The Psychology of Box Set Binging
Does watching DVD box sets make people more depressed?
Posted Jul 21, 2015
In late January 2015, I was watching the newspaper review on Sky News when one of the reviewers referred to a story in the British Daily Mail about the negative effects of box-set bingeing (‘Watching TV box-set marathons is warning sign you're lonely and depressed - and will also make you fat’). Having examined the psychology of box-set bingeing in a previous blog, the story instantly grabbed my attention (and also because I love box-set bingeing when I get the time). (I also discovered in researching this article that in November 2013, the Oxford Dictionary announced that the word ‘binge-watch’ [defined as "to watch multiple episodes of a television programme in rapid succession" was a contender for its word of the year but was eventually beaten by the word 'selfie').
The Daily Mail story was based on some research led by doctoral researcher Ms. Yoon Hi Sung (at the University of Texas). Unfortunately, the research is not publicly available as it hasn’t actually been published yet. In fact, the study is from a conference paper that will be presented in May (at the Conference of the International Communication Association in Puerto Rico in May). Ms. Sung said that his findings “should be a wake-up call”. In typical Daily Mail style, a number of claims were made (which are listed below verbatim):
* “Watching TV box-set marathons is warning sign you're lonely and depressed - and will also make you fat
* Watching TV for long periods of time can lead to obesity and exhaustion.
* 'Binge-watchers' are more likely to lack self-control and have addictions.
* University of Texas researchers said it's no longer a 'harmless addiction'. They said people will watch TV as a distraction when they are feeling low”.
Unfortunately there was little detail of the method used or much about 316 participants aged 18 to 29 years (e.g., how the participants were recruited, how representative the sample was of all those who engage in box-set bingeing, etc.) but the Daily Mail was adamant that box-set bingeing is bad for your health. More specifically, the journalist Daniel Bates wrote:
“People who suffer from low moods are more likely to spend hours or days viewing multiple episodes of their favourite programme online or on DVD box set. But by doing so they could neglect work, relationships and even their family. The researchers from the University of Texas at Austin said that binge-watching should no longer be considered a ‘harmless addiction’ and that people should think twice before settling in for a long session in front of the TV…The findings showed a direct link. The worse somebody felt, the more likely they were to watch a lot of TV in an apparent attempt to avoid their low mood”.
Ms. Sung was quoted as saying:
“Even though some people argue that binge-watching is a harmless addiction, findings from our study suggest that binge-watching should no longer be viewed this way. Physical fatigue and problems such as obesity and other health problems are related to binge-watching and they are a cause for concern. When binge-watching becomes rampant, viewers may start to neglect their work and their relationships with others. Even though people know they should not, they have difficulty resisting the desire to watch episodes continuously”.
Not having access to the details of the study make it difficult to make methodological criticism but as a Professor of Gambling Studies I would bet my bottom dollar that the claims go beyond the data. As far as I am aware there has never been any academic study of box set viewing behaviour (either watching ‘on demand’ via interactive television or DVD box-sets) but I did come across some commercial research carried out by the company MarketCast in 2013 (and reported in in Variety magazine in an article entitled ’10 insights from studies of binge watchers’ by Marc Fraser). In the study, over 1,000 US television viewers, the report claimed that there were “elevated binge levels” when watching box-set television series on demand such as House of Cards, Breaking Bad, Dexter, The Walking Dead, True Blood, and Sons of Anarchy. As Fraser reported:
“As networks grapple with the potential effect of binge-viewing to their bottom line, what they’re starting to learn is less threatening than some early analysts have suggested. The good news for broadcasters is that bingeing actually creates more viewers for TV shows, MarketCast found, which should broaden the audience for advertisers and their commercials when new episodes air. That’s primarily because most binge viewers are just trying to catch up on a series they may have missed, and tend to tune into a series during its regular airings. For example, 65% of those surveyed said they would watch new episodes of ‘Breaking Bad’ without bingeing when the series returned, while another 58% said they would tune into ‘The Walking Dead’ in similar fashion. At the same time, despite the large amount of time required for bingeing, other forms of entertainment aren’t seeing a large decrease as a result of binge-viewing, the study [found]”.
The MarketCast study also reported that 5% of their study participants said bingeing was the only way that they watched their favourite TV shows, and just under one-third of the sample planned to use the bingeing method of viewing their favourite TV series in the future. Here are some of the other key findings listed in the report:
* There are four types of binge-viewers. Those who binge (i) because they don’t like to wait a week to find out what happens next, (ii) because friends tell them they’re missing out; (iii) to watch TV shows they’ve seen before, and (iv) when they are ill or housebound because of injury,
* The main reasons for box-set bingeing are to (i) catch up on TV series that were missed when they first aired, (ii) avoid having to watch adverts (and save time), and (iii) avoid waiting to see what happens next.
* Two-thirds of the sample (67%) claimed to have had at least one binge-watching experience.
* Those who binge watch only are typically males under the age of 30 years (although there is no overall difference between males and females in binge watching behaviour). (Another piece of market research by Magid Generational Strategies in early 2013 reported that 70% of binge viewers are aged 16 to 35 years).
* More binge watching is done alone (56%) and at home (98%). Binge watching is also done while travelling (13%) and/or while on holiday (16%).
* Box-set bingeing occurs online (e.g., via on-demand services) more than offline (e.g., DVD box-sets).
* Drama is most watched genre for bingeing (60%), followed by comedy (45%), and reality shows (26%).
Fraser also made reference to another piece of market research by Solutions Research Group that examined 1,200 Canadian subscribers of Netflix and their viewing habits related to the television series House of Cards (that puts all 13 episodes online simultaneously). The study found that one in three viewers watched all 13 episodes within four weeks of first airing).
Another news story I came across (in Australia’s Herald Sun) provided a more positive spin and claimed in the headline ‘Binge-viewing box sets on the couch now the best way to build romance’. The article by journalist Megan Miller reported:
“For more and more couples, churning through a lazy 12-episode series is a romance rekindler that takes less effort than a meal somewhere nice and is cheaper than a beach holiday. It can be done without leaving the comfort of one's home (or even one's flannie pyjamas) and provides valuable couple time as well as down time from the rigours of work and family. Everyone's on board. Barack and Michelle Obama are said to be hooked on spy drama ‘Homeland’ and our own PM Tony Abbott loves sitting down with wife Margie to an [episode] (or three) of ‘Downton Abbey’”.
It appears that the inspiration for the Herald Sun story may have been the “couple Phoebe and Mike, both 31 [years of age], were so addicted to cult hit Breaking Bad they took discs with the latest series on their Fijian honeymoon earlier this year, desperate to race back to their villa each night to keep up with the escapades of meth-maker Walter White”. Miller then interviewed Melbourne-based psychologist Sally-Anne McCormack who commented that:
“Doing something you both enjoy is at the heart of engaging in a binge session in front of the box. Shared interests create a bond and connection that's great for relationships. Cuddling up on the couch and snuggling while watching a show that you both get enjoyment from gives a common interest and some relaxed time together…New partners may watch shows together for the sake of the other, not because they hold a great interest in it. An established relationship is one where the two people have a greater level of comfort together, and don't depend on the environment to help impress the other. At a later point in a relationship the two are relaxed with one another and can negotiate each other's interests and needs, and find a mutually interesting series that is exciting for both of them''.
All of the articles I have read on the topic describe binge-watching as an ‘addiction’ (at least in passing). Although there is a small literature on ‘television addiction’ (for a recent review in the Journal of Behavioral Addictions by my colleague Dr. Steve Sussman – see ‘Further reading’ below) I know of no empirical research on the topic of ‘binge-viewing addiction’. However, I did come across an arguably tongue-in-cheek list of signs in an article in the Daily Edge:
* The thought of a day doing nothing except watching a box set makes you genuinely excited.
* You have avoided a social engagement to stay in and watch something.
* At least once, you have woken up early specifically to watch the latest episode.
* You’ve had this thought – ‘Just one more episode’ or ‘Not sure if an actual memory or something I saw on TV’.
* You have accidentally drooled on at least one sofa cushion during a binge.
* You have cheated on your loved one with a box set. By which we mean, watching ahead while they’re out/on the phone to their mam/have gone to bed. AKA ‘Netflix Adultery’.
* You have had that moment where you get up from the couch, and have to shake food out of the folds of your clothes.
* You tell yourself you could stop at any time.
* When it’s all over, you feel confusion, shame and regret.
Even though these signs were probably written in jest, they would probably have good face validity should anyone decide to construct a new instrument to assess binge-watching addiction. However, even with the new study by the researchers at the University of Texas, I’m still to be convinced that box-set bingeing is a serious health concern – at least based on the scientific evidence.
References and further reading
Bates, D. (2015). Watching TV box-set marathons is warning sign you're lonely and depressed - and will also make you fat. Daily Mail, January 29. Located at: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/health/article-2931572/Love-marathon-TV-sessi...
Daily Edge (2014). 11 signs of you’re suffering from a binge-watching problem. Located at: http://www.dailyedge.ie/binge-watching-problem-signs-1391910-Apr2014/
Graser, M. (2013). Marathon TV viewers tend to be millenials playing catch up on shows; say they'll watch new seasons as they air. Variety, March 7. Located at: http://variety.com/2013/digital/news/10-insights-from-studies-of-binge-w...
Koepsell, D. (2013). In defence of the box set binge: a global shared culture. New Statesman, December 29. Located at: http://www.newstatesman.com/culture/2013/12/defence-box-set-binge-global...
Kompare, D. (2006). Publishing flow DVD Box Sets and the reconception of television. Television & New Media, 7(4), 335-360.
Miller, M. (2014). Binge-viewing box sets on the couch now the best way to build romance. Herald Sun, December 13. Located at: http://www.heraldsun.com.au/news/victoria/bingeviewing-box-sets-on-the-c...
Spangler, T. (2013). Poll of online TV watchers finds 61% watch 2-3 episodes in one sitting at least every few weeks. Variety, December 13. Located at: http://variety.com/2013/digital/news/netflix-survey-binge-watching-is-no...
Sussman, S., & Moran, M.B. (2013). Hidden addiction: Television. Journal of Behavioral Addictions, 2(3), 125-132.