What impact are our TV binge-watching habits having on our health?

25th Jul 17 | Lifestyle

Spending an average of nearly four hours a day sat in front of a screen has a whole range of effects.

Lifestyle

Remember growing up, when your parents would always tell you not to watch too much TV in case your eyes went square? There might not be any chance of your eyes actually changing shape, but it could be said there are plenty of other good reasons for not sitting in front of the box for hours on end.

According to Statista, in 2016, the average UK adult, aged 16-plus, watched 3.86 hours of television per day. And let’s be honest, who hasn’t had a marathon box-set session at some point or other?

But what impact could this be having on our health and wellbeing?

Weight gain and diabetes

(ThinkStock/PA)

Bonny Rockette-Wagner, director of physical activity at Pitt Public Health, is working on research into the effects of sedentary behaviour on physical health. “My work has been primarily in the areas of obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease prevention – all of which have been linked to sedentary behaviours, like binge-watching,” she says.

“In general, there is a lot of evidence now for the effects of sedentary behaviours, like TV watching, on metabolic function.”

Essentially, when you sit down for long periods of time without moving, your metabolism begins to slow down. “Television watching (like other sitting behaviours) has very low energy expenditure, and therefore large amounts of time [spent doing it] could lead to energy imbalance and weight gain,” says Bonny.

It’s well-established that regular physical activity can help prevent a wide range of diseases and conditions, including type 2 diabetes. However, heading to the gym a few times a week doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a good idea to spend the rest of your time welded to the couch. Diabetes UK recommends frequently standing and moving about, and the charity says: “Even a very short break from sitting can be good for your health.”

Bonny also notes some studies suggest that people eat more when they’re sat down to watch television, compared with when doing other sedentary activities, and that being engrossed with whatever series of show they’re watching means they may be less aware of when they are actually full.

Vision

Even though your eyes won’t go square, sitting for hours on end staring at a screen can still impact your vision.

The Vision Gallery says binge-watching can cause eye muscle fatigue, which leads to headaches and might make it harder for you to focus when looking away from the TV.

Your eyes can also become dry, red and irritated because people only tend to blink about half as much when watching TV.

Sleep

Netflix CEO Reed Hastings said in April that the company’s number one competitor is sleep – but it definitely seems like sleep might be losing that particular battle.

Sleep expert Dr Neil Stanley says that current binge-watching habits weren’t possible in the past, and now they’re seriously affecting our sleep.

“Companies like Netflix and Facebook need you to be consuming their media all the time, and therefore the boundaries between sleep and wake are being broken down deliberately,” he says. “In the past, it was difficult to compress your sleep, and you went to bed because there was nothing else to do.”

For Stanley, the root of the problem is FOMO – ‘fear of missing out’. “People are sacrificing their sleep, which is crazy because we know it increases the risk of heart disease, depression, diabetes, obesity, suicidal behaviour, risky behaviour, accidents at work and so on,” he says.

So if you spend a lot of time and effort on exercising and eating healthily, but you don’t get enough sleep, you might be doing yourself a disservice. According to Stanley: “Sleep is the absolute of foundation for physical, mental and emotional health.”

The good news is, if you stop watching the TV approximately 45 minutes to an hour before bed, your sleep shouldn’t be affected – regardless of whether you’ve been watching for half an hour, or have been glued to the screen all day.

Mental wellbeing

Because binge-watching is a relatively new phenomenon, little research has been done into its impact – especially in the longer-term.

For her psychology thesis for Georgia Southern University, Katherine S Wheeler studied the effect of binge-watching on the mental wellbeing of a group of students, and reported the ‘results showed significant positive associations between binge-watching television and attachment anxiety and depression’.

There’s also a sense of a vicious cycle being perpetuated. Wheeler writes: ‘Individuals higher in depression may be more likely to binge-watch television shows out of comfort-seeking.’

Psychiatrist Dr Carole Lieberman, meanwhile, comments: “If a person binge-watches any sort of programme for too long, they go into a kind of trance that separates them from reality. They can become oblivious to other commitments, such as appointments, bills piling up, work or home chores, even self-care.

“Many a binge-watcher spends the whole weekend glued to the tube, in their same clothes, eating junk food – only to have a rude awakening Monday morning when they realise things have gone to pot.”

Lieberman thinks the increasingly popular phenomenon is having an impact on the mental health of our communities, adding: “More and more people are isolating themselves and cocooning in their own home to binge-watch. This is sadly ironic, since one of the main reasons people binge-watch is because they are lonely, and they will never meet anyone if they are holed up with their TV.”

While watching comedies might provide temporary relief and cheer someone up, she warns: “Comedies don’t ‘cure’ loneliness or depression – that’s what socialising and psychotherapy do.”

© Press Association 2017

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