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Binge-watching could actually be bad for you

Binge watching television
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Binge-watching isn't exactly a new phenomenon — television networks have been running program marathons for decades — but its popularity has exploded, and with it hand-wringing about its potential downsides on human health.

A study from Deloitte, released in March, found that 70 percent of U.S. consumers now binge-watch shows, with millennials (aged 14-25) streaming more shows than they watch on traditional TV.

Numbers like those have prompted psychologists to study the activity's effects in recent years. And while it's still early, some experts are already sounding warning bells.

A 2015 University of Texas study, for instance, found that the more lonely and depressed you are, the more likely you are to binge-watch — and that the activity can be tied to a lack of self-control.

"Even though some people argue that binge-watching is a harmless addiction, findings from our study suggest that binge-watching should no longer be viewed this way," said Yoon Hi Sung, one of the authors of the study. "Physical fatigue and problems such as obesity and other health problems are related to binge-watching and they are a cause for concern."

Meanwhile, a 2013 report from Marketcast, an entertainment research firm, indicated binge-watching is an anti-social activity, with most viewers (56 percent) preferring to do it alone.

Classifications like "anti-social," "a cause of obesity" and "depression" might sound familiar to people who have followed the video game world. In the 1990s, as gaming was beginning to become a true force in the entertainment world, it faced similar criticisms. But while psychologists initially demonized the industry, they have since shifted their thinking, noting it, in fact, has many positive social and psychological benefits.

Gaming's not alone. Many hobbies that stimulate the pleasure centers of the brain and require an individual's focus have been subject to early criticism.

"All of these studies are coming at it from the presumption that the way we used to do it is the right way," said Pamela Rutledge, a media psychologist and faculty member at California's Fielding Graduate University. "That's been true of a lot of media research — and a lot of research in general — because we only know what we do."

Because widespread binge-watching is a relatively new phenomenon, there haven't been a large number of studies on it to date — and certainly not a lot of deep ones. Still, comparisons between binge-watching and games, especially new sensations like "Pokemon Go," are valid ones, said Rutledge.

"I do think there are some similarities," she said. "Games are designed to give you much more. They're actively designed to give you a feedback loop. What binge-watching does ... is it gives you the same reward of completing a narrative, of getting an answer."

Put another way, the two hobbies use different methods, but ultimately deliver the same sense of reward.

It's that quest for closure Rutledge mentions that could be the key to binge-watching. Dramatic television programming, which is the most popular type of show among binge-watchers, is designed to leave you wanting more. Whether it's a network TV show or original content from a streaming service, episodes often end with a mini-cliffhanger. On the networks, that's meant to ensure you come back the following week. But when it's presented on a streaming service, it keeps people watching.

While there are certain to be other alarming studies about binge-watching in the coming months and years, it's worth noting that it is a hobby that's rarely a problem for the vast majority of people who take part in it. And there are actually some known social upsides that few studies have explored.

Just as with games, binge-watching can provide a common interest among people. And being fluent in that topic (whether it's what happened in "Stranger Things" or where you can find a Pikachu nearby) gives you social capital.

"It provides a social bridge that allows you to connect to people," said Rutledge. "It allows you to have a conversation with people about something you both know something about. You can establish a greater degree of intimacy without sharing personal details — kind of like meeting at a park and talking about a dog. ... There is some social currency in watching the latest things, especially if there's a rabid fan base around that show."