I walked past my 10-year-old son the other day while he was watching something on his iPad and felt a sense of déjà vu. Didn't I see him watching this same show just last week? When I asked him about it, my son just shrugged and said, "I like it".
It's not unusual for any of us to "comfort watch" our favourite shows, is it? I know I've watched Colin Firth emerge from that pond in Pride and Prejudice more times than I should publicly admit. And comfort watching becomes even more soothing during times of stress (hello, COVID lockdown) because, experts say, it eases our cognitive load. It's like mashed potato for our stressed-out brains.
Child and adolescent psychologist Angela Karanja says one of the main reasons children like to watch shows repeatedly is that it provides a sense of stability and safety that makes them feel in control.
"They know exactly what's coming and how it will go," Karanja says. "No surprises!
"The positive and good feelings associated with watching the same show is an actual reward which then fuels the desire to watch the same show again. This reward and reinforcement cycle is what keeps them hooked on watching the same thing over and over."
And that reward we feel all comes down to biology, Karanja says.
"Biologically our bodies remain alive by being in a safe state of homeostasis (staying stable) which is what watching the same show provides," she says.
"Watching the same show over and over means there are no unexpected details that disturb this peace and are perceived as a threat. It also means the brain is not required to learn, wonder, be shocked – [there's] not much brain activity and therefore little or no energy is required which is so satisfying and keeps the child happy."
When our kids are going through times of stress, this watching and re-watching can actually be beneficial, explains Karanja.
"Say, for example, the child has had a hard day at nursery or school," she says. "It is best to watch stuff that is soothing, something to massage the brain and the body's nervous system.
"Watching the same show over and over again is the repetition that hardwires messages in the brain and memory and turns this into the internal message that runs the child's life. If messages are those laced with positive values, then this is good for the child and everyone around....When watching a show, the brainwaves drop to alpha ever lower and this is how conditioning happens."
So watching the same show repeatedly can actually be a good thing for our children, says Karanja, as long as they don't become fixated on the one show, and resistant to ideas that are contrary to the show's messages.
"When a child throws a fit because they can't watch this particular show, [that can be a problem]," she says, as is "when they rigidly identify with the program and are unable to separate themselves from [it]."
What parents need to watch out for, in this instance, are the early signs of addiction, says Karanja. She says it's okay for children to watch a show and like it, and to ask for it again and again, but if behaviour advances to it being the first thing they want to do when they wake up, or if they are 'itchy' if they can't watch it, this can start to become 'maladaptive' behaviour – with them not being able to enjoy the present moment because they feel robbed of the show.
"The next step is that they will do whatever it takes, including taking risks, to watch," says Karanja. "They are ready to forego food, they'll lie and sneak to watch instead of doing homework, ignore family and throw a strop or even fight over the family remote.
"Then, finally, they enter a stage where they claim they can't think right unless they watch it. They eat, drink and talk about this show. Their values are based on that. This now becomes their identity."
While it's rare for children to get to this point, Karanja says it's important if parents see any signs of addiction, they deal with it early so it doesn't become a bigger problem.
"It's important that parents know that while watching the same show can be comforting, overdone, it can rob the child's opportunity to develop diverse ideas which advances their diversity and reasoning.
"Whilst watching a variety of programs may at first feel threatening and destabilising because of the uncertainties therein, this prepares the child for the brain agility that is required for resilience and constant change. The brain develops resilience neuropaths, the ability to learn, unlearn and relearn.
"The child is [then] accustomed and not afraid of change. They are receptive and prepared for the only thing that is certain in the world - change."