are you still watching…?

This weekend, I will join other media consumers—eyes glued to a screen for hours—as we reunite with Piper, “Crazy Eyes”, Red, Taystee, and the rest of the ladies of Litchfield Penitentiary in the third season of the Netflix-distributed show, Orange is the New Black. Along with the revival of fan favorite Arrested Development, the American adaptation of House of Cards, and the development of new shows like Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, Netflix has set the the new standard for online distribution of television shows. By releasing entire seasons at once, and the introduction of the autoplay feature, Netflix certainly encourages the behavior of binge-watching.

In 2013, Netflix commissioned a study by Harris interactive to survey online watching habits, and found that 61% of the 1,500 respondents binge-watched on a regular basis (defined as 2-3 episodes every couple of weeks). Netflix then sent cultural anthropologist, Grant McCracken to interview respondents to further explore this phenomenon.  76% of subscribers said that binge-watching was a “welcome refuge from their busy lives,” and more stated that watching several episodes at once is a more enjoyable experience. This certainly aligns with our culture of instant gratification. Why wait an entire week to see what happens on the next episode of Game of Thrones when you can watch all of House of Cards in a mere couple of days?

The survey found that 73% of watchers associated positive, guilt-free feelings with binge-watching. Yet how many of us have felt slightly guilty (and judged) when prompted with Netflix’s “are you still watching…” popups? And do we take that message to heart when deciding if it’s time to stop watching for a while?

Recently, communication researchers at the University of Texas at Austin presented new findings at the 65th Annual Conference of the International Communication Association, suggesting a correlation between binge-watching and depression and loneliness. While the data has not yet been published, Yoon Hi Sung, Eun Yeon Kang and Wei-Na Lee conducted a survey of ~300 young adults (ages 18-29) asking questions on the frequency of their TV watching, how often they felt depressed or lonely, and their binge-watching habits. They found that participants who were more lonely or depressed had an increased likelihood of binge-watching with a lack of self-control. In other words, they seem to binge-watch as a way to replace negative feelings and are unable to stop watching episode after episode.

It’s important to note here that correlation does not equal causation, in addition to the fact that the sample size of this survey is too small to hold any significant qualitative weight. However, binge-watching is a relatively new cultural behavior, and in depth studies have not yet been conducted to properly assess the evidence. Yet, we do know that feelings of loneliness, depression, and lack of self-control are psychological effects of other binging behaviors and addiction.

ChapelleShowMemeWhether it’s food, drugs, or shopping, addiction leads to physical changes in the brain which can impair the biological pathways involved with cognition and rewards. Additionally, there is a disconnect in dealing with emotions, so that impulsive behavior takes precedence over rational thought. Similarly, stress influences the desire to engage in binge behaviors. Addiction feeds the need for instant gratification, but affects our brain and behavior negatively in the long-term.

There is another activity that affects our brain’s behavioral response to gratification, but with a long-term positive outcome: exercise. 45-minutes on the treadmill brings a whole new element to the walk-and-talk scenes during your binge of The West Wing. Or there are exercise games—do five crunches every time a walker is killed on The Walking Dead, do five push ups every time someone makes a “huge mistake” on Arrested Development, do a wall sit for the entire duration of an awkward Game of Thrones sex scene. The possibilities are endless.

Featured image by Flickr user Al Ibrahim licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.
Chapelle’s Show meme created by NibblyWibbly under ‘fair use’ of the copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the U.S. Copyright Law.

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Mariel Mohns

By day, Mariel is a science writer at a research institute. By moonlight, she is a freelance science writer for various web-based outlets. She has a habit of collecting hobbies in her spare time, but mostly enjoys movies, TV binges, video games, and knitting.

2 thoughts on “are you still watching…?”

  1. On the note about instant gratification: with BuzzFeed’s micro-articles and Vine’s micro- videos and the advent of “reality” TV programs (such as MasterChef), even binge watching on Netflix cannot satisfy the absence of gratification in the micro-seconds of day-to-day life…


    1. Absolutely. We’re really no different than lab rats looking for the nearest button to press and satisfy our happiness in an instant.

      Honestly, the most depressing part of my Netflix habit is the hour-long session of scrolling through my list, deciding what to watch 😛


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