Pandemic Binge-Watching: Is Excessive Screen Time Undermining Mental Health?

Richard W. Cohen, MD, and Nancy S. Cohen, MBA

January 29, 2021

Editor's note: Find the latest COVID-19 news and guidance in Medscape's Coronavirus Resource Center.

During the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, many people are spending endless hours at home looking at computer, phone, and television screens. Our population has turned to Internet use and television watching as a coping mechanism to deal with their isolation, boredom, stress, and fear of the virus. Indeed, some people have become addicted to watching television and binge-watching entire series in a single sitting on subscription streaming services.

A U.K. study showed that, during the lockdown, adults averaged spending 40% of their waking hours in front of a screen. After a long binge-watch, folks often forget what happened in the episodes or even the name of the program they viewed. When someone finds himself in this situation and can't remember very much about what he actually watched, he feels as though he has wasted his own time and might become dysphoric and depressed. This type of viewer feels disconnected and forgets what he watched because he is experiencing passive enjoyment, rather than actively relating to the world.

So should television binge-watching give people feelings of guilt?

Fortunately, there are some positive factors about spending excessive time engrossed in these screens during a pandemic; some people use television viewing as a coping mechanism to deal with the reality and the fear of the coronavirus. Some beneficial aspects of television watching include:

  • Escaping from the reality and stress of the pandemic in an emotionally safe, isolated cocoon.

  • Experiencing safety from contracting COVID-19 by sheltering in place, isolating, and physical distancing from other people in the outside world.

  • Experiencing a subdued, private, and mentally relaxing environment.

  • Being productive and multitasking while watching television, for example, knit, sew, fold clothes, pay bills, write a letter, etc.

Despite many beneficial aspects of excessive television watching during the pandemic, we have to ask: Can too much television prove detrimental to our mental or physical well-being?

Associated Mental and Physical Problems

Cause and effect between excessive screen time and sleep disturbances is scientifically unproven, but there is an association between those factors.

Excessive screen time is associated with a sleep deficit, and a proper amount of sleep is necessary for optimal brain function, a healthy immune system, good memory, and overall well-being. Sleep cleans out the short-term memory stage from the information learned that day to make room for new memories. This allows us to store memories every day. An inadequate amount of sleep causes memory problems and cognitive deficits because we are not storing as many memories from days when we are sleep deprived. A good night's sleep will prevent stress from one day to be carried over to the next day.

Lack of sleep affects people differently, but in some cases, a shortage of sleep can cause feelings of depression and isolation. Television, computer, and phone screens convey excessive damaging LED and blue light, detrimentally affecting our melatonin production and circadian rhythm. Blue light has wavelengths between 380 nm and 500 nm, and although blue wavelengths are beneficial in the day and increase positive mental mood, attention, and reaction times, blue wavelengths are destructive at night. Blue-light exposure suppresses the secretion of melatonin, which, as we know, is a hormone that influences circadian rhythMs The negative disruption of circadian rhythm throws the body's biological clock in disarray and makes it more difficult for the mind to shut down at night.

Unfortunately, electronics with LED screens increase the amount of exposure to these blue wavelengths. In addition, the U.S. National Toxicology Program has suggested that a link exists between blue-light exposure at night to diabetes, heart disease, cancer, and obesity (Sci Tot Environ. 2017 Dec 31;[607-8]:1073-84).

Advice for Patients and Clinicians

Time spent watching television and using the Internet should be done in moderation. Make sure that patients understand that they should not feel guilty about watching television during these periods of isolation.

Encourage patients to be selective in their television viewing and to research available programs on streaming services and TV – and limit their screen time only to programs that truly interest them. Discourage them from watching television endlessly, hour after hour. Also, discourage patients from watching too much news. Instead, tell them to limit news to 1 hour per day, because news they perceive as bad might increase their overall anxiety.

Tell patients to engage in physical exercise every day; walk or run outside if possible. When inside, advise them to get up and walk around at least once per hour. Other advice we would like to offer patients and clinicians alike are:

  • Put yourself on a schedule and go to sleep the same time each night and try to get 8 hours of sleep in a 24-hour period.

  • Put away your devices 1 hour before going to bed or at least use dark mode, and wear blue-block glasses, since they are easier on the eyes and brain. Do not use television to put yourself to sleep. Spending too much time reading news stories is not a good idea, either, because doing so is mentally stimulating and can cause more uncertainty – making it difficult to sleep.

  • Protect your eye health by purchasing and installing light bulbs with more internal red coating than blue. These bulbs will produce a warmer tone than the blue, and warmer tones will be less likely to shift circadian rhythm and suppress melatonin, thus reducing blue-light exposure. Blink your eyes often, and use eye solution for dry eyes.

  • Sleep in total darkness to reduce your exposure to blue light. Take supplements with lutein and zeaxanthin, which may reduce the oxidative effects of blue light.

  • Encouraging patients to follow these guidelines – and adhering to them ourselves – should help us emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic mentally and physically healthy.

Dr Cohen is board certified in psychiatry and has had a private practice in Philadelphia for more than 35 years. His areas of specialty include sports psychiatry, agoraphobia, depression, and substance abuse. In addition, Dr Cohen is a former professor of psychiatry, family medicine, and otolaryngology at Thomas Jefferson University, Philadelphia. He has no conflicts of interest.

Ms Cohen holds an MBA from Temple University, Philadelphia, with a focus on health care administration. Previously, Ms Cohen was an associate administrator at Hahnemann University Hospital and an executive at the Health Services Council, both in Philadelphia. She currently writes biographical summaries of notable 18th- and 19th-century women. Ms Cohen has no conflicts of interest.

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