UT Study Links Binge-Watching, Depression


Binge-watching a television series is now the guilty pleasure of choice for many. Perhaps, while watching a few episodes of Friends, a familiar voice in your head reminds you about the dirty dishes in the sink or the beautiful day we’re having—but you trudge on. Netflix automatically plays the next episode and then, just like that, four hours have gone by. Well, we hate to ruin a good thing, but a group of UT researchers says that this thoroughly modern habit may have a dark side.

Advertising professor Wei-Na Lee and two graduate students, Yoon Hi Sung and Eun Yeon Kang, led a study on binge-watching which they will present at an international communications conference in May. They found that binge-watchers were more likely to be depressed.

“People talk about this like it’s a harmless addiction, but if you think about it, any sort of binging behavior is generally negative,” Lee says. “The word binge is not a positive word, so we wondered if binge-watching could be related to some of the factors that have been identified with other binge behaviors.”

How bad is binge-watching? Of 316 millennials surveyed, those who reported being more lonely or depressed were also more likely to binge-watch. And those who struggled more with “self-regulation deficiency,” essentially self-control, were also less likely to turn the TV off. Lee points out that for now researchers don’t know if one factor causes the other, simply that they’re correlated. Binge-eating and binge-drinking are also correlated with depression and loneliness, she says, although more research is needed to know how similar those behaviors may or may not be to binge-watching.

Lee admits that she too has binge-watched on occasion.

“I’m not saying that binge-watching itself is bad, but that with binge behavior, whenever you go to the extreme you will have undesirable consequences and that needs to be looked at,” she says. “If you only do it every once in a while, I don’t see that as a problem, but if you do it frequently and it’s distracting you from what you need to be doing, that becomes an issue.”

Binge-watching is a fairly new phenomenon, with the proliferation of online series—some being released entire seasons at a time—and their easy, autoplay set-up. After all, weren’t Netflix and Hulu practically created for distraction? Lee says she sees more people starting to study binge-watching, and she hopes that her study will be a call for more research on the subject.

So if you were planning on getting through all 26 episodes of Orange is the New Black this weekend, you might want to rethink that.

Illustration by Melissa Reese