Binge-Watching: The Socially Acceptable Addiction


by Fatema Haque

Even as I sit here writing this post about binge-watching, I find myself craving the escape. I haven’t eaten dinner and there is no one around to demand my attention: two perfect prerequisites for jumping into a TV show. This habit is one I’ve honed over the years: heat up food, turn on the TV or log onto a streaming service, eat and wile away the hours. Intentions such as, “I’ll only watch one episode” don’t matter. Self-regulation, the process of organizing self without outside intervention, slowly dissipates. A 20-40 minute affair slowly becomes 3, 6, or, at the very worst, 9-12 hours.

I’ve struggled with binge-watching for two decades now. Before the age of DVDs and streaming services, I watched hours and hours of television after school and well into the night. I was home alone often with nothing to do; I excelled in school, so I never had to study too hard and frequently finished my homework at school. TV became a perfect escape from boredom.

In rural Bangladesh where I grew up, watching TV was a community event. My family and most of our neighbors did not own a TV, so we would all gather together at the home of the one neighbor who had a set. Sitting on the floor in front of the TV, surrounded by people, I felt completely safe from inappropriate touches and sexual abuses, something that was a reality in other settings. During that time, TV became a safe haven.

Later in America, my passion for TV led me to fanfic, where TV shows never went on hiatus, and fandoms provided much-needed connection in an otherwise isolated existence. Fandoms were a source of affirmation, validation and encouragement. Actively participating in fandom, I made friends, exercised my creativity and learned skills that continue to serve me today. TV became a gateway for learning and connection.

As my life became more complicated, binge-watching became a private affair. I watched hours and hours of TV on my own, often actively disliking watching TV with others. Under the demands of a rigorous undergraduate curriculum, I disengaged from fandom and watched TV to “relax.” This went on after I graduated from college, started a demanding job, entered a toxic relationship, exited said relationship, and embarked on a long journey to heal from childhood sexual abuse. TV was a constant companion, marking the lows and loneliness.

Studies have demonstrated that watching excessive amounts of TV has deleterious effects on physical and mental health. Binge-watching is an inherently sedentary activity that can lead to obesity, diabetes, and heart disease. It’s also been connected to sore, tired eyes; insomnia or a reduction in quality sleep; depression; loneliness; and anxiety. To these studies, I would add my own observations: binge-watching contributes to anti-social behaviors, reduction of willpower (e.g., procrastination and dissolving of self-regulation), complacency (as individuals and citizens of a democratic society), and numbing of creativity.

Despite these negative health effects, binge-watching is celebrated. We proudly declare our intention to binge-watch (“So excited for this series on Netflix; that’s gonna be my weekend”) and drop binge-watching into small talk (“I binge-watched all ten seasons in two weeks”). Companies encourage us to binge-watch, dumping thousands of hours of content onto their platforms each month, with 26-32-year-olds subscribing to an average of three video streaming services. Internet and media giants are also banking on the epidemic, encouraging us to “binge on”.

[Read More: #BGSpeaksUp: Twitter Chat Sparks an Important Conversation on South Asian Mental Health]

“Binge,” a traditionally negative word that means to do something in excess, has become positive. Imagine if we were to treat binge-drinking or binge-eating the same way. Statements such as “My plans for the weekend are to binge-drink” or “I was binge-drinking for two weeks straight” would never be socially acceptable; rather, it would signal that there’s a person in need of an intervention. Yet, the same does not apply for binge-watching. Why?

We have been brainwashed to think TV is a “relaxing” activity worthy of excess. When this rationale fails and I dare to acknowledge binge-watching as a problem, I think, “Who am I harming?” This harming-no-one mentality clearly excludes myself, but knowing that I am not harming others makes it acceptable. But at the end of a “binge-a-thon” when I’m left with anger (at myself, at the world, at life), emptiness, dissatisfaction, and depression, I have to face the reality: I, along with 70% of Americans, have an addiction problem.

So, what does an addict (and a society of addicts) have to do to recover? If we treat binge-watching the same way we treat alcoholism, then we might get to a healthy medium. As a society, we need to stop glorifying binge-watching and stop marketing campaigns that encourage this behavior. Streaming services need to do more than flash “Are you still watching?” signs. Perhaps they should flash a warning, informing people of the negative effects of binge-watching. App developers could design an app that allows viewers to set their own limits within a 24-hour period, which if reached, blocks access to the subscription service.

As individuals, we need to define for ourselves what healthy relationship to TV looks like. I have tried curbing my binge-watching only to come to the realization that going cold-turkey is probably the only way for me. Much like an alcoholic, there is no middle ground, no one-drink limit. I am either on the wagon or off.

Once we define a healthy relationship, we can employ some of the following strategies to stay healthy:

  • Exercise mindfulness. Binge-watching numbs us, allows us to disconnect and disregard our surroundings and circumstances. One way to re-engage is to exercise mindfulness. Practice pausing and looking around the room. Take in the details. Even a few seconds of this can shift us out of autopilot.
  • Turn off autoplay. This will help with exercising mindfulness.
  • Practice positive affirmations, such as “I release the need to binge-watch television.” Positive affirmations can help reprogram the brain.
  • Create a check-list of things you can do instead of binge-watching, and then do it. This check-list can include things like: close your eyes, breathe, count to ten, and repeat three times; call a friend; get up and drink a glass of water; stretch. Do these things after pausing the video (if the video is playing, you won’t be mindful and these strategies won’t work).
  • Keep a list of changes you notice when not binge-watching TV. You might notice that you have more energy or you feel more focused. Reading this list later can also help keep you on track.
  • Dive deep and examine the real reasons for binge-watching. Binge-watching fulfills a need, feeds a fear. Examine these reasons closely. What challenge is being avoided? What feelings are not felt? What is being delayed, pushed out, or missed?
  • Watch out for harder-to-track replacements, such as excessive social media usage or shorter videos (the YouTube spiral). Sometimes, one addiction can be replaced with another. Stay alert to these changes.

One study on binge-watching has found that an hour of TV can shorten life by 22 minutes. From where I’m standing, that’s a scary finding and one that warrants considerable consideration. How much life are we willing to lose? As for me, my journey has started anew: today is day one of no-binging. Hopefully , omorrow leads to equal success.

For more information on mental health in the South Asian community, check out MannMukti—ending the mental health stigma, one story at a time.

Fatema Haque is an educator dedicated to transformative higher education. She is currently working to change medical education through curriculum reform. In her free time, she enjoys learning, thinking, and writing about self-healing, undoing internalized -isms and improving self-esteem in communities of color. You can find more of her writing on her blog.

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Oak Creek: A Story of Hate, Hope and Healing

Every year on August 5th, the Sikh American community remembers one of our community’s most devastating tragedies in recent memory — the Oak Creek massacre. On this day in 2012, a white supremacist gunman entered the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin, a gurdwara (Sikh house of worship) in Oak Creek, Wisconsin where he shot and killed six worshippers and severely injured others. This violent attack was the deadliest mass shooting targeting Sikh Americans in U.S. history, and at the time, was one of the worst attacks on a U.S. house of worship in decades. Six worshippers — Paramjit Kaur Saini, Sita Singh, Ranjit Singh, Prakash Singh, Suveg Singh Khattra, and Satwant Singh Kaleka — were killed on that horrific day. An additional community member, Baba Punjab Singh, was severely paralyzed and ultimately passed away from complications related to his injuries in 2020. Others, including Bhai Santokh Singh and responding police officer and hero, Lt. Brian Murphy, were seriously wounded during the shooting. 

[Read Related: Oak Creek Gurdwara Massacre’s 4th Anniversary: Young Sikhs Express Optimism for the Continued Struggle Against Hate and Ignorance]

In 2022, the community came together to demonstrate that we are undaunted. My organization, the Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund (SALDEF) joined in supporting the anniversary observance at Oak Creek: a remembrance event centered around the theme of “Heal, Unite, Act.” The Oak Creek Sikh community hosted a series of in-person events, including the 10th Annual Oak Creek Sikh Memorial Anniversary Candlelight Remembrance Vigil on Friday, August 5, 2022. The program included a representative from the White House, Wisconsin Governor Tony Evers, Oak Creek Mayor Dan Bukiewicz, and representatives of the families who lost loved ones. Being there in Oak Creek 10 years after the tragedy was deeply meaningful — both to see the inspiring resilience of this community and to remember how much remains to be done.

In D.C., SALDEF continues to fight for policies that improve the lives of Sikh Americans. I had the honor of chairing the most recent iteration of the Faith-Based Security Advisory Council at the Department of Homeland Security, providing recommendations at the request of Secretary Alejandro N. Mayorkas. Consequently, the three subcommittees published a report that emphasized the importance of greater accessibility, greater equity, and greater transparency in counterterrorism efforts that for too long revolved around surveilling populations like the one that was senselessly attacked at the Oak Creek gurdwara in 2012. Leading the FBSAC as a Sikh woman, and representing a community that was highly targeted alongside Muslims by both white supremacists and in post-9/11 counterterrorism profiling, was an opportunity to push the Council to advocate more fiercely for further information-sharing between communities and law enforcement, extending grant opportunities for security for Gurdwaras and other houses of worship, and building trust between the government and Sikh communities. In addition, I advocated for accountability for the damage needlessly caused to Muslim, Arab, South Asian, and Hindu (MASSAH) communities by federal agencies historically pursuing “counterterrorism” objectives which has resulted in eroded trust rather than the development of strong partnerships. 

Although we have made great strides in this country, there is still more to do. Through our work we have partnered with many across the nation to come together and find solutions through tenets central to Sikhism and America — unity, love, and equality. SALDEF continues to strongly endorse the policy framework articulated across the Domestic Terrorism Prevention Act (H.R. 350 / S. 963); Justice for Victims of Hate Crimes Act; and the Nonprofit Security Grant Program (NSGP) Improvement Act (H.R. 6825). We believe strongly in mandating federal agencies to create dedicated offices to investigate domestic terrorism; allowing prosecutors to feasibly indict perpetrators of hate crimes; and allowing religious nonprofits to access federal funding to enhance their own security.

[Read Related: Anti-Sikh Hate is on the Rise: Here’s What we can Do]

While 11 years have passed, the effects of the Oak Creek shooting are never far from the minds of Sikh American advocates and the community we serve. SALDEF will not stop taking a stand against senseless violence and hate crimes. We continue to work in unity with our community and movement partners, and fight for better policies that will actively keep all of our communities safe. Through tragedy, we find hope. We know there can be a world where people from all backgrounds and cultures can practice their faith freely and, even though it has eluded the Sikh American community in the past, we still believe this world is possible.

Photo Courtesy of Amrita Kular

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