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It’s Good for Your Mental Health to Binge-Watch TV

Kind of

A professor of communications studies has done us all a huge solid and found three reasons to make us feel okay about staring listlessly at our televisions, plowing through episode after episode of Black Mirror while neglecting our friends, partners and pets. Turns out binge-watching is actually good for you, or at least it’s possible to find arguments that make it sound good, which is basically the same thing, amirite?

Now that new seasons of House of Cards and Master of None are about to drop into the May Netflix lineup for spring, Elizabeth Cohen, assistant professor of communication at West Virginia University, takes the opportunity over at The Conversation to look at just how bad binge-watching really is and whether TV’s longstanding reputation as junk food is still deserved.

Whether or not it’s deserved, it’s still the prevailing attitude. To confirm this, Cohen and her colleagues solicited thoughts for a survey on the different attitudes between people who watch several hours of television in one sitting compared with people who spend hours whiling away the time reading novels. Respondents still think of TV watchers as lazy and impulsive, even though, Cohen notes, reading novels “can arguably be just as sedentary and addictive as watching TV.” Even the word binge connotes addiction, she continues. Compare this with the term “marathon watching,” which for some reason, we grant the act of binge-watching movies, as if their prestige as an art form justifies it as an elevated use of one’s time. That might have been true before television found its stride as a reliable source of complex characters and plots, but now that we’re in the golden age, just like The Jeffersons, we’ve collectively moved on up.

First, Cohen argues, this means that TV watchers (of “good” shows) are more “cognitively sophisticated” from following elegant plots and dozens of characters over hours of programming time. Second, doing so puts them in a flow experience. Cohen writes:

Flow is an intrinsically pleasurable feeling of being completely immersed in a show’s storyline. In a flow state of mind, viewers intently focus on following the story and it’s easier for them to lose awareness of other things, including time, while they’re wrapped up in viewing. One study found that viewers will continue viewing additional episodes in order to maintain this positive flow state, so there is an addictive quality to binge viewing. Interruptions like advertising can break the continuous viewing cycle by disrupting the flow state and drawing viewers out of the story. Luckily, for TV bingers, Netflix and Hulu are ad-free.

Third, a study found that watching a lot of TV after a stressful day helps viewers decompress and recharge. At least, if viewers believed it did. If they viewed TV as intrinsically time-wasting and lazy, they felt guilty instead of reinvigorated.

All this is to say that if you decide your next binge sesh is going to smarten you up, put you in a positive mental state and recharge your batteries, then it will. And even if you don’t, it’s not like you were going to stop anyway. As you were.