Netflix Scrutinized for Potential Impact on Health and Planet

Netflix PetriDish Illo - THR - H 2019
Illustration by: Max Löffler

Recent research suggests that binge-watching can contribute to everything from heart disease to lower sex drive and even climate change.

We all know binge-watching Netflix can have negative effects on time management, but can it actually be bad for humanity? In July, the Journal of the American Heart Association published a report that found that those who watched more than four hours of TV each day had a 50 percent greater risk of premature death from heart disease than those who spent less than half that time in front of a television screen. So binge-watch at your own risk.

As for the impact on the planet, a sobering recent study from The Shift Project warned about the massive carbon footprint from moving video data along digital and mobile networks. According to the Paris-based nonprofit, the share of emissions attributable to the digital era will increase from 2.5 percent in 2013 to 4 percent in 2020, mostly fueled by the growth of video. Watching a high-definition video by streaming on a smartphone for just 10 minutes is equivalent to using a 2,000-watt electric oven at full power for five minutes, states the study. Asked how streaming a movie online compares to someone using a car to drive to a theater, research author Maxime Efoui-Hess says two hours of streaming is equivalent to 6 kilograms of CO2 while driving would garner a fraction of that amount (around 200 grams per passenger). Of course, air conditioning in the movie theater counts too. Efoui-Hess notes a proper comparison requires a measure on “the energy consumption of the theater when broadcasting the movie.”

Netflix definitely pays attention to research studies. After an early July study reported that smoking imagery had tripled on Netflix in just one year, the streaming giant quickly pledged to eliminate smoking from all programming rated TV-14 or PG-13 and below. And Netflix also cut a controversial scene in 13 Reasons Why after an April study in the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry showed a spike in teen suicides after the show was released. As for the research from The Shift Project, Netflix hasn’t commented, but a section on the company’s website does acknowledge its carbon footprint with particular efforts being made to increase the efficiency of its servers and find renewable energy sources.

Overall, measuring the environmental fallout from Netflix's rise is complicated. A study in The British Medical Journal reported that individuals were reporting having less sex in the last decade. Whether that's attributable to streaming outlets like Netflix has been the subject of intense debate. A separate Danish study presented in June at the annual meeting of the European Society of Human Reproduction and Embryology detailed how men who stay up late have lower sperm counts. As gynecologist and fertility expert Raj Mathu told one newspaper, people "should think about what's keeping them up and try to change their habits, whether it's binge-watching Netflix or sending emails."

A version of this story first appeared in the Aug. 7 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.