Oh, Netflix. What have you done to us?
It’s unfair, of course, to give all the blame (some network execs would say credit) to Netflix for turning us into a nation that’s gone from looking forward to a Thursday night show to one that binge-watches an entire six-season series in a weekend.
But the exploding popularity of the company’s on-demand streaming of movies and TV shows, now the largest source of evening Internet traffic in the U.S., has made it the biggest target. The company’s original DVD-by-mail service, still operating but a shadow of its former self, is feeling decidedly antiquated by comparison.
Netflix has changed the way we watch TV, for better and for worse. To me, it parallels rather eerily the progression of a bag of McDonald’s fries over the years – from tiny paper sack to supersized bucket. With Netflix, we’ve gone from waiting by the mailbox for “The Lake House” to watching four Sandra Bullock movies in one sitting.
As someone who specializes in helping those with addictions and behavioral health problems, I wonder where it’s leading us. Our nation seems to have a dose of obsessive in its personality. Once we get a taste of something, we want more and we want it NOW.
The Trouble With Too Much Access
So what’s the problem? Those fries are good, after all. And so is “House of Cards.”
It’s the old everything-in-moderation mantra. They are, truly, words to live by. They keep us balanced, and they leave some room in our lives for other things.
And that’s really the issue. It’s not just that we are watching TV in greater gulps than ever – a Nielsen survey found that 88 percent of Netflix viewers admit to binge-watching – it’s what we’re not doing while we’re watching – socializing, studying, moving.
Researchers have long known that excessive viewing is bad for our physical and mental health. Consider just a few statistics:
- The risk of early death may double for adults who watch TV for three or more hours a day, compared to those who watch less.
- Excessive TV watching is linked to obesity.
- Children and teens who watch a lot of television are more likely to display antisocial and criminal behavior as young adults.
I’m not in the camp that suggests the only good TV is an unplugged TV. Our screens – whether TV, computer, laptop or phone – can help bring us together, keep us informed and, yes, entertain us. Nothing wrong with any of those. But we need to be aware that if we keep triggering those reward centers, our bodies will only crave more. For some, TV becomes a problem. If you’re starting to think you may be one of those, ask yourself how many of these statements apply to you:
- You tell yourself you’ll stop watching right after this episode, but don’t.
- You skip social events to watch.
- Nothing less than a marathon seems to satisfy anymore.
- You’re embarrassed by how much you watch and hide it from others.
- You set aside other responsibilities or interests to watch.
- Others are concerned about how much you watch.
- You continue to watch despite negative consequences to your health, career or relationships.
If all or most of these hit home, it’s time to take action. As video games have shown us, technology can be addictive.
If your viewing has not yet reached problem status, but you wouldn’t mind some suggestions on minimizing your Netflix time, consider these tips:
- Be aware of the techniques Netflix uses to keep you watching, such as automatic queuing of episodes. The company leaves less than 15 seconds before the next show in the series plays, knowing that that’s less time than most people need to make a decision about whether to continue watching.
- Create a viewing schedule and stick to it.
- Remember that Netflix’s viewing suggestions are just that, suggestions – not a to-do list that you must work your way through.
- Watch with someone. It’s more fun, you can also socialize, and it’s less likely you’ll overdo.
- Make other leisure plans besides TV viewing. Don’t just watch other people having fun; create some of your own. Throw a party, plan a trip, go for a hike, take an acting class.
- Don’t turn on the TV unless planning to sit and watch at that moment. For most people, TV quickly becomes hypnotic. If you’ve ever found yourself watching an infomercial or a bass fishing show just because it was on, you know what I mean.
No Changing the Channel
One thing is certain: There’s no turning back from the Netflix model, and who wants to? There are obvious pluses to Netflix’s no-commercial format, a huge one being that none of us, but especially the young, is exposed to commercials that play such a part in triggering a desire for unhealthy eating.
What we do need are reminders that TV, no matter how good, can become a problem if allowed to monopolize our lives – just like anything else.
And it’s not up to Netflix to do that for us. The company is a business, a wildly successful business (its subscriber base just passed 50 million), that will do what it can to increase market share. When logging in to Netflix, we have to tap into the same self-control we use when passing a McDonald’s drive-through. Six episodes of “Breaking Bad” may be delicious, but how are we going to feel after consuming them?
Dr. David Sack is board certified in psychiatry, addiction psychiatry and addiction medicine. As CEO of Elements Behavioral Health, he oversees mental health treatment programs at Lucida Treatment Center in Florida and Malibu Vista in California.