Experts weigh in: Is Netflix binge-watching a harmless habit or a potential addiction?

Isabelle Sarwono, first-year biology major, sits at her desk binge-watching Netflix and eating junk food while in her dorm room at Pepperdine University. (Photo illustration by Sofía Telch)

Most students have done it at least once.

Some professors admit to indulging too.

Binge watching looms large at Pepperdine and in American culture, so what’s the big deal?

While seemingly harmless, experts said Netflix binge-watching can turn into a behavioral addiction if students don’t set boundaries. While most students use Netflix responsibly as a chance to unwind, a Pepp Post poll of 85 students found just shy of 45 percent consider themselves regular bingers. Some one-third to one-half of students surveyed said their Netflix habits have negatively affected their GPA, social life, sleep or general productivity.

“I can’t really draw the line sometimes and it does interfere with my studies,” freshman biology major Isabelle Sarwono said. “I remember one time I spent a whole week binge-watching a TV series; I had two midterms that week and I absolutely flunked both of them.”

Is binge-watching an addiction?

The Oxford Dictionary defines binge-watching as watching multiple episodes of a television program in rapid succession, typically by DVD or digital streaming.

The Pepp Post poll found that all Pepperdine students watch at least 30 minutes of Netflix a day. Just shy of half watch no more than one hour a day, but the other half watches far more. When binging, students said they watch an average of five to seven hours per sitting.

Comedy is the most binge-watched genre, with about 46 percent of students preferring it, followed by drama at roughly 25 percent and romantic comedies at roughly 12 percent.

Pepperdine is in line with national norms, as Netflix-bingeing may be the “the new national pastime,”  according to a recent study by firm Deloitte. The study found that 70 percent of Americans engage in binge-watching, each watching an average of five episodes per sitting,  That study found that drama is the most binge-watched genre, with 53 percent of users streaming it,  followed by comedy shows at 17 percent and reality shows at 7 percent.

Dr. Francisco Javier Mesa, who holds a doctorate in psychiatric medicine and works at the Fray Bernardino Álvarez Psychiatric Hospital in Mexico City, said in a personal phone interview that Netflix binge-watching is not only a hobby, but a real addiction that can put a person’s life at risk.

“Netflix is an addiction like any other,” Mesa said, translated from Spanish. “A series of neurological mechanisms are triggered in the central nervous system and certain brain circuits start becoming reward areas.”

Mesa explained that when reward-areas in the brain are activated, they get energized and make it more likely for a person to binge-watch again.

Recent studies prove Mesa right.  According to a recent study in the International Journal of Preventive Medicine, anything capable of stimulating a person can be addictive.

“Whenever a habit changes into an obligation, it can be considered as an addiction,” lead author Seyyed Salman Alavi wrote with his colleagues.

This means Netflix addiction is a possible behavioral addiction, not a substance addiction that includes chemical dependencies.

“(Netflix-addiction) is not as closely related to addictions such as drug or alcohol consumption,” Mesa said. “It is more closely-related to addictions like gambling or self-harm.”

Connie Horton, director of the Counseling Center at Pepperdine, said she doesn’t think the term “addiction” should be applied to TV binge-watching.

“It’s not really a condition; it’s a behavioral pattern,” Horton said. “We (at the Counseling Center) would need to figure out what’s underneath it in individual or group counseling.”

Counselors would help students figure out why they can’t stop bingeing on Netflix.

“If anybody is doing anything too much they (have got to) figure out what’s underneath it; why they’re doing it, what function it’s serving in their lives and what help they need to start making more balanced choices,” Horton said.

Pepperdine students who over indulge in binge-watching Netflix can disconnect from the world around them. (Photo illustration by Sofía Telch)
Pepperdine students who over indulge in binge-watching Netflix can disconnect from the world around them. (Photo illustration by Sofía Telch)

Cooker Perkins Storm, Pepperdine associate professor of sports medicine, said the most negative effects of Netflix binge-watching are tied to the lack of physical activity.

“Long-term, it’s the students’ sedentary behavior that affects neurotransmitters of the brain and shows evident increases in depression and anxiety,” Storm said.

Chris Stivers, visiting professor of Communication at Pepperdine, said although Netflix binge-watching is a harmful addiction, other activities can have the same effect.

“People will read a series of poems and they’ll become obsessed,” Stivers said. “To me that’s very much the same as binge-watching.”

To what extent is Netflix binge-watching affecting students at Pepperdine?

The term “Netflix binge-watching” is so widely used nowadays that most Pepperdine students failed to recognize it as a problem.

“I feel like Netflix binge-watching is entirely up to you,” freshman business administration major Jun Wen Heng said. “It’s not an actual condition. I have not seen anyone at Pepperdine being affected by this.”

The Pepp Post poll proves he’s right. The vast majority of students said their Netflix habits don’t affect their productivity, GPA, job, social life or sleep. But one third to sometimes nearly half of all students surveyed show Netflix is affecting them negatively.

For instance, 40 percent of students agreed that their Netflix-watching habits affect their general productivity and roughly 25 percent agreed Netflix-watching affects their GPA.

In terms of extracurricular activities, roughly 8 percent of students agreed their Netflix-watching affects their performance in their job/internship, 15 percent agreed it affects their daily diet, 19 percent agreed it affects their social life and 45 percent agreed it affects their sleep routine.

Only around 24 percent of students said they wish they could watch less Netflix.

Freshman journalism major Monica Ávila said while she thinks Netflix binge-watching is unhealthy, she still does it when she’s bored.

“I usually Netflix binge-watch over the holidays or weekends because I get bored,” Avila said. “But I don’t think it’s a healthy habit.”

Why is it so hard to stop binge-watching?

Mesa explained Netflix-binge watching, as with any addiction, is hard to quit as it generates pleasure in the brain by affecting the limbic system and connecting different gratification pathways in the central nervous system.

But while Netflix binge-watching is entertaining, most students know it is not a beneficial habit.

“I think Netflix binge-watching is probably contributing to our decreasing attention spans (and) it’s probably not healthy in the long run,” said Shyann Ford, freshman theater and media production major. “But it’s very enjoyable.”

Mesa also said every substantial or behavioral addiction has three main symptoms: the inability to stop engaging, the need for more and feelings of withdrawal.

Like Ford, other students said they have fallen down the rabbit hole of Netflix binge-watching.

“When I first discovered ‘Gossip Girl’ I learned to never, ever, start watching a show the week before finals,” said Araceli Crescencio, a freshman journalism and economics major.

Pepperdine professors said they occasionally binge-watch shows too.

“I have a couple of shows that I watch like ‘Person of Interest,’” Stivers said. “And I watch lots of documentaries.”

What do people outside of Pepperdine think about the issue?

Most people in the neighboring areas agreed that Netflix binge-watching is a concerning behavior.

“Watching shows like ‘The Real Housewives,’ for example, can be an addiction,” said Andrea Lippert, 48, from Malibu. “People watch those shows and then they want to look like those people and that is not reality.”

Others said they engaged in Netflix binge-watching too.

“I once binge-watched a show for three days straight,” said Oscar Melendez, 19, from West Hills.

Ventura College student Johnny Rivas, 24, agreed.

“I’m sure at least 75 percent of students at Ventura have a Netflix account or share one with a friend,” Rivas said. “(Watching Netflix) is like the No. 1 thing we do; especially if we have friends over.”

How can one help someone with a Netflix binge-watching addiction?

Mesa said the first step could be creating campaigns to detect who is addicted.

“Before thinking about a treatment or about a psychological or medical intervention, universities should start the conversation about Netflix as an addiction,” Mesa said.

Stivers said if he knew a student had an addiction as such he would talk to him.

“I would definitely try and have a conversation with him,” Stivers said. “I wouldn’t stand in his way (but) I would try to open up dialogue, (and) see what the underlying issue is and if there’s anything I can do to help.”

Storm said awareness should be raised about Netflix binge-watching, and even more so because of the Christian mission that the university upholds.

“Biblically, we are told: ‘Treat your body as a temple, guard your heart, it is the wellspring of your life,’ ” Storm said. “There are several scriptures that hold us to a higher calling as in how we treat our bodies, not just for ourselves but for generations to come.”

Sofia Telch completed this story in Dr. Christina Littlefield’s spring 2016 Jour 241 class.