The way we consume television changed with the introduction of online streaming. Before, maybe a favourite show would run a marathon now and then, and there was always a chance you’d turn off the TV because”nothing good was on.” Now, with almost any series on demand whenever you want, psychologists are becoming increasingly concerned.
The very colloquial phrase used to describe our zombie-eyed consumption of Orange is the New Black and House of Cards should be enough to raise eyebrows: binge-watching. The term mimics very real medical conditions like binge eating and drinking, and it’s those similar psychological symptoms researchers are looking for in the Netflix-obsessed.
Polling 316 participants, of which 237 met a pre-determined binge-watching definition, researchers from the University of Texas at Austin reported that binge-watchers were more likely to have behaviours that are usually telltale signs of depression, like lack of self-regulation and loneliness, the study’s lead researcher told NPR. However, no ascertain is made that binge watching Netflix actually makes you depressed, but it could be a factor of a more serious issue.
This particular research is an exploratory step into analysing online streaming on our mental health but comes with a few problems. First, its relatively small size isn’t quite enough to infer watching habits of an entire population, and the definition of “binge-watching” isn’t uniform across studies. This particular study decided that two episodes in a row was enough to consider someone a binge-watcher, though many find that binge-watching is when people consume whole seasons of shows in a day or a weekend.
Up until now, unlimited television consumption has been the subject of joke PSAs and a particularly hilarious Portlandia sketch about BattleStar Galactica:
Even though they’re jokes, they do accurately describe the almost scary and borderline-addictive personalities that can emerge from binge watching. But as Netflix ceremoniously declared in 2013, binge-watching is the new normal. The service definitely helps that behaviour by uploading whole seasons of shows at once and using an autoplay feature that only gives you 15-second breaks until catapulting you into the next episode. It’s curious how the word “binge” has a negative connotation in any other context, but for watching tv shows and movies, it’s unanimously accepted without a second thought.
Researchers have been looking at how Netflix and streaming services like it affect mental health for more than a year now, and other studies have also convincingly established a connection between binge watching and depression, but it will take more work to discern whether it really is a harmless hobby or a serious addiction. [NPR]