Since its founding in 1997, Netflix has taken the world by storm, offering an unparalleled streaming service with a vast media library and extraordinary original titles at a reasonable price — all of which can be viewed on a variety of devices from virtually anywhere in the world. Netflix is not only affordable and accessible, but also easily navigable, with clearly defined genres and sub-genres so users can quickly find a title that suits their viewing needs. But for some, the very features that make Netflix the perfect streaming set-up also act as a double-edged sword, with endless high-quality content on one side of the blade and addiction on the other.
Like other behavioral addictions, excessive binge watching, or Netflix addiction, can cause serious issues in the lives of those affected. Mic spoke with Hilarie Cash, a licensed mental health counselor specializing in internet and screen addiction and co-founder of residential treatment center reSTART, to see what qualifies as a Netflix addiction and what treatments exist to cure it.
What is Netflix addiction?
According to Cash, Netflix addiction is a subcategory of screen addiction, which is a subcategory of addiction in general. Like other addictions, Netflix addiction provides users with a sense of relief and in some cases, even a type of high.
While binge watching may be a casual habit for some, it's a die-hard addiction that worsens over time for others, gradually creeping into and taking over many aspects of their lives.
"You build up a tolerance, and that's actually something that happens in the brain from overstimulation. The brain goes through certain changes," Cash said. "When you're watching Netflix or ... you're doing it for escapist reasons — you want the high and the distraction — and you've discovered that three hours of Netflix [or] four hours of Netflix just isn't providing you what you want, and you need more, and you're going to go for six hours or eight hours — it builds up."
"As your addiction takes hold and your brain has gone through those changes that are physiological —that we call addiction — you are no longer in control of your behavior. Your addiction controls you, you don't control it. That means you are going to engage in the behavior in spite of its negative consequences," Cash continued. "You'll get less sleep perhaps, you'll show up less for your family and less for your friends. You'll show up less for your work or your schooling. [You'll focus] less on self-care — the rest of your life is getting squeezed out in favor of ... Netflix and the constant viewing of content on a screen."
Netflix addiction on the rise
Is Netflix addiction becoming more prevalent? According to Cash, "definitely." With the increase of smartphones and other devices that connect to Netflix, those addicted to binge watching, or screens in general, face a serious problem: Unlimited access to content.
"I've been watching this develop over the years and what's happened is these devices have gone into everybody's home," Cash said. "The creation of smartphones allows people to be carrying internet access with them all the time, 24/7. Parents themselves are often pretty screen-addicted and are handing these devices to their kids at younger and younger ages. It's impacting the culture and ... the problem is absolutely growing."
Netflix addiction therapy
Treatment for Netflix addiction in particular is still in its infancy, with the wider categories of internet and screen addiction still not being included as behavioral disorder in the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders — the standard classification of mental disorders used by mental health professionals. But despite the lack of inclusion of Netflix addiction in the DSM-5, many treatment centers still offer therapy specifically designed around it.
"I really think of what we do as treating screen and internet addiction," Cash said. "If they came for Netflix addiction, they would be experiencing what everybody else experiences, which is 45 to 90 days away from screens, lots of good exercise, plenty of sleep, good, healthy food, learning skills, developing a plan for after they leave the retreat, getting counseling so they can understand what might be driving the addiction ... that's what we do in phase one."
For some Netflix addicts, a brief stay at a rehabilitation center may be enough to help get their lives back on track, but others may require a more extensive transition program for when they return home.
"And if they wanted phase two, which is our transition program ... if they're a Netflix watcher, they might need to be in an apartment where there is no television. We already don't allow computers in the apartments," Cash said. "They don't have smartphones in the beginning, and only gradually do they have access to those things."
The self-help route
Not everyone who is addicted to Netflix can afford therapy, while others who can afford it simply prefer to treat themselves. For those people, Cash advises trying to quit their addiction cold turkey or by gradually tapering back.
"A person who is a Netflix addict can either go cold turkey — and I am personally in favor of cold turkey because you would just take a break from screens for a very long time ... maybe forever," Cash said. "If you're not willing to do a cold turkey-approach, then it's called a hard reduction-approach, where you gradually wean yourself away. ... Set goals and install technology that will help you limit your screen time and reduce it until you are only watching as much as you have decided to watch. All of that is doable, but you have to be highly motivated to make that work."
Cash explains Netflix addicts looking to quit must learn to recognize that life can be rewarding beyond the screen.
"The best thing you can do for yourself is to get yourself into therapy and figure out what you're trying to avoid living," Cash said. "Figure out how life itself can feel rewarding. ... Real life, that is working well, is so much richer and rewarding than life that is spent in front of a screen — entering into someone else's fantasy. ... I understand that many people don't know how to create those rich and fulfilling lives, and that's okay, but they can get help and they can figure it out."
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