Summer of Science: Why we enjoy binge-watching shows

Why do we enjoy binge-watching shows?

Looking forward to a Netflix Christmas-movie marathon? Watch out - binge-watching your favourite shows might mean you have poor impulse control, according to a new study published in Frontiers in Psychiatry.

People have been watching their favourite series on DVD for ages, but binge-watching really burst onto the scene with the emergence of Netflix.

The phenomenon only increased when we used it as an escape from the tedium of COVID lockdowns.

Can you really blame us? After all, even fish watch TV.

Researchers from Jagiellonian University, Poland, investigated whether binge-watching had negative consequences, and found that it may be similar to other addictive activities, such as online gaming.

They also found that lack of impulse control or forethought was a major personality trait that predicted whether people would get into problematic binge-watching, though motivation for escapism was the biggest predictor of all.

The researchers surveyed a group of 645 people between 18 and 30 years of age who admitted to watching two or more episode of a TV show in one sitting to gauge their impulsivity, emotional regulation, and motivations for streaming multiple episodes at a time.

They found that the most common motivations to binge-watch were loneliness, boredom and a wish to be entertained, but these could easily lead to long sessions of lying on the couch under a blanket, hitting 'yes' when the 'are you sure you want to keep watching?' screen appears.

"I think that the most interesting result of the study was that motivational factors were stronger predictors of problematic binge-watching than personal predispositions, such as impulsivity," says Jolanta Starosta, lead author.

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Most participants reported watching two to five episodes at once, but 20 per cent of the group reported watching between six and 20 episodes in one sitting.

"It may be related to the fact that problematic binge-watchers engage in marathoning TV series mainly because they want to escape their daily life problems and regulate emotions, but decide to continue watching other episodes of TV series because of more entertaining reasons," notes Starosta.

Starosta explains that they also noticed some similarities between people who engage in other addictive activities - such as online gaming - and binge-watchers, but it is far too early to assume that binge-watching is serious or risky behaviour until more research is done.

"We have found out that anxiety and depression are significant predictors of problematic binge-watching," she says.

However, we can't just blame ourselves, since streaming services themselves may influence binge-watching behaviour.

After all, who can resist letting autoplay start the next episode after a particularly epic cliffhanger on The Witcher?

"A few seconds to decide if someone should or should not continue watching is not enough to make rational decisions and may lead to loss of control over the amount of time spent on watching TV shows," says Starosta.

"However, some platforms have already made some changes to help viewers control their behaviour. For example, Netflix added the option to disable the autoplay of another episode."

The study does have some limits - for example, the group was focused purely on Polish volunteers and included only people aged under 30 - so Starosta suggests further research across other nationalities and age groups may shed further light on how binge-watching affects us.

  • This article is published in partnership with Cosmos Magazine. Cosmos is produced by The Royal Institution of Australia.

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