new normal. A 2013 survey conducted by Harris Interactive on behalf of the streaming site found 61 percent of adult viewers binge watch on a regular basis. No shame in your couch potato game, they say, since nearly three-quarters (73 percent) of respondents have positive feelings towards these TV marathons.

It's become an inherent part of our instant-gratification generation: anything is accessible with a click. Why wait for the next episode of House of Cards when the entire season is available? Some label it as a good thing, giving more power to the viewers. Cultural anthropologist Grant McCracken says the phenomenon can be an escapist path from a world of six-second Vines and 140 characters.

"But this TV watcher is different, the couch potato has awoken. And now that services like Netflix have given consumers control over their TV viewing, they have declared a new way to watch."

While Netflix representatives say binge watching can be a bonding experience, critics highlight the habit's potential harmful effects. While I'm watching Heisenberg fuel the meth world, I'm actually developing my own addiction, according to Robert Kubey and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. The two co-authored the article "Television Addiction is No Mere Metaphor" in Scientific American. The two downer researchers liken binge TV watching to substance abuse, detailing the real, problematic issues that come with marathon viewing.

"It’s like some people like to drink with their drinking buddies, smoke with their smoking buddies or shoot up with their heroin buddies," Kubey, professor of journalism and media studies at Rutgers University, told the Washington Post. "You have this common experience now."

Csikszentmihalyi, a psychology professor at Claremont University in California, explains that people don't consider the harm that comes with a habit that feels so good.

"Yeah, well, we tend to forget that although we develop technology to make our lives easier and more comfortable, it has side effects that must be dealt with or things get out of control,” Csikszentmihalyi says.

That begs the question: Am I the Walter White of binge watching, totally unaware and out of control in my obsession?

Perhaps it's not so drastic. It's not like we've had cases of people quitting their jobs after missing a couple of days at the office on a Walking Dead binge. (That we know of.) After all, according to Netflix, you can burn 11,130 calories on a treadmill while watching the bulk of the Arrested Development series. Everything in moderation.

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