It was 3 am, and I was awake — again. I stared at the clock next to my bed hoping to fall asleep, but I couldn’t stop thinking about the episode of Westworld I had watched the day before. Then I thought: I had already gotten five hours of sleep, I’m awake — why wait until the morning to find out what happens? I reached quietly for my iPad and tiptoed into the dark living room, making sure not to wake my wife. I watched the next three episodes, my iPad glowing from 3 to 6 am.
It was last summer — June 2017 — that streaming content became a real problem for me. Sneaking in episodes in the middle of the night became routine, and I even hid my habit from my wife. Binge-watching began to affect my sleep and my stress levels. “Addiction” is a term with loaded connotations, but my obsession with streaming felt like a dependency.
Here’s the weird thing about binge-watching — everybody does it. It’s socially acceptable to admit that you spent hours bingeing Game of Thrones over the weekend. It’s this kind of social tolerance for TV-heavy evenings that makes it hard to know when it’s becoming a problem.
For me, that moment of reckoning came months later, on Christmas Day last year, when my wife confronted me to tell me that my fixation on content was starting to disrupt our relationship.
The discussion was a wakeup call. Was I really watching more TV than everyone else? Even if that wasn’t the case, was it still a problem? And if the answer to that last question was yes, what could I do about it?
I’ve always loved marathoning movies. But streaming television was different.
I was probably predisposed to streaming dependency. I’ve always been a movie lover — in the early 2000s, I used to stop by Blockbuster after work, grab three or four movies, and watch for hours by myself at night or over the weekend. I was watching plenty of content, but there were obstacles in place to keep me from going too far. I had to get up and drive to a store to get movies. And when a film finished, I felt a sense of completion.
I first got into streaming television when my siblings figured out we could watch HBO Go using our parents’ cable subscription. I began watching Game of Thrones religiously, and then marathoned completed series like The Wire and Entourage. I joined Netflix so I could watch House of Cards and stayed to binge Breaking Bad. For many years, it seemed like there were no television shows built for me, but, as I’m not the first to note, the character development, high production design, and complex themes of this new generation of shows set them apart.
It was two summers ago — summer 2016 — when I had an unnerving experience with streaming content that foreshadowed what was to come. I decided to watch an episode of Game of Thrones at 11 pm on a weekday night. The episode turned out to be one of the most emotionally intense in the history of the show, concluding — this can’t possibly still be a spoiler — with the death of the beloved Hodor. The episode hit me hard; I couldn’t fall asleep for hours. The next morning, I woke up bleary-eyed and too tired to function — my wife and I agreed that I shouldn’t watch the show at night anymore.
A year later, I left my job doing business development at Atlantic Media, becoming unemployed for the first time ever. I spent that summer networking and chasing down potential opportunities; I devoted part of my nights to catching up on shows as a reward.
My content consumption increased in step with my stress. What started as an hour or two of TV a day ballooned to three or four. On days when I didn’t have interviews, I’d binge in the middle of the night and early in the morning. Sneaking away to watch Westworld at 3 am didn’t feel so crazy when I didn’t have a fixed 9 am start time, and I convinced myself that I’d change as soon as I was employed again.
But streaming content was chipping away at my sleep — and nerves. The more interviews I had, the more I retreated to television afterward. Combining the intensity of a show like Westworld with the stress of daily job interviews had put me on edge. I’d always been an early riser, but now I often found my mind racing at 4 am thinking about the next interview — or the next show.
My “rock bottom”
By the time I started my new job, I was no longer watching in the middle of the night. Still, the habit crept into other corners of my life. I’d get up an hour early to watch an episode of Narcos, or stream Big Mouth as soon as I got home. Instinctually, I’d rush to flip off the TV the moment I heard my wife’s key in the front door.
During a Christmas trip to see my wife’s family in suburban New York, I constantly reached for the television remote, looking for something to put on in the background while the family chatted. In previous visits, I was fully engaged in conversations. Now I subconsciously craved content. One morning, I fumbled with the unfamiliar cable remote, trying to figure out how to get to Netflix. When I couldn’t, I settled on watching “BIG3,” Ice Cube’s new basketball league featuring retired NBA players in half-court three-on-three matchups. That’s how desperate my situation had become.
At the airport, my eyes were glued to my iPad watching The Infiltrator, a Bryan Cranston action movie I barely liked. As soon as I got home, I watched a rematch of last year’s NBA finals.
That night, my wife confronted me. “You have a content problem,” she told me. Screen time was dominating my attention, she said, and she was concerned about its effect on my health and our relationship.
I knew that things had gotten out of hand and vowed to take action.
That night, I slept for the first time without my iPhone and iPad on the nightstand by my bed. When I woke up again at 3 am, I fought the urge to head to the living room to get the tablet.
When I woke up hours later, I looked at my technology-free nightstand and felt a feeling of peace I hadn’t experienced in a long time — no racing mind, just the calm of a full night’s rest.
I turned to television to relax — but it was just stressing me out more
I soon realized that this was only the first step.
It became clear that streaming content had become a substitute for more productive, and essential, parts of my life. First, it colonized the time when I should have been sleeping. Then it took over the downtime I needed before and after work to relax, time I used to spend listening to music or purposely doing nothing. Tuning in to intense, episodic television, it turns out, is not a great way to unwind.
Finally, it cut into time with my wife. Our Wednesday “date nights” — often dinners out, trips to night events at museums, and walks — and other evenings across the week had been steadily replaced by Netflix or Amazon Prime. We had dialed back on activities where we actually talked to each other. Streaming content had become a daily ritual.
Streaming TV was compulsive for me in part because it was so easy. I didn’t have to leave the house to be entertained. There was also the social pressure: With today’s arms race of quality content, there’s always “the next show” that everyone is talking about. I didn’t want to miss out.
I know this will be a constant struggle, trying to balance my love for quality movies and TV with my need to sleep and desire to spend more quality time with my wife. I’ve been thinking a lot about responsible solutions to the problem. My wife and I have abandoned our nightly weekday watching of The Crown, deciding only to watch on dedicated weekend “movie nights.” I will take the same approach to returning to seasons of Westworld, Game of Thrones, and other shows in which I’ve become deeply invested. I will also try to stop watching shows with all the “prestige TV” elements that are meant to appeal to people like me but aren’t actually that good, like Narcos.
I’m aware that others may have far worse bingeing problems than me. But I’ve learned that it’s not really about how much streaming content I watch relative to my friends and colleagues. It’s about whether my viewing created problems with the people who were important to me.
Mike Saewitz is part of a Vox sales and partnerships team in DC dedicated to growing the business in Washington. A digital strategist and former journalist, Mike spends his days discussing Vox’s new explainer studio and other unique advertising ideas with clients including NGOs, associations, and corporate CSR, public affairs, and communications teams.