What did I just watch? Binge-watching and memory

Binge-watching is the millennial’s pastime. We brag about how many seasons of Friends we get through in a weekend, or we complain about trying to avoid spoilers because we haven’t been able to binge Stranger Things yet.

But in the haze of nights of nothing but Netflix and chill, are we stopping to think about the consequences of binge-watching on how we appreciate and consume media?

From broadcast to binge-worthy

Sabine Lebel, professor of media arts and cultures at University of New Brunswick, said the way media is packaged now encourages binge-watching behavior.  From releasing whole seasons at once all the way down to deliberate production choices, the “people who are making these TV shows know that people are going to be watching these shows [in whole seasons],” she said.

“There’s a reason binge-worthy is an adjective that’s applied to TV shows,” Lebel said.

Streaming sites like Netflix and Hulu make it easy to binge, feeding into the desire of millennials for instant gratification. Since all you need is a Wi-Fi connection, why bother paying for cable, when you can get a better version of the same thing, without having to fast-forward through commercials or wait a week to find out what’s going to happen next?

TV has evolved from its original form as episodic stories told over a period of time to almost cinematic events. When a new season of Stranger Things or Orange Is the New Black drops, our vicious appetite consumes them faster than a bag of potato chips. The next day reaction memes to how the season ended are all over our social media, Buzzfeed articles on how we need to talk about Joe Keery’s hair (Steve from Stranger Things for those of you out of loop) or “10 Things You Missed in OITNB Season 5” pop up in our feeds.

Lebel said this may indicate a larger demand for media content.

“If you produce an entire TV show and it’s watched, it’s basically used up in two days then people want the next thing,” she said.

Lebel said the shift from the old broadcast model of television didn’t happen overnight, and it didn’t start with Netflix. She pointed out that DVR and box sets of shows were the first steps into a binge society.

However, not every show seems to be binge-worthy. Popular shows like Riverdale and Game of Thrones aren’t released in full seasons. This is a conscious choice by Netflix and HBO that forces fans back into the old TV model of having to wait a whole week before they get the next episode. While we don’t know why they are doing it (is it a business decision to sustain hype?”) it is obviously done with intent.

Alternatively, there are some shows fans say they can’t binge-watch. Shows with heavy material like Black Mirror and House of Cards, while beloved by viewers, can’t be watched in one sitting.

“It’s interesting that the shows that are really reflecting back in the most cynical way … some of the trends that we’re seeing, one a political trend and the other sort of more how we consume our technology and the larger media landscape, and those are the ones we can’t binge watch,” Lebel said.

Lebel said this could have to do with the reasons people choose a particular show at any point in time.

“Sometimes we go to a show because we want to watch something that’s going to challenge us and sometimes we go to a show because we really want to have fun, and those aren’t separate categories.”

Whether it’s escaping into the world of Friends or delving into the bowels of the American political system, one thing is clear. We love our Netflix and we love to binge it. Our affinity for binge-watching may not be good for us in the long run, however.

The psychological impact

Sandra Thomson is a professor of psychology at St. Thomas University. Thomson has researched focused attention and multitasking, two categories binge-watching could be classified under, depending on whether you’re totally engrossed in your show or you are simultaneously scrolling through Instagram and Twitter while you watch.

Thomson said in general focusing on one task at a time is best for our brains, but single tasks that require extended attention – like watching 10 hours of Netflix over the course of a Sunday – can lead to fatigue.

“In tasks where people need to stay focused … they start to miss things after a little while, their reaction time to processing a task slows down and they start to make more mistakes or just not notice things in their environment,” she said.

In psychological studies, these “vigilance tasks” tend to be unstimulating, like watching a screen waiting for an X to appear.

“Watching a television show, [however], its designed to be engaging and to easily capture your attention, [so] the rates of fatigue are probably a lot slower so you can watch a lot more before your attention will really start to wane,” Thomson said.

If you are a binger who “media-multitasks” by watching your shows on your laptop while you use social media, Thomson says you really aren’t multitasking.

“While you’re trying to do two things at once you’re really just jumping back and forth, fragmenting each task, and that tends to result in more errors and lack of comprehension and slower overall performance,” she said.

Lack of comprehension doesn’t just happen if you are multi-tasking while binge-watching. Thomson said research in cognitive psychology shows that spacing things out is better for memory, which is why every teacher you’ve probably ever had tells you not to cram before a test.

“If you’re watching a show, say on cable television that comes out once a week, every time that show starts what you need to do is you need to remember, ‘Okay what happened last week?’ That [activity of] trying to recall and watching the ‘previously on’ when you haven’t watched it for a whole week, that tends to be really good for long term memory,” she said.

“I would venture a guess that people who binge-watch will remember less of the content they consumed a year later than people who watched a show week to week to week.”

So if binge-watching, whether it’s part of a media multitasking experience or a prolonged self-induced hibernation, potentially has a negative impact on our memory and comprehension of shows we love, why does it feel so good?

Thomson explained part of the reason people love to binge-watch is because of built in reward triggers.

“The way that the episode content is presented, you essentially have a checklist of episodes and you can see the progress bar if you stop in the middle of an episode … and we know that those kinds of things like completing checklists or getting through an episode or getting through a season is really rewarding, and so it’s probably affecting the reward centres in the brain,” she said.

“Overall I would say that binge-watching is really rewarding in the moment but it might not actually be the best approach for consuming media in terms of comprehension and long-term memory.”




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