Humans are like rare zoo pandas—we must mate for the future of our species, and yet it’s so hard to get the conditions just right. That’s what I thought while reading the latest entry in the “technology is bad for us” chronicles, an article in the Wall Street Journal that blames declining birth rates on Netflix.
The premise of the piece: the streaming platform is so entertaining that people, even those who would like to have babies, sometimes watch Netflix with their partners instead of having procreative sex. Even though the author, Shalini Ramachandran, correctly notes that the link between streaming and reduced baby-making is largely anecdotal, it is nonetheless confusingly framed as a mood-killer so large that it’s contributing to the U.S. birth rate being at a 30-year low.
Why is streaming so much worse for our libidos than old fashioned TV? According to the piece, it’s partly because back in the pre-Netflix days, human had the helpful mating assistance of … advertisements for services and goods. Now, “there are no commercials where you could look over and say, ‘Honey, you look cute tonight,’ ” Jean Twenge, who has made a rallying cry out of questionably linking screens to the ills of the world, told the WSJ. Yes—ads for mid-size cars and Swiffers are apparently the foreplay instigator we’re all now missing out on.
You don’t need to take Twenge’s word for it, though. The piece is premised partly on the results of a survey of more than a thousand people the WSJ completed with Survey Monkey (which, it should be noted, focused on sex, not procreation). A quarter of respondents said they have sometimes turned down being intimate with a partner in favor of streaming television. Would those people have also occasionally turned down sex for bunny-ear-antenna broadcasting, or other pre-Netflix activities, like going to the movies, enjoying a hike, or people-watching at a cocktail bar? Because the survey does not ask, it’s impossible to say. But it stands to reason that even among the heterosexually coupled trying to have a child, people will sometimes choose to spend their time doing … other things.
The WSJ’s own stats also seem to undermine, rather than support, the story’s thesis. While 12 percent of survey respondents overall said that television streaming habits were leading to less sex, 70 percent noted no effect, and 17 percent said that their streaming habits led to more sex. To be fair, for folks who were married or in a domestic partnership—presumably, those most likely to be having sex to make a family—an equal number of people said their streaming habits were helping their sex lives as said streaming was hurting sex. But the vast majority of couples said watching streamed TV was quality time with a partner. You’d think that would have a positive effect on a relationship, though it’s hard to know how that connects to reproductive choices, as the survey wasn’t limited to couples trying to conceive. All of this means that it’s hard to extrapolate the results of hypothetical Netflix-induced-sex-suppression—the story is mostly a handful of anecdotes from couples frustrated by Netflix’s presence in their lives—to the birth rate. But if anything, it seems that for most people, Netflix is probably bolstering the amount of intercourse that’s happening.
“Netflix and Chill” exists as a euphemism for hooking up for a reason: it places two people in the same private room, often beneath the same blanket, in low lighting, with low stakes for missing the activity at hand. You zipped past a plot point because you were too busy canoodling? Rewind, or, just catch up later. I’d also argue that the automatic next episode feature, which Twenge derides for not letting couples have a break in which they could commence doing it, makes it so the atmosphere stays consistent for however long you need to “hang out.” Nothing kills the mood like an abrupt shift from Friends re-runs to the 11 o’clock news.