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.
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.'"
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.”