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Is Binge Watching As Bad As They Say?

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Let's talk about the horribly stigmatized, yet all too familiar, practice of binge watching. Just the mention of the phrase calls up images of crazed college students sitting in their rooms, un-showered and over-caffeinated, glued to their computer screens at four in the morning, compulsively clicking onto the next episode of Breaking Bad. But what is binge watching, really, and why do we do it? And is it really as bad as everyone says? To trace back the history of the term binge watching, we have to go back to a mysterious and far away time -- the late '90s. Fans of the popular sci-fi show The X-Files posted messages on UseNet, one of the first Internet forums, offering to travel across the country for video tapes of earlier episodes of the show that they had missed. In that moment, the idea of binge watching was born.

Since then, the popularization of instant streaming sites like Netflix and Amazon Prime has made binge watching a common occurrence. In fact, according to a recent Netflix study, 61 percent of people said that they regularly binge watch TV. But why is binge watching so popular? What makes it so we can't stop watching?

The answer, in fact, lies partially in science. According to Newsweek, watching television causes us to switch from the left hemisphere of the brain, which is more logical, to the right, which is more emotional. This releases endorphins, which cause us to relax. When we turn off the television, we switch back to the left hemisphere, and the endorphins go away. All of the sudden, the relaxation disappears. But if you keep watching, it doesn't.

So there is a reason for binge watching, other than our compulsive need for answers to cliffhangers. But watching hours upon hours of TV because you need an endorphin high doesn't necessarily sound like a good thing. With the increasing popularity of binge watching, the debate about its effects on television enjoyment has exploded.

Netflix's study reported that 73 percent of those surveyed had a positive opinion of binge watching. But what about that other 27 percent? What about the people who deplore binge watching as an affront to the television landscape?

One such person is Jim Pagels at Slate. Mr. Pagels argues that television is designed to be watched in episodes and seasons, not as a continuous narrative. Consuming shows in the narrative format, he says, takes away the suspense and drama that makes them great. It makes sense, and it's a solid argument. Suspense needs time to build and fester before being relieved. If a show ends an episode on a cliffhanger, then the writers clearly expected for me to wait before finding out its resolution.

Mr. Pagels' argument does run into one major complication though -- he neglects to think about why television airs the way it does. As James Poniewozik at TIME points out, television adds suspense between episodes and seasons in order to get viewers to tune back in. It's not that television writers want you to take that three month gap at the end of Lost season one to ponder exactly what will be inside the hatch. They just want you to still be interested enough to watch all that time later when the second season premieres. They're trying to find a way to keep your attention through network-mandated gaps in their production.

So what happens when there are no gaps, when you only have to wait 30 seconds before Netflix pushes you on to the next episode? If I immediately move on to that second season, do I sacrifice the suspense and thrill of finding out about the hatch just to keep my endorphins up?

Personally, no. I will be just as excited to get some answers immediately as I will a few months later, if not more so. I'm a type A person who likes to enjoy television in quick bursts, rather than long, drawn out waiting periods. I use television to relax, and I want to keep my endorphins up for as long as I can. In my opinion, binge watching is good.

Here is where the major problem with television comes in, though: Just because I think that something is good, doesn't mean that everyone else does. Television is an art form -- the way in which you choose to interpret it is completely up to you.

Art is a personal experience. Television watching is a personal experience. What you watch and how you watch it is driven by who you are and how you want to be entertained. There are no blanket statements in television -- Dads isn't universally considered to be a horrible show, and not everyone likes Mad Men. 

Binge watching isn't inherently bad, and it's not inherently good. It is what you make of it. If you have the desire and the time to sit in bed and marathon all six seasons of Breaking Bad without stopping, no one should be able to tell you otherwise (except maybe your doctor). And if you want to parcel it out into smaller chunks, so that the viewing lasts months or years, that is also completely up to you.

We need to stop stigmatizing the idea of binge watching, or not binge watching. There is no proper way to enjoy television, no perfect formula for the amount of time that you need to digest a show. So stop judging when your friend tells you that she wants to watch just one episode of Orange is the New Black a week, or when your coworker mentions that he spent three straight days marathoning The Wire, because what they do isn't up to you. Television is an escape, not a chore, and you need to find the way that you enjoy it most.

By: Julia Bianco, Case Western