It was the moment I realised that my viewing habits had gone from a harmless pastime to help me get through lockdown into something else; something that if I wasn’t careful would end up slowly but surely stealing my life.
I’ve always loved television. As a child of the 1980s I stayed up late to watch Dynasty and Dallas on the sofa with Mum, and I remember the excitement of seeing Proper Famous People on Wogan. Hours spent watching Grange Hill made mum worry about my dropped ts and then there was Home and Away and Neighbours, where I learned to end sentences in a way that made everything sound like a question.
By the time I hit my teens and 20s, high octane shows such as ER hit our screens. I watched in a state of heady adrenaline as Doug (George Clooney) and Carol (Julianna Margulies) did their thing in pale-blue scrubs.
Then the box set arrived. The West Wing! The Sopranos! The Wire! My mind was blown by the intelligence of these intricately woven stories. I also spent many a hung-over Sunday watching The Hills, The Kardashians and The Real Housewives. I’d feel slightly guilty and icky afterwards but didn’t worry. There was usually a full life happening around it – an office to go to, friends to meet, articles to write. It was never a problem.
Until lockdown, when viewing switched from something that fitted around my life to something that was my life. The shock of the pandemic, the loneliness of living alone and an inability to concentrate on work, led to me spending more time watching shows.
Viewing became my distraction, my company, my way of numbing out.
In the early days we were all at it, watching the great shows that dropped. I May Destroy You. Normal People. The Queen’s Gambit. As months passed, most conversations with friends revolved around what we were watching. Tell someone you’re going to spend the weekend on the sofa drinking wine from morning till night and there might be some concern – say the same about television and you’d get a “me too”.
Bingeing television was – and still is – socially acceptable. It’s our global pas-time. UK adults spent nearly a third of their waking hours watching TV and online video content in 2020, according to a report from regulator Ofcom. During lockdown, screen time averaged five hours and 40 minutes a day, up 47 minutes on the previous year.
Psychotherapist Hilda Burke, author of The Phone Addiction Workbook, says: “In the pandemic watching television was a communal experiencing, even when you were living alone. It was a way of being part of something.” It was also a way of distracting ourselves from what was happening.
“Viewing numbs us from our feelings, distracts us from our own pain and boredom. Netflix soared with our collective anxiety,” she explains. And there’s so much of it available.
“We’ve always watched too much TV – it is something parents have complained about for decades – but the thing that is different now is that we can access it anytime and anywhere. The push of the stream media service is particularly conducive to being addictive and habit forming.
“Netflix’s CEO says its main competitor is sleep and they are doing well in beating their competitor. A lot of my clients will say ‘I started watching something and it was 3am when I finished it’. I had one client who got so bad he got a waterproof phone cover so he could continue watching things in the shower.”
While I did not quite get to that stage, my viewing increased dramatically over lockdown.
At first, it happened in socially acceptable times – the evening and weekends – but soon, I’d knock off work early to start watching shows around 4pm, then I’d start letting it slip into lunch and then some days I didn’t even try to get to my desk. I just stayed in bed watching telly. Unsurprisingly my work was affected.
So was my sleep. Every night I was falling asleep with the flickering screen of my laptop still on. I’d wake up feeling grotty and with a headache – but I could no longer go to bed without the flickering of a show on my laptop to keep me company. The silence of an empty room started to feel scary.
I’d wake up in the middle of the night, often with bad dreams, which is unsurprising given that my viewing often involved serial killers chopping up body parts. So then I’d put on some more comedy and fall asleep again, only to wake up later than I wanted, with a headache and addled thoughts.
In the winter lockdown of 2020, I started to turn down conversations with friends on the phone in favour of watching the screen. My daily walks became every second day, then a couple of days a week… and eventually exercise ground to a halt.
I was spending hours watching shows that I was not even enjoying, like Ozark – horrible people doing horrible things, hour after hour after hour. I was not so much watching it as enduring it. It was like the duck that is being force fed in order for its liver to become foie gras. This is what it feels like to be “entertained to death” as writer David Foster Wallace put it.
Studies have linked excessive TV watching with everything from antisocial behaviour and diabetes, to obesity and mental health problems.
There is also a correlation between loneliness and depression, though it is unclear whether lonely and depressed people turn to television more or whether television makes us lonely and depressed. Probably a bit of both.
I knew all this wasn’t good but figured when life got back to normal, so would I. But it’s not proving an easy habit to break.
In January I told myself I would do a month of no Netflix – Noflix as my friend dubbed it. I lasted three days. I’ve tried locking my laptop – which is what I watch shows on – in a cupboard outside my front door, only to get out of bed and fish it out.
I even – don’t laugh – got hypnotised to stop watching television. Four days after the session, I was rewatching Modern Family in my lunch hour.
I was worried that I was addicted. But can Netflix – or any streaming – really be something as addictive in the same way that alcohol or cigarettes are? And how much is too much?
Dr Mark Griffiths, an addiction expert from Nottingham Trent University, says: “Problematic binge-watching isn’t defined by the number of episodes watched (although most researchers agree it’s at least two in a row), or a specific number of hours in front of the TV or computer screen. As with other addictive behaviours, more important is whether binge-watching is having a negative impact on other aspects of the person’s life.”
He believes there are six components to being addicted. First: binge-watching is the most important thing in a person’s life. Second: you watch shows to change your mood. Third: it affects key aspects of your life, such as relationships, work or education. Four: the number of hours you spend watching has increased over time. Five: you experience psychological or physiological symptoms when you can’t watch. Six: if you stop watching for a while, you go back to it and slip into the old cycle. You need all six to be addicted.
I get four out of the six on the checklist. I would not say it is the most important thing in my life and I do not get withdrawal if I can’t watch. Dr Griffiths says my viewing is “problematic” but it is not an addiction.
For many people, television is an enjoyable pastime that does not affect work or relationships or health – for me, it is taking away more than it is giving. The passivity I show in watching television has bled into all my life.
Without regular exercise, reading good things and being out in the world, my brain is not pinging the way it once did; and this is a problem – my work relies on my brain pinging.
So what to do? Burke says we need to be kind to ourselves, instead of beating ourselves up for this habit.
“These platforms have the brightest people on the planet to make them ‘sticky’, we are up against it when it comes to self-discipline. All other industries have a might of regulation – alcohol, smoking etc – but somehow there are not controls over these companies,” says Burke.
She says the way streamers such as Netflix automatically run the next episode is “like going to a bar and ordering a vodka tonic. You are getting to the end and the barman has already without asking got another lined up… we have to opt out.”
That morning in France, watching television as the sun shone outside my window, gave me a shock. I didn’t want to be this person.
That afternoon I installed a software programme called Freedom on to my laptop. It allows you to block access to certain websites for certain periods of time. I set a 24-hour period where I could not access Netflix or social media – and then I went out for a very long walk. When I got home I read a book. It felt uncomfortable but good.
I did two more days on my own with no television before a friend came to join me. In our week together, I did not once think about turning on a sitcom or sneaking in a bit of gritty Scandi noir. We were having too much fun.
It made me realise that I lose myself in television when I’m bored and lonely. Now the world is open again I’m making an effort to make plans to fill my spare time. I’m not naturally a planner but it’s what I need right now.
I am averaging probably an hour or two a day now, though some days I watch nothing at all and some days more. Rather than depriving myself I am trying to fill my life with better things.
I know that the things that make life worth living – family, friends, art, work, nature – are not found by pressing “continue watching”.
To quote another writer, Annie Dillard: “How we spend our days is of course how we spend our life.” I don’t want to spend it watching Bad Vegan. Although I have heard it’s very good…
TV in numbers
- 1/3 of adults’ waking hours in 2020 were spent watching TV and online video content
- 5hrs 40 minutes: The daily average of screen time, affected by lockdowns, in 2020 – an increase of 47 minutes compared with the previous year