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Does binge-watching TV make us dumb?

December 28, 2015

Ask your friends what they did last night or over the weekend, and you’ll likely receive one answer: ‘Series,’ they’ll say, following up with a list of the new favourites or old classics they spent hours indulging in.

Binge-watching is a fairly new phenomenon where people spend hours – usually more than three at a time – watching television shows. Usually it is used to describe watching multiple episodes of one show or can also mean watching one or two episodes of several different shows.

Popular culture

It has had such a massive impact on entertainment and leisure culture worldwide, it even received an accolade of its own. Binge-watching was awarded word of the year by Collins dictionary a few weeks ago. According to Collins, binge-watching is up 200% since 2014. Collins felt the word deserved the award “in recognition of the fact that 2015 was the year our television viewing finally became totally unshackled by time and place, meaning that we can now consume our favourite programmes entire series at a time, or any number of them back to back across a weekend”.

Impact on our brains

Research has found that watching more than three hours of television daily has a negative impact on the cognitive functioning of young people. In addition, those who watched this amount of television were more likely to not lead physically active lives, participating in less than two and a half hours of exercise per week.

Data was analysed from a 25-year study of more than 3,200 18-30-year-olds by researchers at the Northern California Institute for Research and Education. “Participants with the least active patterns of behaviour (i.e., both low physical activity and high television viewing time) were the most likely to have poor cognitive function,” the study revealed, and also went on to say that these young people were twice as likely to not perform well on tests of brain performance than their more active peers.

South Africans and television

South Africans, especially young people, are increasingly watching more television. In an effort to understand how people spend their time, Statistics SA conducted studies in 2000 and 2010. The study found that in 2000 the most television watched was by men in their 20s and 30s – little less than an hour and a half daily.

Fast forward 10 years to 2010 and the picture is quite different. Both girls and boys, aged between 10 and 17, reported watching nearly three hours of television daily. And the other age groups weren’t far behind. South Africans spend more time watching television than engaging in almost any other kind of leisure activity.

Of course, in South Africa smart television and smartphone penetration is not as high as other countries, meaning we are more likely to be traditional viewers of DStv and SABC than binge-watchers as they are known overseas. But with faster Internet connections, and an ever-increasing offering of VOD services like ShowMax, we’ll soon catch up to the rest of the world.

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