Is Netflix the New Heroin?



Netflix is the new heroin. Hyperbole? Barely.

Clinical psychologist Dr. Renee Carr explains, “The neural pathways that cause heroin and sex addictions are the same as addiction to binge-watching. Your body does not discriminate against pleasure. It can become addicted to any activity or substance that consistently produces dopamine.”

According to Deloitte research, 70% of consumers binge-watch an average of five episodes in one sittingAnother study found that those ages 14-33 binge watch an average of 5 hours in a single sitting. When you stop and think about these stats there is only one way to define them: addiction.

When asked who their biggest competition was, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings hit the nail on the head. “Think about it: when you watch a show from Netflix and you get addicted to it, you stay up late at night… we’re competing with sleep.” That’s the digital giant’s biggest competitor. Sleep!

Human connections also tend to compete with Netflix — and lose. The majority of us binge-watch alone. The family doesn’t gather around the television anymore for the latest episode of their favorite show. They retreat to separate corners of their houses to escape into their solitary screens. To get their fix.

Who is Responsible?

If binge-watching is our drug, tech companies are our dealers and suppliers.

Think back five years ago. When you watched Netflix, how do you play the next episode? You clicked “Play.” Today, you don’t have to. It’s already on its way before the credits finish rolling. Tech companies know that the less you have to do, the more you’ll watch. It’s the path of least resistance, right?

Tech companies are insanely good at sucking us in and keeping us engaged. As David Brooks writes in the New York Times piece, “How Evil Is Tech?”, Tech companies understand what causes dopamine surges in the brain and they lace their products with ‘hijacking techniques’ that lure us in and create ‘compulsion loops.’”

How? Well, continuous play as mentioned above is one example. But there are other ways tech exploits human nature, psychology, and neurochemicals, including:

  • Random Rewards. The best way to reinforce a behaviour is to reward it — but not regularly. We can’t anticipate it or see it coming. Former Google ethicist Tristan Harris compares tech to slot machines.

“If you want to maximize addictiveness, all tech designers need to do is link a user’s action (like pulling a lever) with a variable reward. You pull a lever and immediately receive either an enticing reward (a match, a prize!) or nothing…. But here’s the unfortunate truth — several billion people have a slot machine in their pocket.”

We’re pulling the lever when we check our phones for notifications. When we refresh our email or Facebook. When we swipe on dating apps.

We check it — almost compulsively — because we never know when we’ll get a like or a love or a share or a match. When we do, we get that surge. When we don’t… we’ll check back in a few minutes.

  • Manufactured stress. When we’re under acute stress, when we don’t know what’s going to happen next, our body pumps out extra CRH. This hormone causes us to remain alert. It’s fight, flight… or watch another episode to find out how that cliffhanger turns out. Suddenly, you’re not tired, and you continue binging. Netflix knows this. Hulu knows this. Amazon knows this.

Now you know this.

  • FOMO. Tech also taps into a fundamental source of anxiety: the fear of missing out. We are so averse to loss, or the potential of loss, that we cannot imagine not clicking through.

What if your coworkers already finished every episode of season 3? You’ll have missed out — or worse, they’ll give you spoilers! What if you don’t check Facebook and it turns out that a long distance friend was just in town?

You can’t miss out. You must keep checking, watching, consuming. Once again from Tristan Harris: “If I convince you that I’m a channel for important information, messages, friendships, or potential sexual opportunities — it will be hard for you to turn me off, unsubscribe, or remove your account — because (aha, I win) you might miss something important.”

  • “Human” Connection. This is the root of great storytelling, and streaming services exploit it masterfully.

According to psychiatrist Dr. Gayani DeSilva, “Our brains code all experiences, be it watched on TV, experienced live, ready in a book, or imagined as ‘real memories.’ So when watching a TV program, the areas of the brain that are activated are the same as when experiencing a live event. We get drawn into storylines, become attached to characters and truly care about outcomes of conflicts.”

We feel like we know these characters. We’re invested in them.

The tide may be starting to turn. Harris started the Center for Humane Technology after leaving Google. The nonprofit gathered some of the best minds in tech —  all of whom were passionate about the Center’s mission: “to realign technology with humanity’s best interests.”

They do their part by raising awareness, applying political pressure, inspiring humane design, engaging tech employees, and creating a cultural shift in consumers.

Big tech is getting in on the revolution (slowly but, hopefully, surely). Apple’s iOS 12 operating system features tools to allow users to understand and manage smartphone usage, including parental controls.

Users can take advantage of Do Not Disturb, a visual screen time dashboard of how you’re spending your device time, Downtime (to easily set device-free blocks), and easier notification management — Siri can make intelligent suggests about which notifications you receive based on your behaviour.

Google’s Wind Down feature puts your phone into Do Not Disturb mode and the screen converts to grayscale mode.

Adam Alter, author of Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked, says, “These are band aids.” The real solution to cutting digital dependency: us.

We’re Not Off the Hook

It’s not entirely tech’s fault. I was talking to a friend who shared that he binge-watched an entire season of Black Mirror. I said, “That’s epic!”

Then I realized: that’s the problem. As a culture, we need to change the way we perceive binge-watching. It’s not an accomplishment. It’s not a badge of honor to have stayed up until three in the morning watching episode after episode.

It’s harmful. It’s addictive. It leads to loneliness, to lack of responsibility, to sleep deprivation. To lack of human connection. Psychologist Dr. Judy Rosenberg, says, “We are wired to connect, and when we disconnect from humans and over-connect to TV at the cost of human connection, eventually we will ‘starve to death’ emotionally.”

Instead of letting the next episode play, what if we connected back to our family? Friends? Church? Community? To God?

Up Next?

What technology takes up the most of your time? Do you binge-watch? Do you brag about it? How does it make you feel? Really. After you’ve finished the last episode. After hours have passed. After you’ve sacrificed time with friends, with family? After you’ve spent time with two dimensional characters instead of on activities that fulfill you, that serve your community and God?

We need boundaries. We need to protect our time, our relationships, our creativity from Netflix and from other forms of technology. How will you put these boundaries in place? How will you turn off Netflix and connect with the world again?

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