“Are you still watching?”
You decide to watch an episode (or two) of your new favorite show…soon, you don’t know where your entire day went. Streaming services like Netflix, Hulu, HBO Go and others are designed to keep your attention for hours.
If binge-watching is your thing, you aren’t alone. More than one third of adults identify as binge-watchers, according to a survey conducted by the University of Toledo.
But could binge-watching signal depression? It’s possible according to several recent studies.
A survey of 2,000 people aged 18-24 conducted by Patient.info found those who binge-watched streaming services were:
- Five times more likely to feel lonely
- Three times more likely to feel depressed
- Twice as likely to feel anxious, sleepless and empty
These findings are echoed in a study in Preventive Medicine, which found the likelihood of depression diagnosis in young adulthood to be nearly five times higher for adolescents who watched TV for more than three hours a day on average.
It’s not just television-watching either. A study in Preventative Science Reports found elevated depression levels when people spent more time on computers and watching TV. In fact, those who spent more than four hours each day staring at a screen were about twice as likely to have depression.
Psychological Impacts of Binge Watching
It may seem strange that an activity often used to relieve stress is so closely tied to depression. Yet there’s a biological explanation.
“When engaged in an activity that’s enjoyable such as binge watching, your brain produces dopamine. This chemical gives the body a natural, internal reward of pleasure that reinforces continued engagement in that activity,” said Dr. Renee Carr, Psy.D. in an NBC Better article. “You experience a pseudo-addiction to the show because you develop cravings for dopamine.”
A short-term increase in dopamine can be a good thing when watching TV; it’s excessive and solo binge-watching that can trigger depression.
“When we disconnect from humans and over-connect to TV at the cost of human connection, eventually we will ‘starve to death’ emotionally,” says Dr. Judy Rosenberg, psychologist.
That leads to the social reason for binge-watching: talking about entertainment is a way to establish social connections with others. It also shapes social expectations in the real-world. People are drawn to fictional characters and real people on screen to make social comparisons, says researchers in an article published in BMC Public Health. And, when people feel inferior to people on screen, higher levels of depression may be observed.
Then, when the season ends, people can experience situational depression. This condition is triggered by feelings of loss related to emotional connections with characters on screen. And, if watching alone, people can experience sadness after a binge because the “relationship” with the characters has ended. These feelings can be worse when there is not a real-life relationship to fill the gap.
Signs you have situational depression can include trouble sleeping, withdrawal from activities and relationships previously enjoyed, and changes in appetite, according to NAMI. Major depression presents similarly, but with symptoms that last longer, are more severe, and impact daily functioning. Behavioral changes experienced for more than two weeks could indicate major depression.
Mental Health Tips for Media Consumption
There are many ways to protect yourself from mentally and emotionally ‘starving’ from binge watching.
An article in Psychology Today says to watch with others, avoid binging in darkness, and set viewing time limits. These tips can encourage you to have control over TV viewing habits – preventing you from focusing too much on TV or falling into multi-episode binges.
While it’s okay to enjoy a TV series for multiple episodes at one time, moderation is the best way to relax while remaining mentally refreshed.
If you spend more than three hours a day watching television and think you are experiencing depression, talk to your doctor about your symptoms. Similarly, if your media habits are replacing regular exercise or personal interaction, you should also seek professional help. You can also read more about mentally beneficial lifestyle changes on our blog at https://genesight.com/blog/patient/feeling-depressed-5-tips-for-lifestyle-changes/.