Tuesday, Sept. 2, 2014

How families can turn binge watching into family time

By Chandra Johnson, Deseret News National Edition

Published: Mon, May 19 4:35 a.m. MDT

 The West Wing -- NBC Series -- \

The West Wing -- NBC Series -- "Abu El Banat" -- Pictured: (l-r) Martin Sheen as President Josiah Bartlet, John Spencer as Leo McGarry.

(Warner Bros. photo)

Juliet Sullivan could feel she and her teenage son Liam drifting apart.

“He was growing up, and I was no longer required or necessary company,” Sullivan said.

And then along came “Breaking Bad.”

“He climbed into bed beside me — my 6 feet tall, strapping, rugby-playing 15-year-old son — and we proceeded to watch the first episode together,” Sullivan said. “We both cried when the end came, not just because it was a sad ending, but because it represented the end of something special for us. No one can tell me this was anything other than a positive experience.”

Binge watching is rapidly becoming an everyday experience for more American families. The Huffington Post reported that Netflix streaming takes up some 34 percent of North American Internet traffic, meaning that one-third of North American Web traffic is dedicated to “Orange Is the New Black,” “Breaking Bad” or instant movies Netflix offers in bulk.

Netflix added upward of 2 million new subscribers to its fold since January and according to a Harris Interactive survey, 61 percent of Netflix streamers binge watch regularly.

According to Time magazine, it takes four days and 20 hours to binge watch “The West Wing.” With research saying that less time spent with family coincides with a spike in Internet use, how does binge watching affect kids and family time?

An opportunity to communicate

Sullivan’s experience is what AARP family expert and author Amy Goyer wants families to use binge watching as: a chance to connect.

“If done correctly, it enhances communication across the generations,” Goyer said. “There’s togetherness and then there’s being interactive. Shared experiences are how you build relationships. But you have to be approaching it in that way.”

The problem is that many families don't approach TV binging that way, Goyer and Oregon-based relationship psychologist David Simonsen say. A problem parents often fall into, Simonsen said, is substituting the TV for human contact.

"It limits parenting focus. If your focus is on the show and a kid wanders into the room, your focus isn't on the kid," Simonsen said.

Making time together is hard enough for some families. The Daily Mail reported that families in the UK spend less than eight hours a week together. According to Playing for Keeps, a Virginia-based children's non-profit organization, American families have 33 percent fewer dinners together than they did 20 years ago. Family vacations have also decreased by 28 percent. The University of Southern California's Annenberg Center for the Digital Future has reported that the number of Americans who spent less time with family tripled between 2006 and 2009.

Over time, Simonsen said not making time together can have a higher cost than some parents may think when their kids are small.

"I think it's more a symptom of a deeper issue. It could be football or video games," Simonsen said. "It's always a struggle. I love video games, but I have six kids. The two aren't necessarily compatible. I know a lot of parents who play World of Warcraft a lot. If you have a scheduled time for that, that's fine. But if you do it all the time, your relationships suffer. As your kids grow older, they'll be like, 'I don't want to spend time with you.'"

Deeper problems

Regardless of what a parent intends when allowing binge watching, there's another problem Calagary-based safety expert Aaron Braaten thinks parents don't know enough about: How lots of TV can affect the entire family's sleep cycle.

Braaten works with Xi Safety, a Canadian consulting firm that specializes in helping industrial companies adhere to the best safety practices. He says many industrial workers use the same kind of light emitting for TVs for another use: Staying awake after a long shift.

"Your eyeball is much more than a piece of your body, it also triggers your brain. In natural daylight, you automatically feel less fatigued. It suppresses your melatonin production. At night, there's less blue light because the sun is going down. That's a signal to your brain that it's time to go to bed," Braaten explained. "So if you're exposing your eyes to this blue light at the wrong time of the day, you’re telling your brain that it’s daytime."

Studies published through the Harvard School of Medicine's health newsletter in 2012 say light at night can not only mess with life's rhythms, it could have more serious health implications. Some studies, which Harvard's medical school cited as "very preliminary," say that melatonin suppression may contribute to cancer.

"I just think it's ludicrous that families all over North America give the kid a tablet or watch TV before bed and then little Johnny's got sleep problems, and who knows what kinds of behavioral problems that translates into at school?" Braaten said.

Limits for adults and children

Braaten and Simonsen say the best things families can do to protect themselves and their kids from the dark side of binge watching is the simplest: Turn off the TV.

As a result, they say, everyone will sleep better and connections can stay strong.

"It's all about parents being honest with themselves," Simonsen said. "The question is, where is the parent putting that focus? They should have some sort of self-inventory on that."

In the meantime, Sullivan has taken the binge connecting approach with her other children. She and her daughter, she said, are both fully invested in “Downton Abbey.”

“What I have learned from these experiences is that sharing good TV brings a common bond that leads to relevant and intelligent discussion,” Sullivan said. “I feel that has not only enhanced my relationships with both my children, but it has opened up debates about topics that may never have otherwise been touched upon.”

Email: chjohnson@deseretnews.com

Twitter: ChandraMJohnson

1. jeanie
orem, UT,
May 19, 2014

Our whole family loves watching Star Trek episodes together. We have a common "nerd" bond, parents and kids alike. We laugh (a little self consciously) at how well we know the episodes and characters. Just yesterday our daughter mentioned that our stake president looked kind of like Data, couldn't help but chuckle at that. She was right.

2. The Final Word
Alpine, UT,
May 19, 2014


How Parents can waste their lives watching TV like their kids and not feel as guilty about it.

Get off your lazy butts and actually "do" something that requires some verbal interaction with your kids.

They will thank you for it later.

3. SG in SLC
Salt Lake City, UT,
May 19, 2014

I think that the time estimate for binge-watching "The West Wing" is probably a little bit short, given the experience my wife and I recently had watching the entire "West Wing" series over the course of about four months.

@The Final Word
Everyone's situation is different, as are the reasons that they make the choices they do. In our case, we are "temporarily empty-nesters"; our only son is out of the country for six more months of a two-year stint We both are quite busy during the day, and after dinner and taking care of a few things around the house together, we both feel the need to take some time to "unplug and unwind". We chose to start watching "West Wing" episodes together, and both find them "addicting", so sometimes we would watch 3-4 episodes at a time, though most of the time we only watched one or two. Most nights we would discuss different aspects of the plot themes, specifically regarding their relevance to current events. Some nights we wouldn't watch at all, but would take walks or do other things together to "unplug and unwind". Are we irredeemably lazy, then?

4. jeanie
orem, UT,
May 19, 2014

Ps We also hike, do music, participate in festivals as vendors selling our own handmade goods, we read a lot., etc.

I second what SGinSLC said. At the end of the day it's great to unwind in front of an interesting show. There are almost always follow up conversations about the issues portrayed in the shows. And sometimes we just want to laugh.

5. Aggie5
Kuna, ID,
May 20, 2014

We ditched cable months ago cause I was watching it to much at night. It was my call to cancel it. Wife was a little miffed. But, it's been a huge blessing. We have Apple TV and antenna. That's enough. I kind of think this will be a huge trend as money tightens up for most, and our time value changes. When we splurg, we like longmire.