Discover more from Story Voyager
I quit watching Netflix and started writing on Substack
Why I gave up my pandemic TV addiction
One evening, about three weeks ago, I got home from work shortly before 7 pm and was starving! So I took my laptop, placed it on the cooking counter, turned on Netflix and started cooking 🍳.
That’s all I remember from that evening.
I don’t know what I cooked; I don’t know when my husband came home; I don’t even remember eating. All I remember is that I started watching a Netflix series at 7 pm and didn’t stop until 3 am.
I binge-watched for 8 hours straight.
The next day I had to work 😵.
The binge-watching dilemma.
Even though I grew up reading books, I always loved watching films and series.
Growing up in a communist country, I had little access to TV entertainment. Communism didn’t buy into the idea of TV, and there was only so much news to broadcast about the dictator.
After the revolution, the daily TV diet extended from 2 to 12h, and I remember watching my first anime series as a child, Sandybell, with a sense of wonder.
But my first truly immersive experience with TV was when I turned 12, and we were the first family in our apartment building to get cable TV.
This is when I binge-watched TV for the first time in my life.
I also learned Italian after watching anime and films on two Italian channels without subtitles for about 1.5 years.
Who said that watching too much TV will rot your brain?
Fast-forward 20-something (going towards 30) years later, add a pandemic, a lockdown and access to Netflix to the mix, and you prepared the propitious land for a professional TV binge-watcher to flourish.
When I was 12, I might’ve learned a language after 1.5 years of watching too much TV. But after almost 2.5 years of watching Netflix as an adult, I came out with nothing but wasted time. And a couple of mental issues.
Why I decided to do a 100-day TV detox.
Following my 8-hour after-work Netflix marathon, I knew something had to change. I had already noticed that binge-watching series was not good for my mental health and that I had no control over my behavior.
Once I started a series, I could not stop.
According to Netflix, the definition of ‘binge’ is watching at least one season of a show within seven days of starting. On average, a Netflix user watches a show’s entire season in 3 days.
I had completed one season in one day. And I needed to take a break.
The first thing I did was to asses the ‘damage’, so I calculated how many series I had watched since the pandemic started.
My pandemic TV binge-watching in numbers.
Time frame: 16.03.2020 - 14.09.2022
Total series watched: 56 (some more than once)
Total episodes watched: 2,841
Total watching time: 1,755.5h
Average daily watching time: ~2h
In conclusion, I’ve watched an average of two hours of series per day for 880 days. Based on statistics, the average time spent watching TV among US viewers aged 15+ was 2.86h in 2021. If I also add the films I watched during the pandemic, I would probably reach around the same watching time.
Watching TV two hours per day might not seem much at first glance, but that depends on the perspective. If I reduce the time scale, it translates to watching TV for eight hours every single day for 219 days straight.
Almost a year of my life watching TV full time. Where would I be if I wrote eight hours every day for 219 days? If I wrote 100 words per hour during this time, I would have a total of 175,550 words, equivalent to two novels.
In comparison, my reading wasn’t as prolific during this pandemic.
My pandemic book reading in numbers.
Time frame: 16.03.2020 - 14.09.2022
Number of books read: 25
Total number of pages: 11,747
Daily pages: 13
Total reading time: 294h (reading speed → 40 pages per hour)
Average daily reading time: ~30 minutes
There we have it! I watched series for an average of two hours every day during the pandemic and read books only for 30 minutes every day.
My pandemic TV binge-watching in CO2 emissions.
Next, I was curious about the greenhouse emissions associated with my streaming, and I found an online service that calculates that.
Because I live in Austria, where the electricity production is almost 100% green, the greenhouse emissions associated with my streaming activity are not that bad. However, the emissions are much higher in countries where electricity is produced with fossil fuels.
Still, streaming Netflix is not as bad for the environment as other human activities, such as shopping for fashion. For example, did you know that it takes 25 bathtubs of water to grow cotton for making a single t-shirt?
Watching too much TV rots your brain.
One of the main reasons I started a 100-day TV detox was the subjective perception that binge-watching had a negative impact on my mental health. As a result, I felt anxious, socially isolated, and unable to control myself despite my best intentions.
I started to read about the effects of watching too much TV on the human brain and was stunned. Most of the articles you will find online on this topic are based on the findings of two scientific studies.
A study published in 2013 by Tohoku University in Japan led by neuroscientist Hikaru Takeuchi
A study by criminologists Joseph Schwarz of the University of Nebraska Omaha and Kevin Beaver of Florida State University
One of the most interesting findings was that watching too much TV changes the structure of our brains. The main change is an increase in rGMV—regional grey matter volume—in some brain regions that negatively impacts our intellectual capabilities and physical and mental health.
A further study about the effect of screen-based sedentary activities and the incidence of coronary heart disease concludes that 11% of coronary heart diseases could be adverted if we reduced our TV viewing times from two hours per day to one hour or less per day.
Another consequence of the sedentary nature of watching TV is that it increases the odds of developing type 2 diabetes. For every two hours of TV viewing in one’s youth, the odds increase by 20%.
The correlation between genetics, a predisposition to watch too much TV as a child and criminal behavior was astounding. Unsurprisingly, this particular scientific finding needs to be validated by further studies.
I went down the rabbit hole a bit and did a little research on all the brain areas affected by watching TV and what that means for our health and wellbeing.
What follows is an overview of the brain structural changes caused by watching too much TV. I will hit you with some specialized terminology but don’t worry. I know next to nothing about the human brain and have already translated everything for myself in baby language.
Watching TV makes our hypothalamus and septum bulkier.
The hypothalamus is the smart control of our body that connects our hormones (endocrine system) with our emotions (nervous system) and regulates our bodily functions such as heart rate, bodily temperature, sleep, mood, and muscle and bone growth.
The septum is composed of the thin transparent membrane (septum pellucidum) made of white matter that divides the brain’s two hemispheres, and the true septum (septum verum) that is made of nuclei and grey matter. The septum is involved in our behavioral and emotional responses (limbic system), especially those behaviors and emotions necessary for survival.
Previous studies have shown that both the hypothalamus and the septum areas are structurally or functionally involved in aggression. Additionally, there is a correlation between the structure of the hypothalamus and mood disorders. For example, a bulkier hypothalamus is characteristic of people with borderline personality and increased aggressiveness. The septum is involved in social behavior and the expression of fear, and abnormalities in this area are linked to disorders ranging from depression to schizophrenia.
As mentioned, watching TV makes the hypothalamus and septum bulkier by increasing the regional grey matter in these areas. Depending on the duration of TV viewing, the content watched, the genetic predispositions and lifestyle of the person, watching too much TV might:
Increase aggression → for every hour of TV watched in childhood, the odds of being convicted of a crime increase by 27%
Aggravate depressive mood → for every hour of TV watched in childhood, the odds of developing depression increase by 8%
Increase feelings of isolation → especially in people that are 65+
Increase feelings of loneliness, anxiety and emptiness
Increase likeliness of developing attention difficulties (ADHD) → 3+ hours of TV double the chances of developing ADHD in youths
Create addiction → binge-watching addiction is likened to drug or alcohol addiction
The septum might be involved in the brain’s reward system that stimulates the production of dopamine neurons in response to rewarding stimuli.
“When you binge-watch your favorite show, your brain continually produces dopamine, and your body experiences a drug-like high. The neuronal pathways that cause heroin and sex addictions are the same as an addiction to binge-watching.”
(Dr. Renee Carr, clinical psychologist)
Watching TV makes your sensorimotor area bulkier.
The sensorimotor area in our brain is involved in motor functioning. It is unclear why watching too much TV increases the regional grey matter in this area, nor are there any studies on the health effects of this particular brain structural change.
When I started reading about the brain’s sensorimotor area, I found an interesting study about the role of this brain area in the human mirror neuron system (MNS).
The MNS is a partially innate and partially learned and developed mechanism that helps us understand and imitate (mirror) the actions and behaviors of others. When we observe the behaviors of others, we don’t analyze only the outcomes but also try to understand the mental states and goals that generated them.
At the end of the mirroring process, the human brain creates a brain simulation of the observed actions and behaviors in the sensorimotor cortex. Of course, I am just speculating here, but does this mean we make a sensorimotor simulation of everything we watch on TV?
When I, for example, watch Vikings, do I create a brain simulation of slaying someone in battle?
And how does this influence children who watch violent content and don’t have an adult’s filter to differentiate between what they see and how they act?
A (long) side-note
According to scientists, the fact that we create brain simulations of the actions and behaviors of others in our sensorimotor cortex ‘gives us a path to understanding how we function without our bodies in this world’.
And this is relevant to creating human-machine interfaces, leading to AI-enhanced humans.
I can’t help but think of Neo’s martial art training in the Matrix. Scientifically speaking, we cannot learn martial arts just by watching videos of martial artists on fast forward. The way we learn is ‘from internal rather than external observations, from actions made by ourselves or made by another onto oneself’.
Suppose our brain simulation is a form of internalizing our external observations, and we find a way to directly translate this brain simulation to physical motor actions. Could humans one day learn martial arts as fast as Neo?
Scientists say the mirror neuron system can be learned and developed with the right input. Will AI help us find the right input?
I don’t know, but I’ll definitely use these speculations in one of my fiction stories.
Watching TV thickens our frontopolar cortex.
The frontopolar cortex area of our brain is believed to play a role in complex, higher-order behavior. It is thought responsible for the most sophisticated human understanding (or intelligence).
Regarding imitative learning, the frontopolar cortex (FPC) is activated when we observe known behavior and the prefrontal cortex (DLPFC) is activated when we observe novel action.
Structural changes due to an increase in regional grey matter volume in this brain area are associated with a decrease in intelligence, especially verbal IQ (VIQ) or vocabulary and language skills.
Tests have shown that the time spent watching TV negatively correlates with the VIQ in children. The more TV the children watch, the lower their VIQ score, which leads to lower language-based reasoning ability. Moreover, the VIQ continues to decrease even a few years later.
Another consequence of structural changes in the frontal lobe, where the frontopolar cortex is located, is a decreased ability to control outbursts of uncontrollable anger and a lack of self-discipline.
A (short) side-note
The frontal pole is associated with intelligence in humans, and this area shows developmental cortical thinning during development. Children with superior IQs show the most vigorous cortical thinning in this area.
Therefore, a thickening of this area (meaning more grey matter volume) is associated with reduced intelligence. So why does TV viewing cause a thickening of the prefrontal pole? That is a good question!
Watching TV might increase criminal behavior
As mentioned, there is a study that introduces genetics in the study of watching TV and its influence on the brain and human behavior. The premise is that the human brain and behavior are shaped by genetics, which determines how many hours of TV we watch and how our brains respond to it.
For example, children genetically predisposed to aggression are more inclined to watch too much TV. The same goes for children with a genetic inclination to depression and obesity.
In reality, it’s hard to say whether watching TV shaped a particular behavior or genetics dictated how many hours a child watched TV, reinforcing certain innate behaviors.
An interesting study comparing adopted and not adopted children showed that genetics was an important factor in determining how long a child will watch TV. But the mother’s IQ played a crucial role in how many hours a child—biological or not—actually spent watching TV.
It is still unclear whether the issues mentioned above are caused by watching TV or by the fact that we skip on other beneficial activities in our daily lives to watch TV.
Reducing the time we spend studying, reading, playing video games, interacting with friends and family members or exercising may lead to feeling isolated, lonely, depressed, angry and decreased physical and mental health and wellbeing.
As for myself, so far, I have replaced TV watching with meeting more friends, having more chats with my husband about our plans, cooking more, spending more time with family, reading, researching and writing this newsletter.
I wish I read more books. Currently, I’m still at 30 minutes per day. 😐
Thanks for reading Story Voyager! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.