Thanks to technological advancements like TV recording, online video streaming downloading and the availability of box sets, marathon viewing sessions are quite the thing now with more and more people immersing themselves in the fictional lives of others. It's called binge-watching, a term found among the likes of 'twerk' and 'bitcoin' in the shortlist of Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year 2013.
The Oxford Dictionaries blog refers to the activity as "watch(ing) multiple episodes of a television programme in rapid succession, typically by means of DVDs or digital streaming". The entry goes on the explain that the term, which has been in circulation since the late 1990s, went mainstream in 2013 when the video-streaming company Netflix began releasing episodes of its serial programming all at once.
It entails obsessive watching and being ensnared by the fictional narrative. "For me, watching a new show is like entering into a relationship," is how Jason Samuel, a copywriter in a leading ad agency, puts it. The 25-year-old has seen as many as eight episodes of a show at a stretch. For him, a good show puts you in the shoes of its characters. "You start getting attached to the characters. You have a window into their everyday lives. They become your alter ego."
With this new, convenient mode of consumption, the social aspect of viewing a programme has diminished. "Solitary viewing sessions are the best. You can take it at your own pace. Also there aren't any interruptions and unnecessary chatter," says Samuel. "Binge-watching is like reading a visual novel. You scurry through the episodes like you're flipping through the chapters of a book. All you want to do is get to the last page. And then the book is over. And you can't believe it's over."
Clinical psychologist Seema Hingorrany throws light on the worrying effects of this isolation. "We are seeing this as one of the main psychological concerns in the age group of 17-18 to 28-29 where TV viewing is not a family activity at all. This is a generation that is used to watching whatever they have been downloading behind closed doors. Parents are complaining that the interaction with their children is decreasing. The impact is a distancing between family members."
Though the word bingeing has a negative connotation, some experts don't see this as necessarily bad. Dr Pamela Rutledge of Psychology Today, for one, bats for this "shift of control from producers to consumers". According to her, the ability (that the viewer has) to continue the story creates a greater sense of immersion and transportation into the narrative, making it more enjoyable. She even cites some benefits: "Increasingly complex and nuanced storylines can be better appreciated in marathon viewing where context is maintained and watching a show you like by choice can reduce stress."
However, she also advocates balance and responsibility. "Some shows have a way of sucking you into them. It's very easy for everything else to take the backseat and the season's final outcome to become the ultimate the goal to get to. At such times focusing on family or work becomes difficult," says Samuel.
Dr Harish Shetty, a psychiatrist, says that losing one's self entirely in a show is not unlike turning to highly addictive substances and that itself spawns other issues. "Technology is getting very attractive and very addictive. Those who have difficulties with parents, jobs, spouses can gravitate towards watching meaningless stuff for a very long time. Boredom is the biggest variable, and when you're bored you get hooked on to things that are attractive and easy to access. You have to buy alcohol and weed and they're not legitimately normal...but watching TV is not immoral and there is no shame attached to it, and one might get lost in it. You may also eat a lot of junk food. Sleep habits get disturbed. On the whole it causes exhaustion, tiredness and burnout."
He has a threefold plan to halt straight-up addiction. "It is important is get outdoors as much as you can. Number 2, have TV off days; once a week there should be no TV. Number 3, don't encourage laptops. Have computers only in the drawing rooms where there is supervision and some amount of exposure to everybody and you can't access it all the time."
To nip complications at the bud, Hingorrany believes that parents should monitor their kids' downtime. "Parents are happy to give (this time) away because for them is free time. Psychologically this trend is unhealthy and we are seeing more and more negative impact on children and teenagers."
But for those who indulge responsibly, the emotional payoff that a binge viewer experiences can even be life-changing. For Janhavi Rajan, who works for a wildlife conservation NGO, the impact she received was subtle but long-lasting. A fan of the shows Six Feet Under and Rectify and had once binged for six hours at a stretch. "I like shows that give importance to character development and are realistic and hence tend to be slower paced. It's like watching the characters gradually marinate in the banality of everyday life. And the focus is on little things that affect them," she explains.
And do they impact her personality? "As is the case for many things that change you, you are unaware of the change while it is stirring inside. But when you look back at it after a while, there is no doubt about it... I watched Six Feet Under four years ago, and even today, I give a lot of credit to the show for giving me such a different outlook. I can't imagine what I would be without it."