DEC 08, 2015 4:47 AM PST

Is Binge Watching Bad for the Brain?

Watching television isn’t what it used to be. With cable networks, satellite programming and streaming services like Netflix and Amazon, there’s something on 24 hours a day, seven days a week. As a result, more people are sitting down to “binge watch” multiple episodes back to back. Rather than tuning in to a favorite show once a week some viewers, especially younger ones, will watch an entire season of a show in one sitting. And it winds up being a lot of sitting.
 
Binge watching can affect the brain

A survey conducted by the digital recording service TiVo, found that 92% of responders said they have binge watched television. A binge, for this survey, was defined as watching more than three episodes of a specific show in a single day. The survey also revealed binge watching wasn’t always a case of getting sucked into a show via channel surfing. 32% of respondents said they had deliberately avoided watching a show until all the episodes were available to stream, and then watched all the episodes at once.   

It’s all in good fun though, because it’s just a few hours of television, it’s not like abusing drugs or drinking too much, what’s the harm? A recent study looked at just that question. Researchers at the Northern California Institute for Research and Education at the University of California, San Francisco followed 3,247 people for 25 years, starting when they were young adults. Participants were asked questions every five years about their daily television viewing. Every two to five years, the study team collected data on how much physical exercise some of the subjects got. At the end of the 25 years, study participants who were aged 40 to mid 50s, were tested on three elements: memory, focus, and quickness (mental and physical)
 
The participants in the study who reported very little physical activity and watched at least three or more hours of television a day did not perform as well on tests that measured cognitive focus and mental speed as participants who watched less television and got more exercise.
 
In an interview published on Time.com, study co-author Tina Hoang  said, “[This inactivity] affects cognitive functioning even younger than we realized.” 
 
Lead study author Dr. Kristine Yaffe, a psychiatrist at UCSF said that while the study results showed a statistically significant difference, it wasn’t a wide gap. She told NPR,  "The question is what does it mean if you're 50 and you've got these slight changes? Does it mean you're on a path to greater changes down the line or does not make a difference? I don't think we really know the answer to that." 

The study did not measure cognitive function in the study participants before they began the study, nor did researchers track what kind of television programs were being watched so it’s possible that the connection between television and cognitive function could be due to other confounding factors. The study was published online in the journal JAMA-Psychiatry on December 2nd.  Take a look at the video below to learn more about the study and some of the numbers.
 
 
About the Author
  • I'm a writer living in the Boston area. My interests include cancer research, cardiology and neuroscience. I want to be part of using the Internet and social media to educate professionals and patients in a collaborative environment.
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