Fans of popular TV programmes such as Game of Thrones (pictured above), the Walking Dead or Orange is the New Black may be familiar with the idea of binge-watching – sitting back and watching through multiple episodes of shows which carry an almost addictive quality.
Following a new report released today by Ofcom examining Britain’s Box Set habits, Professor Barrie Gunter from the University of Leicester’s School of Media, Communication and Sociology discusses the rise of binge-watching through new digital platforms such as Netflix, Hulu and Amazon.
“When I was working as an audience researcher in the broadcasting industry 30 years ago there was a major public debate about whether we all watched too much television. There was special concern reserved for children.
With youngsters, there was evidence, for instance, that TV could displace other things in their lives such as going out with their friends, playing sports and taking exercise, doing their homework, and that it encouraged them to stay up late reducing the amount of sleep they got.
Of course, in those days in the UK, there were just four TV channels available for most viewers (the very few early adopters of cable had over 20 channels).
In the 21st century, the media landscape has transformed beyond all recognition. Most people have access to hundreds of TV channels. Other video entertainment content is available over the Internet. Viewing is not restricted to the TV set, but is now possible through a range of other technologies such as home computers, tablets and smartphones that we can carry around with us all the time.
The technology shifts that have occurred in the past 20 years have also changed the way people can and do watch television. The traditional format consists of channels with pre-planned TV schedules in which programmes are broadcast at specific times. Viewers must make an “appointment to view” in this scenario.
In the digital era, more and more video entertainment is situated outside of linear schedules. In this alternative format, viewers can select not only what they want to watch but also when they watch it. “Non-linear viewing” is becoming increasingly the norm, especially for the younger generation commonly known as the “millennials”.
In the non-linear TV world, new services have sprung up to cater for this new style of watching video entertainment. Companies such as Amazon, Hulu and perhaps the best known of all, Netflix, provide on-demand services that allow us to pick and choose what we watch and to construct our own TV schedules. These services have introduced another feature that has proven to be extremely popular – the online “TV box set”.
In the conventional linear world of TV, we watch TV series and serials one episode at a time often being kept waiting for at least a week before we can tune in for the next chapter in the story we are following. With a box set, we get the access to the entire series of episodes.
We no longer have to wait a week for the next instalment, we can watch it straight away – and increasingly we do. In fact, often we don’t just settle for watching the next episode, but also the one after that and one after that. And so on. Sometimes, we might watch an entire series in a weekend.
This “binge viewing” phenomenon doesn’t happen all the time but it is becoming more and more prevalent. We might sit slumped in front of the TV set for hours on end only putting the series on pause momentarily while we grab a snack, make a drink and answer the call of nature.
Is binge-watching bad for your health?
Understandably this behaviour has attracted the attention of critics just as regular TV viewing did 30 years ago. The phenomenon of viewers being glued to the box for hours on end was a concern then. The growth of box set viewing, however, has attracted even more worry because it actively encourages viewers to keep watching. Why wait for a week to find out how an episode’s cliff-hanger is resolved when you can find out right away?
Why is this so bad? Well it encourages sedentary habits that could have serious physical health consequences. Just as people in confined spaces that allow little movement on long haul flights might develop blood clots because of poor circulation, similar problems, critics say, might occur from binge viewing. Where children are concerned, if they weren’t watching enough TV already, box sets will only encourage them to do even more.
Before we can decide that binge watching is a bad thing, we need to study the evidence. Before that, we need to define what we are dealing with. Exactly what is binge viewing?
Definitions have varied. Commonly it is taken to mean watching at least three consecutive episodes from a series in a row without a break. In a survey conducted by Netflix with its customers, most of those surveyed (73%) defined binge watching as viewing between two and six episodes of the same TV series in one sitting (http://www.prnewswire.com/news-releases/netflix-declares-binge-watching-is-the-new-normal-235713431.html).
Why does binge watching happen? Netflix hired a cultural anthropologist, Grant McCrackent to interview its users to find out more. One explanation that emerged was that in an age of texting, social media and microblogging in which people increasingly express themselves in bite-sized chunks of 140 characters or less or a few emoticons, there is a thirst for longer narrative storytelling. Box sets cater to this appetite. Further evidence indicated that people use box sets as an escape from their busy lives. It has become a new form of relaxation.
One concern that has surfaced about binge watching is that if it is a solitary experience, those who indulge can end up becoming socially cut off and lonely. There could be other psychological side-effects springing from this. Netflix, by the way, state that just over half of their binge viewers viewed with other people. Even so, nearly four in ten (38%) said they tended to watch on their own.
A study conducted by three researchers, Yoon Hi Sung, Eun Yeon Kang and Wei-Na Lee, at Texas A & M University surveyed 406 American adults, aged 18 to 29, that were recruited online. Binge watching here was defined by respondents as viewing for two to five hours non-stop rather than numbers of episodes seen.
Just over one in three (35%) admitted that they binge watched. Binge watchers tended to be people who watched more TV in general (https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/mar/04/binge-watching-mental-health-effects-research)
A key finding from this study that has attracted a lot of media attention was that binge watchers were more likely than other respondents to report feeling anxious, stressed or depressed. Binge watchers also reported being more likely to feel lonely. The message that has been taken from these findings is that binge watching has a relationship with mental health. This makes a good newspaper headline but it is probably premature to draw this as a valid conclusion from this study. (see: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/health/article-3312099/Could-Netflix-make-Much more research is nedestress.html)
The statistical relationship between binge watching and psychological well-being reveals an association between these variables but it doesn’t prove causality. It is also important to note that both binge viewing and mental health were self-identified and therefore the data produced by the researchers here would need further independent validation.
An interesting finding that also emerged from the Texas study was that those respondents who were most likely to report binge watching seemed also to possess weaker self-control. They would want to continue watching episode after episode even though they had other tasks to do. (Full reference: “A bad habit for your health? An exploration of psychological factors for binge-watching behaviour” by Yoon Hi Sung, Eun Yeon Kang and Wei-Na Lee. Paper presented at the 65th Annual Conference of the International Communication Association, San Juan, Puerto Rico, 21-25 May, 2015)
There is much we still need to understand about the effects of excessive sedentary behaviour associated with media consumption. Binge watching is one of a suite of media-related phenomena – others including playing video games and checking social media sites – that have become increasingly prevalent.
The key concerns include the impact of lack of movement on immediate health condition, the long-term effects of sedentary behaviour on weight gain and lack of physical fitness, the effects of an over-reliance of mediated entertainment on social connectedness, and for children especially, the effects of constant video stimulation on attention span and cognitive abilities.
Much more research is needed to address all these issues. But one thing’s for sure digital media is not going away. Understanding the effects of specific patterns of use might help in turn to create counter-measures that bingers will adopt for themselves in order to strike a healthier balance to their entertainment-seeking behaviour.”
You can read the full article from Professor Barrie Gunter here