Are On-Demand Movies and TV Shows Stealing Your Life?

How addiction to online shows can take away your life, one episode at a time.

Posted Nov 28, 2014

I've had a love affair with Netflix for a few years now. I haven't had cable TV in years and am not a fan of crowded movie theaters (people always seem to decide to open ridiculously loud cellophane-wrapped snacks right at the most pivotal, gripping cinematic moment). How wonderful, then, to be able to choose from a huge selection of movies and get personalized recommendations for content I'd probably love to watch.

Lately, though, I've started to feel uneasy. I'm not alone, either. Last night I met with some members of my year-long Club program, and we talked about how addictive the endless access to entertainment really is. The providers of the endless entertainment aren't to blame here, though...it's our own human propensity to get addicted to things that offer sweet, numbing escape.

I find I'm particularly vulnerable to multi-season TV programs. If I watch a movie, it takes up a couple of hours of my time at most, and when it's done it's done. But with a TV series, each episode ends with some sort of cliff-hanger, and I can instantly find out what happened next, by clicking on the next episode. And the next. And the next.

Lately I've watched a couple of series where I've gotten so involved in the lives of the characters over multiple seasons, that on some occasions I've caught myself wishing I could just go hang out with them, rather than invest time and effort hanging out with the real people in my life! That realization really alarmed me. The escape into the fictional worlds is so rich, so complete, that I get to completely avoid whatever is stressing me out at the moment. I can completely escape from any responsibilities I have, any worries that might otherwise preoccupy me, and I can very pleasantly avoid any less pleasant tasks I really should be doing.

Do you relate to this?

Way back when I'd had cable, I'd never gotten sucked into hours of TV watching, because I'm picky about what I watch and I found few shows to be worth my time. I was always proud of this, I'll even admit that I felt superior to "couch potatoes". Netflix, however, has an unending supply of things I might like to watch, and I've been shocked to discover the couch-loving screen-addicted potato that lurks within my "wellness expert" exterior.

Here's the problem. Beyond the obvious negatives of prolonged couch-sitting and TV-watching (lowered metabolic rate from sitting in a trance, increased tendency to mindlessly snack, the impact of the screens on melatonin secretion and other negative neurologic effects, etc.), life is being lost.

Last night as I was talking with my coaching clients, we remembered what life used to be like before these endless streams of entertainment were available. Back in my no-cable days, I used my evenings and down time to play with photography, read inspiring books, dream of and build my coaching business, conceive of and write a book, try new recipes, go out dancing midweek, take classes, the list goes on and on. I was so much more creative, there was so much more play in my life.

Now, when I'm tired after a busy day, I count the hours until I can just curl up and watch a good show. The hours pass on the couch, and it feels so delightful, entertaining and relaxing, but what am I giving up in exchange?

I fear the impact on my brain of so many hours watching screens, instead of reading great non-fiction books like I used to. Books that stimulated my mind and filled me with new knowledge and ideas. Books that inspired me to try new things, to become better, to grow.

I fear the impact of so many sedentary hours, for someone who prides herself on being active. Many nights I stay up much later than I should, and don't get the essential hours of sleep I need, just because I can't tear myself away from what will happen next on the show.

Even though I prefer watching something at home, it's probably healthier to go watch a movie in the theater, taking the time to dress up and go out and sit with your friend or spouse, surrounded by other humans, despite feeling mildly annoyed by people who don't know how annoying it is to unwrap something loud at a critical moment.

One of my clients is so concerned about how much she has avoided life in this fashion, that she is considering canceling her home internet connection altogether. Unimaginable, but she rightfully pointed out that she could answer all social emails by staying a little late at work, and then come home to a totally unplugged life. A life where she might finally start doing all the wonderful things she longs to do. The things that have been replaced for too long by too many evenings spent hanging out gazing at her iPad.

"I'm getting older," she said. "I don't know how much life I have left, and I can't keep losing hours of life every night, like I have been. "

This was very sobering for me, and reinforced this sense of unease that has been growing about my Netflix habit. Yes, it's so important to relax. And I absolutely love a good storyline, or a great documentary. There is still a place for that, somewhere in my life. But there is so much more to life, and when movies or shows start to take over your life outside of work, it may call you to some deep consideration about what's really happening to your life.

Add up the hours of life you spend watching Netflix or TV, or mindlessly surfing the internet, in a typical week. What else could you be doing with those hours, or at least some of those hours? How might your mind and life be better if you chose to do something else?

I don't know if I'm ready to go cold turkey, but I'm seriously thinking about it. Today, as I finish writing this post, I came to the end of the final episode in the latest TV series that had totally ensnared me (I had watched it while eating my lunch). Seems like a perfect time to stop the madness, no? Something's got to change, and I'm ready to do it. Will you join me?

Dr. Susan Biali, M.D. is a medical doctor, health and wellness expert, life and health coach, professional speaker, flamenco dancer, and author. She is dedicated to helping people get healthy, reduce stress and enjoy more meaningful lives. Dr. Biali has been featured as an expert on the Today Show as well as other major media outlets, and is available for keynote presentations, workshops/retreats, media commentary, and private life and health coaching.

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Copyright Dr. Susan Biali, M.D. 2014

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