With Netflix’s House of Cards returning next month and an increasing number of TV networks making entire series available online, there’s no better time for researchers to shine a light on binge-watching. At the University of Texas at Austin, researchers surveyed hundreds of millennials to find out what psychological factors lead people to watch three or more TV episodes at a time. What they found was troubling—people who binge-watch are more likely to be depressed and lonely, two factors that are also in harmful binge behaviors such as eating and drinking.
Doctoral students Yoon Hi Sung and Eun Yeon Kang and professor Wei-Na Lee first publicly announced their findings today and will present them in full at a conference in Puerto Rico in May. They questioned 316 people between the ages of 18 and 29 about participants’ TV-watching habits and psychological states. One question, for instance, was, “How often do you feel alone?” Going into the project, the authors figured that if loneliness and depression are tied to binge drinking and eating, which other researchers have found, then maybe even something as entertaining as binge-watching isn’t so different.
“It all started out with this word binge,” Lee says of their research. “The word binge has this negative connotation,” she says, except for when it comes to watching TV. “That got us curious.”
Seventy-five percent of study responders said they binge-watched, doing so mostly on streaming websites such as Netflix and Hulu. Comedy and romance were the most binge-watched genres; some of the most popular shows for binge-watching were Orange Is the New Black, Grey’s Anatomy, One Tree Hill and Desperate Housewives.
The authors, who concede that they too binge-watch, were correct: they discovered a correlation between binge-watching and loneliness, depression, and having self-regulation deficiency, which is an inability to control compulsions.
For people who feel lonely or depressed, the authors suggest, binge-watching allows them to escape from negative feelings. And the more episodes someone watches, the longer that person can escape. Experts call this an avoidance coping strategy.
“This should no longer be viewed as a ‘harmless’ addictive behavior,” the researchers conclude in the paper.
Original programming on streaming sites seems made for binge-watching. Netflix has been dropping an entire season’s worth of new episodes at once since the American premiere of Lilyhammer in 2012; House of Cards, Orange Is the New Black and the Netflix version of Arrested Development all premiered the following year. Since then the practice has become the norm for Internet-native shows; Transparent, on Amazon Prime, which debuted a pilot in February 2014 and made the rest of its episodes available all at once in September, won a Golden Globe for best comedy TV series earlier this month.
Of course, Netflix and Amazon don’t have the monopoly on binge-watching; “complete series” DVD box sets still exist, and increasingly, TV networks—including AMC, FX, MTV, Comedy Central, CBS and HBO—are getting into the online streaming game. HBO, for example, made headlines last October when it announced that people would no longer need a cable subscription to access its online content.
The University of Texas researchers are joining a growing field of academia taking on entertainment. One study from last June suggested that binge-watching increases a viewer’s risk of early death. In September, a communication research expert told the Huffington Post that it’s hard to break from a marathon viewing because humans are hardwired to watch for changes in environments, including images on a computer screen.
If their findings are well received in May, the University of Texas researchers say, they could move forward with a larger sample size or look at what point binge-watching is harmful to a viewer’s psychological state.