National Edition

How families can turn binge watching into family time

Published: Monday, May 19 2014 4:35 a.m. MDT

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.

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