Just a few months ago, screen time was a source of concern. Now that the pandemic has forced many into social isolation, it is a lifeline. For those of us who have the luxury of staying home, screens are now our only bridge to one another. Instead of condemning the screen outright, we now distinguish between “good” screen time, which stimulates, comforts and connects us, and “bad” screen time, in which we stay up late making ourselves miserable and anxious.
The same is true for binge-watching. People mean a lot of different things by the term. Some soothe themselves to sleep listening to other people's bedtime routines or comforting kitchen sounds on YouTube. Others make a ritual of watching two or three episodes of a sitcom each night with their partner. And, of course, many of the rest of us blew through all of "Tiger King" in one sitting. Here’s how to make your own binge-watching more fun and more nourishing.
Plan, diversify and get social
►Don’t worry about it. Research by Professor Lisa Perks of Merrimack College showed that people who binge-watched while they were home with an illness found solace in it and stopped quite naturally when their circumstances changed.
►Plan to do it. Research has found that binge-watching gives more pleasure when it’s the result of premeditated choice rather than an in-the-moment impulse. Guilt is the enemy of joy. Plus, if you plan, “you are more likely to choose shows that align with your motives for watching — relaxing comedies, riveting dramas, nostalgic favorites. Such planning will improve your engagement, resulting in improved emotional outcomes,” researchers Emil Steiner of Rowan University and Matthew Pittman of the University of Tennessee told me.
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►Make it social. People overwhelmingly save what they think of as “good” TV to watch with their partners. Go beyond that. Make a date with a friend to stream the same show online. Apps like Netflix Party allow you to stream and chat simultaneously — or you can go full 1980s and just have someone on the phone while you are both watching. (The resurgence of the old-fashioned phone call has been one of the surprises of confinement.) Isolation is a danger right now for all of us — but we are all in this together. If your binge-watching can enhance your social connections rather than substitute for them, even better.
►Don’t use it to put off bedtime. When binge-watching is absorbing, it can affect your internal sense of the passage of time. Being pulled out of clock time and into narrative time can be a pleasant escape, but right now, we need all the sleep we can get. Set an alarm for bedtime, and build a habit of turning off the screen and brushing your teeth when it goes off.
►Don’t watch something exciting right before bed. This goes for reading the news, too. Some research suggests that cognitive arousal — becoming alert and engaged – is as much an issue for creating insomnia as blue light from screens. You may be wearing special glasses to block blue light and have your screen on “night shift” — a setting which reduces blue light. But if you’re watching a gripping drama or anxiety-provoking news, it’ll still be harder to go to sleep. Your active mind will circle around dramatic events, and it will be harder to soothe yourself into a relaxed state.
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►Develop your tastes. “Cognitive arousal works both ways. Take advantage of that,” University of Michigan professor Jan Van den Bulck told me. “Figure out what relaxes, amuses, or excites you. If an action thriller helps you switch your worries off, go ahead. Escapism can be a wonderful boon.” Think about how your viewing choices can help you most right now. Do you want a calming nightly ritual with your partner? A thrilling, all-day, popcorn-worthy special event on a Sunday? Newspapers are publishing daily recommendations of what to watch during confinement. Sample different genres, notice how they make you feel, and use them to modulate your mood.
Finally, know that you are not alone, even in your binge-watching. So many people are streaming video during this pandemic that in Europe, Netflix and YouTube agreed to stream video in lower-quality formats so as not to overwhelm the network. We may feel isolated, anxious, stripped of our usual forms of stress relief — but we are, once again, all in this together.
Ri Pierce-Grove is a lecturer at Sorbonne University in Paris and a Ph.D. candidate at Columbia University. Follow her on Twitter: @rpierceg