April 7, 2022
SEOUL – Kim Young-seo, a 30-year-old piano teacher, had resisted last year’s “Squid Game” phenomenon, shutting herself off from the world of streaming.
Then COVID-19 came for her.
After being diagnosed in late February, she signed up for multiple streaming platforms, including Netflix and Apple TV+.
“The fact that I was trapped at home made me feel lethargic and I came to spend hours looking at computer, phone and television screens,” said Kim, who lives alone in Seocho, southern Seoul. She only had mild symptoms, but was not allowed to step outside as seven days of home quarantine is required for all COVID-19 patients here.
With about 1 in every 4 Koreans now having caught the virus at least once, the pandemic’s impact on Koreans’ already-heavy screen time is emerging as a social issue.
Binge-watching has been big in the US since years before the pandemic, with a 2016 Deloitte study saying nearly 70 percent of Americans binge-watch TV shows. But South Korea was late to the game, as Netflix launched here only in 2016.
Like Kim, many in Korea have become binge-watchers amid the pandemic.
The state-run Korea Communications Commission’s data shows that between May and September last year, 34.8 percent of the surveyed 6,834 Koreans were paid subscribers to at least one streaming video service provider. A year prior, the figure was only about 14 percent.
Time spent on streaming services also climbed to 80 minutes per day, the survey showed, up from 76 minutes estimated in the previous year and 60 minutes in 2019.
This comes against the backdrop of South Koreans’ relatively high digital content consumption, as measured by time spent in front of phones, computers, TVs or other forms of digital gadgets.
Last week, multiple local media outlets reported that South Koreans would be spending nearly 40 percent of their entire life online — or 34 years — based on research from NordVPN. The daily online time data put Korea on top of all Asian countries.
Pandemic’s link to binge-watching
Psychological experts have explanations for why the virus has even those who had rarely watched TV before gobbling up multiple episodes in one sitting.
As the pandemic has taken away many joys of life such as travel, social gatherings and outdoor activities, people want compensation. They find relief in doing something pleasurable that induces a minor feeling of guilt — like vegging out in front of TV.
“People are burdened with the heft of quarantine as the virus crisis has prolonged. They seek to relieve stress by doing something enjoyable, though it may be unproductive or unhealthy, in a bid to reward themselves,” said Kwak Geum-joo, a psychology professor at Seoul National University.
“For example, a COVID-19 patient under quarantine, who has worked with a tight schedule or has been on a diet, might feel guilty for letting themselves be a couch potato. But they would also feel the pleasure of breaking away from the routine,” she added.
The urge to tune in and tune out during home isolation could also be a major driver of binge-watching, another expert said.
“Humans, as social animals, desire a sense of belonging and have an emotional need to affiliate with other members of a group, which is fueled by the rise of social networking services. This yearning for connection tends to increase when someone is placed in isolation. By watching multiple episodes of popular TV shows or YouTube videos, binge-watchers feel like they are keeping up with the trends,” said Im Myung-ho, a psychology professor at Dankook University.
Impact on mental, physical health
Media may offer an escape from the stress of the quarantine, but excessive screen time could result in health problems, ranging from sleep disorders to depression, experts warn.
Hong Jin-pyo, a psychiatrist at Samsung Medical Center in Seoul, linked late-night bingeing with poor sleep quality and increased insomnia.
“A proper amount of screen time can be a stress reliever, but heavy exposure to screen light and sounds before bedtime disrupts the brain’s transition from wakefulness to sleep. It’s really important that people are not overly stimulated late at night to prevent sleep debt. Extra attention is necessary for children whose brain is more affected by stimulus from TV viewing,” he said.
Lack of physical activity during the long hours of TV viewing could exasperate the coronavirus blues.
“When people get depressed, the hippocampus in the brain — the area that helps regulate mood — becomes smaller. Physical activity boosts nerve cell growth in the hippocampus, which helps relieve depression. Also, a release of dopamine and serotonin while exercising improves people’s mood,” Hong said.