Illustration by Kate Towsey

We all love a good episode of ‘Sex Education’… or one, or two, or all eight back to back, with breaks only to check Crushbridge, email your supervisor weak excuses and get more hobnobs. But how is our generation’s addiction to online streaming services and the new solo TV-watching culture that comes with them affecting the life of students at Cambridge?

I was prompted to write this article after my own harrowing experience of Netflix addiction last term. I made the terrible mistake of starting to watch the notoriously binge-able ‘Gossip Girl’ in September, and probably watched anywhere between 1-3 hours a day during Michaelmas. Coming back for Lent, and having finished Gossip Girl (and not my set reading) over the Christmas break, I was resolved to cut Netflix out of my daily routine, as well as think more deeply about the effect online streaming services such as this have on our quality of life and social habits.

"Think of other activities you’d like to do in your newly freed up leisure time"

I interviewed a group of current students to get to the core of how much, and how, we watch TV. The answers varied from one hour a week to 14 times that much, with certain students admitting to indulging in at least two hours a day, 90% of which would be alone. In the modern technological age of online streaming services and the subsequent privatisation of leisure time, it’s all too easy to spend this amount of time watching TV. But what are we missing out on in comparison to students who studied before the subscription services such as Netflix and Amazon Prime had become so popular and pervasive?

Statistics on the contemporary Cam student’s watching habits proved very surprising to a former history student, Tom, who studied at Cambridge from 2009-2012. “I personally didn’t know anyone who watched stuff alone in the day like that, at least not until third year”, admits Tom, “sometimes we would watch YouTube videos, but taking it in turns to show funny things, and normally when we were drinking and chatting too”.

A wave of recent studies into binging culture have shown that watching TV accounts for half of the average American’s leisure time, whilst a survey by Netflix in 2013 showed that 73% of participants saw binge-watching as a socially acceptable behaviour. In fact, the habit has become such a widespread addiction that ‘binge-watch’ was recently declared the word of the year by Collins Dictionary.

There’s no doubt, therefore, that these services have transformed the television watching into a more private and accessible activity, which encourages the kind of daytime, solo binging that I see as so harmful because of the detrimental social and mental effects it can have. In fact, studies have shown a certain correlation (though not necessarily causation) between TV binging and stress, anxiety, feelings of loneliness and depression; the very problems that many users of Netflix turn to the service in order to alleviate. Something, therefore, definitely needs to change about our modern TV consuming habits.


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So how can you and your friends quit unhealthy binging and re-claim your free time? I advise setting yourself an ambitious, but achievable target relative to your current usage. Put measures in place to ensure you stick to your target, such as asking your friends to keep an eye on you, deleting Netflix off your phone and blocking it on your laptop using an app like FocusMe. Think of other activities you’d like to do in your newly freed up leisure time; perhaps try reading, doodling, going for walks, cooking for yourself more, or even just using that time to call friends and family at home. If you’re a background TV watcher and you simply can’t face the idea of tidying your room or doing essay citations without an episode of something “playing in the background”, try switching to less distracting and addictive content, such as podcasts, or even the good old-fashioned radio! Finally, if you do really want to watch something, stick to documentaries and other less binge-able shows to prevent descending into a binging relapse. 

As anyone who’s ever looked at the terrifying new Apple feature ‘Screen Time’ can attest, coming to terms with our usage of technology can sometimes be a daunting, and even shameful task. It is one however, that we must face full-on in order to regain our powers of self-control and free up those oh so precious hours in the week.

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