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4 Ways Netflix Perpetuates Modern Anxieties

I have been a Netflix subscriber since the pre-streaming days when it was just a Blockbuster-killing, DVD-by-mail service. Back in our dating days, my wife and I systematically worked through the glorious five seasons of Friday Night Lights. Now five years into marriage, we are often captivated by episodes of The Crown or The Great British Baking Show on nights when we’re physically and mentally fried.

To be sure, Netflix can be a wonderful thing. It is convenient, relaxing, and increasingly full of some of the best TV shows and movies around, from Stranger Things to Mudbound.

But as with most things that can be wonderful, Netflix can also be not-so-wonderful. Recently I’ve been reflecting on some of the troubling aspects of what Netflix is and—perhaps more significantly—the ways it embodies and perpetuates some of the anxieties of our secular age.

1. The anxiety of having no timeline other than our own

It wasn’t so long ago that television—among other things in our world—had its own schedule that we had to work around. TV shows aired on certain days and times. You either caught something when it aired, or you missed it. It was “appointment TV”: NBC’s Friends and “Must See TV” on Thursday nights, ABC’s TGIF lineup on Friday nights, and so forth. Aside from certain regular live events (e.g., Monday Night Football), those days are gone.

Netflix embodies the new paradigm: TV that fits your schedule. There are no appointed days or times, no predictable rhythms, no slowly released seasons, no waiting. It’s what you want, when you want it. Whole seasons in a day, if you like. In some ways, this shift reflects the postmodern turn away from common narratives toward endlessly fragmenting individual stories. Rather than fitting one’s story into an overarching narrative, today everything fits to us. Everything is customizable, tailored to our schedules and preferences.

Rather than fitting one’s story into an overarching narrative, today everything fits to us. Everything is customizable, tailored to our schedules and preferences.

Christians should see warning signs in this shift, which often applies not only to our media habits but also to our spiritual lives, leading to consumer faith where individual spiritual paths and preferences take precedence over scriptural authority and community.

But this shift produces anxiety for at least two reasons. First, because we were made for rhythms, not utterly aimless unpredictability. And second, because we were made for community, not choose-your-own-adventure experiences of solitary mediation.

2. The anxiety of having way too many options

If you have Netflix, you’ve probably experienced what I call “Netflix Paralysis”—that moment when you’re trying to decide what to watch, but you freeze because you simply cannot choose. There are too many options and no external guidance for your selection. You’re worried about wasting time, and the “will it be the perfect choice?” burden weighs heavily.

When everything is at our disposal, on our timeline, and to our liking, we’ll naturally experience stress under the weight of consumerist freedom and FOMO. Will we make the wrong choice? Of the 15 shows your friends have talked about on social media, which one should you watch? These questions can be debilitating, adding to the existing anxiety we feel in a world of choice overload.

When everything is at our disposal, on our timeline and to our liking, we’ll naturally experience stress under the weight of consumerist freedom and FOMO.

Another aspect of excessive choice is the option to binge-watch. In bygone days, one had to exercise patience in waiting for weekly episodes, tracking with a show for months on end. Yet these days we can cycle through entire seasons of TV in a weekend, binge-watching as fast as we can because there are just too many other shows to get to.

But all of this only further entrenches us within consumerism—the ugly excesses and discontentments of which also wreak havoc on our spiritual lives. The glut of churches and theological paths at our disposal mirrors the choice overload of Netflix. We engage in “church shopping” that is not unlike Netflix scrolling, looking for the perfect fit but feeling predictably anxious that the search will never end.

3. The anxiety of our watching being watched

Netflix made headlines in December with a creepy tweet: “To the 53 people who’ve watched A Christmas Prince every day for the past 18 days: Who hurt you?”

The tweet disturbed many, because it reminded us how much Netflix knows about our viewing habits. The streaming site tracks data on the what, when, where, and how long of every piece of content we consume. It also tracks our searches and records data every time we pause, fast forward, or rewind.

As with anything on the internet or our smartphones, the tradeoff for convenience and vast access is the price of being data mined. Netflix (like Facebook and Google, among others) tracks our every move so that we can be delivered to advertisers in more comprehensive, tailored packages. TV has always functioned this way to the extent that it can monitor our consumer behavior. But Netflix takes it to another level entirely. While there may be some benefit to knowing someone is paying attention to what you watch (the reality of online footprints provides a measure of inescapable accountability), it adds yet another layer of anxiety to a media environment where we are more and more exposed with every click we make.

4. The anxiety of experiencing life in disconnected fragments

One of the things Netflix invariably enables is an unfortunate tendency to watch narratives in broken-up fragments: 16 minutes here, a short lunch break there, and so forth to make it through something. In theory this is brilliant, as it allows one to “maximize” the in-between moments of life (e.g., riding the subway, waiting in line at the DMV). But in practice it hinders the full experience of watching narratives that are meant to be experienced not in piecemeal segments, but as a coherent whole.

It also perpetuates the existing tendency today toward what Neil Postman called the “Now . . . this” mode of discourse where “viewers are rarely required to carry over any thought or feeling from one parcel of time to another.” We consume a few minutes of Chopped, followed by a documentary on refugees, followed by the second half of an episode of Narcos, all while (probably) scrolling through Twitter or Instagram on our phone, seeing our friends’ baby pictures in between political rants and weather headlines.

This haphazard experience of media exacerbates our anxiety about disconnectedness in this (ironically) hyper-connected world. With our second and third screens staring at us at any given time, each with multiple open windows and tabs and apps, we feel pulled every which way. There is less space in our lives for stillness, attentiveness, and gratitude; less patience for context and the big picture. We expect everything now and idolize immediacy, losing sight of the past and the future and inflating the importance of what’s happening now.

There is less space in our lives for stillness, attentiveness, and gratitude; less patience for context and the big picture.

But for Christians, what’s happening now must always be seen in light of the eternal picture: who God is, what he has done, and what he will do. We ought to resist the temptation to idolize immediacy—whether exacerbated by Netflix or Twitter or BREAKING NEWS. We belong to a bigger picture, an eternal family, a grander narrative. Insofar as we remember this and maintain a broader perspective, the anxieties of our age become a bit less debilitating.

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