Binge-watchers, beware! – Harshikaa Udasi

Mallika Agnihotri never used to have time for TV. In fact, she mocked her family members when they obsessively watched Hindi tele-serials.

That, of course, was until she migrated to South Africa for an office assignment. Structured work hours, next-to-zilch travel and an empty apartment only meant that she had plenty of time on her hands. When boredom go to her, she turned on the TV.

“I am not sure how but I got addicted. There were days when I watched about 14 hours of television straight, taking a break only to whip up a light meal or order something. On weekends, I invited a colleague over and we watched TV together. We wouldn’t discuss the shows or pass comments. That’s the fun of it. Binge-watching can be a great activity for couples as it eliminates the burden of making small talk,” says Mallika, who binge-watched House Of Cards and Breaking Bad.

It’s not all fun

Sounds like fun, doesn’t it – hours of uninterrupted entertainment? Turns out, it is anything but that. When you have listicles on the internet pouring advice on the Dos and Don’ts of Binge-Watching and How to Get Over Post Binge-Watching Depression, you know there is trouble brewing.

Keyur Vyas, a UX consultant, Reiki master and hypnotist, says he was simultaneously addicted to watching Crime Patrol and Two And A Half Men. “Till about three months ago, I spent six hours watching each of the two shows. I find television a good escape from reality. I need the noise, especially when I am home alone, to escape the boredom. Besides, it helps me stay awake in the drowsy afternoons,” he says.

It seems Keyur is not alone. Mallika too confesses that overdosing on the shows was a natural solution to beat loneliness. “When I was away from family and friends in another country, I felt quite miserable. Not all weekends were spent travelling and exploring the new place; there were times when I had nothing to do, no one to speak to. Binge-watching was like any other addiction, an attempt to keep myself occupied and escape from reality,” she explains.

This lasted almost three years and continued even after she had wrapped up her assignment abroad and returned to Mumbai. “It is not easy to get out of. You want to know what happens next if you haven’t completed the entire series. And once you’re done, you go looking for something new,” Mallika shares.

Blasted cliffhangers

Trust that mini-cliffhanger to make you want more. While most shows strategically end episodes and seasons with a suspense to ensure that viewers come back to watch it the next day or week or year, streaming the shows on the internet is what is keeping people hooked to watching them for extremely long hours.

Getting the next fix is now easier with most TV channels regularly scheduling marathon reruns of popular shows. Platforms like Netflix help the millenials access shows that aren’t available on the traditional ‘idiot box’.

Experts are warning the world about the pitfalls of this habit. Australia-based Indian clinical psychologist Trinette Cordeiro blames platforms like Netflix that have given people unlimited access to such material. “It has to do with the ease of getting to watch several episodes at one go. The need to delve further into “what’s happening” or the inquisitive mind further explains this,” she says.

Social validation

Trinette also believes binge-watching seems to give people a false sense of ‘social currency’. “People find that watching certain shows makes them more socially acceptable in their friends’ circle. For instance, if you know everything about Game of Thrones, you have social supremacy over someone who probably knows less or nothing at all. Being able to discuss these matters makes them feel like they are doing the right thing,” she explains.

While you maybe scoring brownie points on the social meter, what’s happening in your immediate circle could be a different story altogether.

“Binge-watching can be harmful as people tend to retreat into their own fantasy world and use this as an escape mechanism. They may ignore other, more pressing problems and will generally put off more important things such as relationship issues or work problems,” adds Trinette.

It kills your brain

Apart from social and psychological issues, binge-watching is beginning to have implications on health too, and it’s more than just physical fatigue or obesity.

“A more sedentary lifestyle brings along with it numerous complications including cardiovascular diseases, PCOD and, of course, insomnia,” says Mumbai-based psychologist and counsellor Merle Coutinho. But the brain is the worst-affected, she adds.

“The input we provide to our brains affects its health. Any media is one-sided, especially television. Since the person is on the receiving mode, there is little thinking or comprehension of data involved,” Merle says.

She refutes the argument of those who consider binge-watching a rather harmless addiction and point out that similar concerns were voiced about the video games in their nascent stage. “That’s not true. Studies have revealed that during the activity, there is a total shutdown of the left side of the brain. The higher brain or the cerebrum –which is associated with higher brain functions such as thought and action –shuts down, while the lower brain or the limbic system is more active. The cognitive abilities of rational thinking and analysing reduce.”

The endorphin high

“Additionally, there is a release of endorphins that gives pleasure to the person who slowly wants more and more of this, which then becomes a biologically compelled habit and then an addiction. Since the limbic system is more active, the person is constantly in a flight or fight response and is always on the edge. This anxiety then takes over his or her entire system,” Merle elaborates.

Ask the binge-watchers about this and most nod in agreement. Mallika says, “When I had company, I would always get out. Binge-watching certainly has its repercussions.”

That should sound like a word of caution to you if you think the side-effects are too far-fetched. While you are stocking up on the digital weekend marathon of Jessica Jones or Game of Thrones, check yourself in time.

On the other hand, a little bit of fun never harmed anyone, says Jennifer Rosario, a mother-of-two who is addicted as ever to Desperate Housewives. TV shows are a good break from the hyperactivity of motherhood, she feels.

“I remember watching this one show over the weekend – six episodes back-to-back. I like the suspense maintained in English TV shows. Also, I can watch Desperate Housewives all over again, all the seasons. In fact, any number of times!”

It’s no wonder that Collins Dictionary declared ‘binge-watch’ the word of the year in 2015