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An Unintentional Experiment in Binge-Watching

by on March 12, 2018 4:45 AM

As many of my friends, colleagues and students headed to warmer climates and fun vacations for Penn State’s spring break last week, I stayed at home with the intention of getting caught up. Grading papers. Finalizing some work projects. Cleaning the house. I looked forward to the down time. Little did I know that I would end up in my own experiment in how television impacts the human brain.

I think I broke the record on number of hours of television watched in a seven-day span.

It started out innocently enough. I was home alone for the week and was looking for things to do. I’m not usually much of a television person but someone had recommended a “must see” show on Netflix. Spring break and down time? It might be entertaining. After the first episode, I wasn’t all that thrilled but decided to give it another shot. After two or three episodes, I was hooked.

Incredible acting. Amazing writing. Laugh out loud humor.  But then there was the violence, swearing, drug use, and sex scenes that would never make it on network TV.  We are not talking Downton Abbey.

I couldn’t stop myself. I was alternately horrified and excited to see what would happen next.

The results aren’t pretty. With each “one more episode” I found myself feeling more sluggish, and losing both my motivation and my sense of reality. I found myself talking about the characters as if they were real people. My kids would call and I would hurry them off the phone.  “Got to get back to it.” At one point, when I did manage to get off the couch and head to Wegmans, I thought for a minute I actually saw one of the characters in the produce section. “This can’t be good” I thought to myself. I need to go cold turkey.

Hyperbole aside, nothing on any screen should be that important.

Netflix has looked at their customers and has done extensive analysis of who watches, what we watch and how long we take to watch. Apparently, I’m not alone. Netflix reported that, on average, people take about five days to whip through the first season of a series when they release it. Subsequent seasons, according to their data, are consumed even faster. People average two hours per day when they are blowing through the bundled series on streaming channels.

Two hours a day? Are they kidding? With no school or work, I beat that record easily.

The results of watching that much television were pretty scary. Social scientists, educators, the medical community, parents and just about everyone else have looked at the impact of television and now other forms of media in terms of the impact on everything from how violence impacts us to how watching television impacts our physical health and obesity. There have been studies that suggest people, especially children, role model what we see on television.  There have been studies that suggest that people – especially children – don’t even have to be watching TV for it to impact us. The “background noise” that television provides in so many of our homes can be powerful.

For almost every study that says television does bad things to us, there is one that says it doesn’t or that the studies that say television is bad were poorly designed. Despite the conflicting research on the impact of television in our lives and on our brains, my personal experience was eye-opening.

In addition to all of the inertia, low motivation, and other sloth-like tendencies that watching too much television brings, my personal experience included desensitization. The cringing and looking away when I watched episode one was gone by the end of the first season. Do we become immune to the horrors on television by seeing it so often? Do we become immune when that violence is portrayed as normal?   We’d like to think that adults are able to distinguish television and entertainment from real life but what about kids?

I don’t care what the scientists say, what we see on television has the ability to change us. Television can bring us education, entertainment and distraction it can also bring some not-so-good things as well. I think this becomes more concentrated when we watch it for too long. I learned from my personal experience that spending too much time in front of the television screen is not good.    

Thankfully, Penn State has resumed classes and I am back to work. I may finish the final three seasons but I definitely won’t do it all in one setting. There isn’t enough time in the day to waste it in front of a flat screen.


Patty Kleban is an instructor at Penn State, mother of three and a community volunteer. She is a Penn State Alumna. Readers of State College Magazine voted her Best Writer of 2010 and 2012. She and her family live in Patton Township. Her views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State.
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