Gaming, binge watching, and your mental health

By The Space Between Us

It’s so easy to flop onto the couch and lose ourselves in a video game, a movie, or a television show. We need a break, right? But how much good is that break doing us? Is it an addiction? Should we be doing something else instead? A TSBU staff writer explores.

Have you ever wondered about binge watching and your mental health? We love that we can watch what we want when we want, but when we find ourselves streaming episode after episode, or we’re gaming for hours on end and just can’t tear ourselves away from all the limitless possibilities of a virtual world, we may not be doing our mental health any favours.

Drifting into another world, far away from the everyday anxiety, stress, and adulting that we have to deal with, can feel like a balm to a busy mind. Clinical psychologist Lwanele Khasu believes that gaming and binge watching in itself is not problematic:

“It’s a recreational activity. However, when individuals are using these activities as an avoidance rather than as a temporary distraction technique from their stressors, then that is problematic.”

As a society grappling with the Covid-19 pandemic and a rise in depression, we’re reaching all-time high levels of screen time. Showmax alone has seen active users increase by 50% since pre-lockdown peaks. Khasu advises us to pay attention to our viewing and gaming habits. This can assist you, she says, in understanding if you have gradually added more hours to your otherwise recreational activity.

But if you’re feeling overwhelmed and you’re worried about binge watching or gaming and your mental health, here are some other questions you can ask yourself.

Is it killing your sleep?

The screen, both big and small, is a known snatcher of sleep. Not only does the screen suppress the production of melatonin (also known as ‘the sleep hormone’), but all that drama and suspense unravelling on the screen can kick up our adrenaline (the ‘fight or flight’ hormone that gives us more energy). And then there’s the addictive nature of television that keeps us hanging for ‘just one more’. If you’re staying up later than you know you should, or if you find yourself feeling tired and drained the next day, set an ‘off’ time for your screen before you even start watching. And try to give yourself a couple of hours break between screen time and sleep time.

Here are some of the mental health benefits of getting a good night’s sleep:

  • Sleep is our recovery time, both mentally and physically
  • A good night’s sleep can help us build mental and emotional resilience
  • When we sleep well, we’re much sharper and less stressed

Is it killing your social life?

Even if you’re getting screen time together, you’re still ‘alone together’. Watching television or playing video games with roommates, friends, family and loved ones still has you fixated on the entertainment, rather than sharing any meaningful exchanges with each other. But generally, binge watching is done in isolation, and when you start turning down invitations to chat or catch up with the important people in your life because you’d rather zone out in front of the screen, it’s time to start balancing that out with cultivating your relationships IRL (in real life).

Here are some of the mental health benefits of being social:

  • Socialising makes us feel less lonely
  • Interacting with people we love lightens our moods
  • Having a tribe we can call our own gives us a sense of safety, belonging, and security

Is it killing your exercise routine?

More couch potato time means less time moving around. Unless you’re powering along on a treadmill while you’re hooked onto your screen, you’re probably loafing around almost utterly motionless … as if you were sick in bed. And if you struggle with depression or anxiety, zoning out on the couch for endless hours instead of taking a break and getting some exercise will not serve your mental wellbeing. If you’re chilling way more than you’re moving, schedule in some breaks, even if it’s just for a quick walk around the block.

Here are some of the mental health benefits of exercise:

  • Exercise reduces anxiety, depression, and negative moods
  • Sweating it out for a bit can help us feel less overwhelmed
  • It can help us sleep better, think clearer, and boost our self-esteem

Is it killing your buzz?

Some people find that gaming can actually help their mental health, but when it becomes excessive, or toxic, it can have long-term negative effects. In-game abuse, including sexual harassment, hate speech, and threats of violence, is still seen by many as a part of video game culture. And even the television screen has its share of toxicity. On-screen portrayals of trauma and the endless stream of bleak realities and dystopian worlds can be triggering, cause anxiety, or stir up emotions you just can’t turn off. The cinematic stereotypes of people of colour can also have an impact on self-esteem, particularly amongst children. There are more positive things we could be doing for ourselves.

Here are some ways to keep it more uplifting in real life:

  • Chatting to a mentor can boost our ability to make more empowering decisions
  • Doing a page in a colouring book can soothe our stressed minds
  • Playing with our pets can elevate levels of serotonin and dopamine

Is it killing your sex life? 

Technology can be a major distraction, especially when we’re more focused on the screen than we are with our intimate partners. We forget how much more deeply connected we are to each other when we’re totally present. But more than that, did you know that sleeping actually increases libido? So if you’re constantly staying up late to binge watch series after series and depriving your body of sleep, you could be lowering your sex drive (and your sperm count). So maybe it’s time for a date night!

Here are some of the mental health benefits of sex:

  • Sex can help reduce stress and anxiety, just like exercise does
  • Sex can boost our self-esteem
  • The chemicals released during sex may also help us sleep better

If you feel that gaming and binge watching is seeping into other areas of your life, Khasu suggests that you set time boundaries for your screen time and reach out for help from a professional. They can assist you in understanding the problems and emotions that you may be avoiding.

Khasu also says it’s important for all of us to evaluate our daily habits to ensure we give ourselves some time to reflect on our day and our stressors. “Even 30 minutes a day of reflection time can be impactful.” she says.