Is Netflix bad for you? How binge-watching could hurt your health

Is Netflix bad for you
Credit: iStock/USC.

Back in the day, you’d wait a whole week for the next episode of your favorite TV show.

Now we can watch the whole series in one sitting — and many of us do.

With the advent of streaming platforms like Netflix, Amazon and Hulu, binge-watching has become the new normal.

But this new habit of watching hours of back-to-back television could take a toll on us — particularly when it comes to sleep.

“When you’re sleep-deprived, nothing good happens,” said Raj Dasgupta, a physician in the Division of Pulmonary, Critical Care and Sleep Medicine at the Keck School of Medicine of USC.

A study published in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine reported that binge-watching could lead to sleep deprivation. The study looked at 423 young adults, 80 percent of whom called themselves binge-watchers, bingeing an average of 3 hours and 8 minutes daily.

Everyone knows sleep is a necessary human function that helps the mind and body repair: It’s essential in warding off disease and maintaining memory. Adults are advised to get seven to eight hours of sleep — but these days, Dasgupta said, millennials are scraping by with as little as six hours.

When we’re deprived of sleep, lots of stuff can go wrong. For one, anxiety and depression can increase. That makes us prone to mistakes, which can stress us out more, Dasgupta said.

Research shows binge-watchers report higher levels of loneliness and depression. But they do say their binge-watching is sometimes helpful in social interactions, giving them something to talk about with friends and colleagues.

And Netflix knows what they’re fighting, tweeting in April that “Sleep is my greatest enemy.” The streaming platform reports its viewers take in at least two hours a day of their favorite shows.

Technology makes it easy

It’s not surprising we’re glued to the tube. The platforms have adapted to the habit, according to Wendy Wood, Provost Professor of psychology and business at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences.

Once, you had to physically get off the couch to change the channel. Then, Wood said, the remote control came along.

“Netflix has taken this one step further,” she said. “It automatically gives you the next program in a series without you making any decisions at all. You just sit there and the next episode is queued up and it plays.”

With only seconds to decide, Dasgupta joked, “That’s not enough time to even grab the remote.”

It also tricks your brain. Let’s say you’re watching a suspenseful show and the episode ends on a cliffhanger. That excitement is keeping your brain aroused and making it hard to transition to a sleep state. Plus, it’s luring you to watch a bit more.

Netflix reported that horror and thrillers — such as Breaking Bad and The Fall — are binged the quickest, with viewers watching an average of 2.5 hours daily.

Lack of sleep can have significant long-term effects, according to Dave Baron, a psychiatrist at the Keck School of Medicine.

“It affects the brain’s ability to do all the things the brain does,” he said, noting its impact on everything from heart health to cognition, such as planning and decision-making.

What to do about it

To keep from compromising those important hours of shut-eye, Dasgupta recommends setting some limits — such as deciding ahead of time how much TV you’ll watch.

He also suggests turning off the episode before the cliffhanger, maybe during a slow part in the middle.

It’s also recommended to give yourself a consistent bedtime and wakeup time. That gets the body into a rhythm and improves sleep quality, Baron pointed out.

Wood, a Netflix customer herself, notes users can turn the “autoplay” function off. But she added: “Personally, I haven’t turned mine off yet.”

Like any guilty pleasure, she said, “In moderation, it’s great.”