This is what too much TV is doing to your brain and body
From bingeing Netflix before bed, to eating dinner in front of the telly and setting up camp on the sofa for a weekend movie marathon, we all love a good screen sesh. But could our viewing habits be harming our health?
Streaming services have soared in popularity in recent years, and around a fifth of UK homes now subscribe to all three of the most popular platforms – Netflix, Amazon Prime Video and Disney+ – costing around £300 per year, according to UK broadcast regulator Ofcom. Over-65s still favour broadcast TV over streaming, spending around a third of their waking day (almost six hours) in front of the box.
Of course, this isn’t all bad news. Losing yourself in a good series or film can be a great form of escapism, a means of combatting loneliness and for many, an affordable way to keep the family entertained.
But, with hours in front of the TV becoming the norm, it is worth considering whether our viewing habits could be harming us? We asked some experts what binge-watching too much TV might be doing to our bodies and minds…
“There is limited evidence which suggests binge-watching TV has a negative impact on our brain health,” says Dr Bal Athwal, consultant neurologist at The Wellington Hospital (part of HCA UK). “However, there have been preliminary studies which suggests it can shrink the amount of grey matter you have as we age,” Athwal adds – a process which is associated with “dementia and other degenerative brain diseases – due to it being a non-stimulating sedentary behaviour.”
Phil Sharples, a therapist at online therapy service livelife (livelife.co.uk), says: “When looking at the impact watching too much TV has on our mental health, there is research which has uncovered a correlation between binge-watching, depression, emptiness and low mood. It’s also suggested that those who suffer from depression or anxiety may be more likely to find themselves binge-watching, having a knock-on effect on their physical health too.
“Binge-watching can also disturb your sleep, and there is evidence that suggests sleep deprivation can contribute to the onset and worsening of mental health problems – such as anxiety and depression.
“It is also important to consider the types of programmes you are binge-watching, as the rise of reality TV shows is having an effect on the mental health of many young people – particularly when it comes to body image,” Sharples adds. “Recent research from livelife found almost a quarter of Gen Z and millennials consider body image as one of the main pressures on their mental health.
“Binge-watching TV could also lead to isolation, and the more we isolate ourselves in the home, the more difficult we may find it to leave the house, increasing our anxiety and our ability to achieve a balanced lifestyle.”
They might not turn square (like our parents warned), but staring at a screen all day certainly can affect your eyes. “Binge-watching TV can lead to eye strain, and symptoms of this include difficulty concentrating, headache, blurred or double vision and burning or itching eyes,” says private GP and mental health coach, Dr Hana Patel (drhanapatel.com).
Dry eye syndrome is also associated with too much screen time – so having regular breaks is important. If symptoms persist, get things checked by an optician. Treating these things early can prevent them getting worse
According to Dr Sarah Davies, consultant in musculoskeletal, sport and exercise medicine at the Institute of Sport, Exercise and Health, too much TV might be seriously harming our muscles and cardiovascular health.
“When you slouch on the sofa, there is initially a sudden increase in lengthening of the soft tissues, followed by a slower but continued increase in length of the fibres as you sit in that slouched position for a long time. Simply put, our soft tissues continue to lengthen when stretched out on the sofa, even when you’re lying still,” Davies explains. “When you finally get up from the couch, the soft tissue collagen fibres take time to recover their original length, which is why you may feel stiff for a few seconds or minutes as you get going.
“When we sit still for long periods of time, blood can pool in the veins and slow the return of blood to the heart via the smaller vessels,” she adds. “This can divert blood away from important bodily functions, reducing the efficiency and effectiveness of the working body whilst we’re engrossed in a boxset.”
Sitting in front of the TV for hours on end, often means snacking for hours on end too – without much movement in the mix.
“Mindless bingeing on food, whilst mindlessly bingeing on Netflix and other streaming services creates no end of problems for our gut health,” says Dr Lisa Das, consultant gastroenterologist at HCA at the Shard. “Sitting down causes your gut to slow down digestion, which in turn may lead to symptoms such as bloating, reflux and constipation.
“The main concern with distracted eating is not experiencing the pleasures of a meal,” she adds. “We don’t taste the food in the same way, acknowledge when we are full, and there’s no social interaction which is so necessary to our gut-brain signals.”
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