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Views news: A brief look at the ‘Problem Series Watching Scale’

A few weeks ago I published the third of three articles on ‘box set bingeing’ (people like myself who sit and watch a whole television series at once either on DVD or on television catch-up services). Not long after writing the last article, a paper was published in the Journal of Behavioral Addictions about the development of a new psychometric instrument that assesses problematic television series watching – the Problematic Series Watching Scale (PSWS) – developed by Dr. Gabor Orosz and his colleagues at Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest (Hungary). The authors noted that:

“[Problematic series watching] might be a relevant issue for many people because accessing series by downloading or streaming is (a) very cheap (or free), (b) it is available for almost everyone who has broadband Internet access, (c) it does not depend on a certain place and time (i.e. playing squash depends on a certain place and time), (d) series have a high variety – everyone can find one which fits his/her interest, (e) they are not age- and socio-economic status-dependent, (f) it does not take effort to watch them, [and] (g) and they are constructed to be highly enjoyable and often contain cliffhangers which motivate the viewer to continue. These characteristics are highly similar to the ones mentioned by Cooper (1998) regarding Internet and pornography…In our research, we aimed to differentiate problematic series watching from the concept of television addiction as we focused on the content of the problematic use (series watching) rather than on the medium through which the problematic use happens (television). In our research, we observed problematic series watching which could be done either through a television (i.e. classical TV series) or a screen attached to a computer (i.e. Netflix)”.

The new scale was developed with over 1,100 participants and was based on my ‘addiction components model’ and comprised the following questions which can each be answered ‘never’, ‘rarely’, ‘sometimes’, ‘often’ and ‘always’. Each of the six items taps into a criterion for addiction (i.e., salience, tolerance, mood modification, withdrawal, conflict, and relapse). More specifically, the questions asks During the last year, how often have you:

  • Thought of how you could free up more time to watch series? [Salience]
  • Spent much more time watching series than initially intended? [Tolerance]
  • Watched series in order to reduce feelings of guilt, anxiety, helplessness and depression? [Mood modification]
  • Been told by others to cut down on watching series without listening to them? [Relapse]
  • Become restless or troubled if you have been prohibited from watching series? [Withdrawal]
  • Ignored your partner, family members, or friends because of series watching? [Conflict]

For those of you interested in the psychometric properties, the scale had good factor structure and reliability.

“Respondents watch series more than one hour per day which is more than one-fifth of their free time which indicated that series watching might be an important free time activity. However, the amount of free time one has is not associated with PSWS scores. Women had higher scores on PSWS and respondents with higher education had lower scores on it…Given the lack of empirical research on series watching, we supposed that it might be similar to other problematic screen-related behaviors (e.g. online gaming, Internet or Facebook use)… Other possible covariates could be examined in the future such as loneliness or urgency. Also, further investigation is needed whether extensive series watching can lead to health and psychosocial problems…PSWS scores are positively related with time spent on series watching, whereas the amount of free time does not have an effect on PSWS scores. In the more and more digitalized world there are many forces which encourage people watching online series. In the light of these changes, research on problematic series watching will be increasingly relevant”.

The authors also acknowledged that problematic television series watching doesn’t appear to affect many people and that we should be careful of pathologizing everyday behaviours as behavioural addictions (a criticism that has been made against some of my own research papers more recently – with ‘dance addiction’ and ‘study addiction’ being the most obvious ones).

Dr. Orosz and his colleagues have also just published another paper on problematic series watching in the journal Personality and Individual Differences. This second paper examined correlates of passion toward screen-based activities (i.e., problematic series watching and Facebook use). The paper included two studies comprising young adults (Study 1 with 256 individuals, and Study 2 with 420 individuals) who completed the Passion Scale with respect to their series watching and Facebook use as well as examining impulsivity. The Passion Scale comprises two types of passion – obsessive passion (negative, pressured, and controlling) and harmonious passion (positive, flexible, and related to intrinsic motivation). The results showed that impulsivity predicted obsessive (but not harmonious) passion, and that obsessive passion was positively associated with Facebook overuse whereas harmonious passion was positively associated with series watching. They concluded that it was the type of passion underlying the involvement in excessive screen-based activity that determines what’s experienced by the individual.

My argument has always been that depending upon the definition of ‘addiction’ used, almost any activity can be potentially addictive if constant rewards and reinforcement are in place. The watching of DVD or television box sets can certainly be rewarding and reinforcing but I imagine most people are like myself in that they occasionally experience negative consequences as a result of the activity (lack of sleep due to going to bed very late, or ignoring family members while watching an episode or four of your favourite programmes) but that overall the problems are short-lived and have few long-term consequences.

[I ought to note that I have recently been working with Dr. Orosz in the area of workaholism and that we recently published a paper in the topic in the International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction – see ‘Further reading’ below).

Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Behavioural Addictions, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Atroszko, P.A., Andreassen, C.S., Griffiths, M.D. & Pallesen, S. (2015). Study addiction – A new area of psychological study: Conceptualization, assessment, and preliminary empirical findings. Journal of Behavioral Addictions, 4, 75–84.

Atroszko, P.A., Andreassen, C.S., Griffiths, M.D. & Pallesen, S. (2016). Study addiction: A cross-cultural longitudinal study examining temporal stability and predictors of its changes. Journal of Behavioral Addictions, DOI: 10.1556/2006.5.2016.024

Bates, D. (2015). Watching TV box-set marathons is warning sign you’re lonely and depressed – and will also make you fat. Daily Mail, January 29. Located at: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/health/article-2931572/Love-marathon-TV-session-warning-sign-lonely-depressed.html

Cooper, A. (1998). Sexuality and the Internet: Surfing into the new millennium. CyberPsychology and Behavior, 1(2), 187–193.

Daily Edge (2014). 11 signs of you’re suffering from a binge-watching problem. Located at: http://www.dailyedge.ie/binge-watching-problem-signs-1391910-Apr2014/

Kompare, D. (2006). Publishing flow DVD Box Sets and the reconception of television. Television & New Media, 7(4), 335-360.

Maraz, A., Urbán, R., Griffiths, M.D. & Demetrovics Z. (2015). An empirical investigation of dance addiction. PloS ONE, 10(5): e0125988. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0125988.

Orosz, G., Bőthe, B., & Tóth-Király, I. (2016). The development of the Problematic Series WatchingScale (PSWS). Journal of Behavioral Addictions, 5(1), 144-150.

Orosz, G., Dombi, E., Andreassen, C.S., Griffiths, M.D. & Demetrovics, Z. (2016). Analyzing models of work addiction: Single factor and bi-factor models of the Bergen Work Addiction Scale. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, DOI 10.1007/s11469-015-9613-7

Orosz, G., Vallerand, R. J., Bőthe, B., Tóth-Király, I., & Paskuj, B. (2016). On the correlates of passion for screen-based behaviors: The case of impulsivity and the problematic and non-problematic Facebook use and TV series watching. Personality and Individual Differences, 101, 167-176.

Spangler, T. (2013). Poll of online TV watchers finds 61% watch 2-3 episodes in one sitting at least every few weeks. Variety, December 13. Located at: http://variety.com/2013/digital/news/netflix-survey-binge-watching-is-not-weird-or-unusual-1200952292/

Sussman, S., & Moran, M.B. (2013). Hidden addiction: Television. Journal of Behavioral Addictions, 2(3), 125-132.

Walton-Pattison, E., Dombrowski, S.U. & Presseau, J. (2016). ‘Just one more episode’: Frequency and theoretical correlates of television binge watching. Journal of Health Psychology, doi:1359105316643379

Watch this space: Another look at box-set bingeing

Regular readers of my blog will know that I have both a professional and personal interest in ‘box set binging’ – people like myself who sit and watch a whole television series at once either on DVD or on television catch-up services (see my two previous articles on the topic here and here). In my previous blogs on the topic I noted there was a lack of published academic research on the topic. However, a new study on the phenomenon – ‘Just one more episode’: Frequency and theoretical correlates of television binge watching’ – has just been published by Emily Walton-Pattison and her colleagues in the Journal of Health Psychology. The paper argues that binge watching may have detrimental health implications and that binge watching has impulsive aspects. As the authors noted in their paper:

“With the emergence of online streaming television services, watching television has never been so easy and a new behavioural phenomenon has arisen: television binge watching, that is, viewing multiple episodes of the same television show in the same sitting. Watching television is the most widespread leisure-time sedentary activity in adults (Wijndaele et al., 2010), involving little metabolic activity (Hu et al., 2003). In the United Kingdom, over one-third of adults spend at least four hours a day watching television (Stamatakis et al., 2009). Up to 33% of men and 45% of women in the United Kingdom fail to achieve recommended physical activity levels (Craig and Mindell, 2014). As lack of physical activity is the fourth leading mortality risk factor (World Health Organization, 2010), identifying factors that pre- vent achieving health-protective levels of physical activity remains important Furthermore, sedentary behaviour is linked with adverse health outcomes independently of physical activity (Veerman et al., 2012). Time spent watching television is also linked with obesity and reduced sleep time (Vioque et al., 2000). Understanding the factors that lead to watching television at ‘binge’ levels may help to target interventions to reduce sedentary activity and obesity rates and improve sleep hygiene”.

The study involved 86 people who completed an online survey that assessed (among other things) outcome expectations (assessed via six attitudinal items such as ‘Watching more than two episodes of the same TV show in the same sitting over the next 7 days will lead me to be physically healthier’), proximal goals (assessed via one question ‘On how many days do you intend to watch more than two episodes of the same TV show in the same sitting over the next 7 days?’), self-efficacy (assessed via five attitudinal items such as I am confident that I can stop myself from watching more than two episodes of the same TV show if I wanted to’), anticipated regret (assessed via two items – ‘If I watched more than two episodes of the same TV show in the same sitting in the next 7 days, I would feel regret’ and ‘If I watched more than two episodes of the same TV show in the same sitting in the next 7 days I would later wish I had not’), goal conflict (with two items such as ‘How often does it happen that because of watching more than two episodes of the same TV show in the same sitting, you do not invest as much time in other pursuits as you would like to?’), goal facilitation (assessed via three items such as ‘Watching more than two episodes of the same TV show in the same sitting in the next 7 days will help/facilitate my participation in regular physical activity’), and self-reported binge watching over the last week (defined as “watching more than two episodes of the same TV show in one sitting”), as well as noting various demographic details (age, gender, marital status, number of children, and body mass index).

The study found that their participants reported binge watching at least once a week (an average of 1.42 days/week) and that binge watching was predicted most by intention and outcome expectations. Automaticity, anticipated regret, and goal conflict also contributed to binge watching. Based on their results, the authors noted:

“The findings have implications for theory development and intervention…The role of automaticity suggests that interventions aiming to address problematic binge watching (e.g. due to increased sedentary activity) could consider techniques that address automaticity. For example, some online streaming services include in-built interruptions after a number of consecutive episodes have been viewed. There would be opportunities to harness these interruptions. Goal conflict findings indicated that participants who reported more binge watching also reported that binge watching undermined other goal pursuits. Linking such findings to an intervention addressing anticipated regret could provide a useful opportunity…Drawing upon the addiction literature in relation to other types of binge behaviours may further refine potential appetitive and loss of control features that may extend from addictive behaviours with a binge potential, such as eating, sex and drugs, to binge watching”.

Obviously the study relied on self-reports among a small sample of television viewers but given that this is the first-ever academic study of binge watching, it provides a basis for further research to be carried out. As in my own research into gambling where we have begun to use tracking data provided by gambling companies, the authors also note that such objective measures could also be used in the field of researching into television binge watching:

“[Future research] could include using objective measures of binge watching including ecological momentary assessment, ambient sound detection, recording and/or partnering with streaming firms or software-based monitoring. Further insight into binge watching could make a distinction between television show-specific factors, such as genre, length, real-time versus on-demand services, as well as contextual factors (e.g., where binge watching occurred, with whom and when) and assess the association between binge watching and health outcomes including physical activity, eating and sleep hygiene”.

This is one of the first times I can end one of my articles by saying that this is literally a case of “watch this space”!

Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Behavioural Addictions, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Bates, D. (2015). Watching TV box-set marathons is warning sign you’re lonely and depressed – and will also make you fat. Daily Mail, January 29. Located at: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/health/article-2931572/Love-marathon-TV-session-warning-sign-lonely-depressed.html

Craig, R. & Mindell, J. (2014). Health Survey for England 2013. London: The Health & Social Care Information Centre.

Daily Edge (2014). 11 signs of you’re suffering from a binge-watching problem. Located at: http://www.dailyedge.ie/binge-watching-problem-signs-1391910-Apr2014/

Griffiths, M.D. (1995). Technological addictions. Clinical Psychology Forum, 76, 14-19.

Hu, F.B., Li, T.Y., Colditz, G.A., et al. (2003) Television watching and other sedentary behaviors in rela- tion to risk of obesity and type 2 diabetes mellitus in women. JAMA, 289, 1785–1791.

Kompare, D. (2006). Publishing flow DVD Box Sets and the reconception of television. Television & New Media, 7(4), 335-360.

Spangler, T. (2013). Poll of online TV watchers finds 61% watch 2-3 episodes in one sitting at least every few weeks. Variety, December 13. Located at: http://variety.com/2013/digital/news/netflix-survey-binge-watching-is-not-weird-or-unusual-1200952292/

Stamatakis, E., Hillsdon, M., Mishra, G., et al. (2009) Television viewing and other screen-based entertainment in relation to multiple socioeconomic status indicators and area deprivation: The Scottish Health Survey 2003. Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health, 63, 734–740.

Sussman, S., & Moran, M.B. (2013). Hidden addiction: Television. Journal of Behavioral Addictions, 2(3), 125-132.

Veerman, J.L., Healy, G.N., Cobiac, L.J., et al. (2012) Television viewing time and reduced life expec- tancy: A life table analysis. British Journal of Sports Medicine, 46, 927–930.

Vioque, J., Torres, A. & Quiles, J. (2000) Time spent watching television, sleep duration and obesity in adults living in Valencia, Spain. International Journal of Obesity, 24, 1683–1688.

Walton-Pattison, E., Dombrowski, S.U. & Presseau, J. (2016). ‘Just one more episode’: Frequency and theoretical correlates of television binge watching. Journal of Health Psychology, doi:1359105316643379

Wijndaele, K., Brage, S., Besson, H., et al. (2010) Television viewing time independently predicts all-cause and cardiovascular mortality: The EPIC Norfolk study. International Journal of Epidemiology, 40, 150–159.

Boxing clever? Another look at television binge watching

Last Thursday (January 29), I was watching the newspaper review on Sky News when one of the reviewers referred to a story in the Daily Mail about the negative effects of box-set bingeing (‘Watching TV box-set marathons is warning sign you’re lonely and depressed – and will also make you fat’). Having examined the psychology of box-set bingeing in a previous blog, the story instantly grabbed my attention (and also because I love box-set bingeing when I get the time). (I also discovered in researching this article that in November 2013, the Oxford Dictionary announced that the word ‘binge-watch’ [defined as “to watch multiple episodes of a television programme in rapid succession” was a contender for its word of the year but was eventually beaten by the word ‘selfie’).

The Daily Mail story was based on some research led by doctoral researcher Ms. Yoon Hi Sung (at the University of Texas). Unfortunately, the research is not publicly available as it hasn’t actually been published yet. In fact, the study is from a conference paper that will be presented in May 2015 (at the Conference of the International Communication Association in Puerto Rico in May). Ms. Sung said that his findings “should be a wake-up call”. In typical Daily Mail style, a number of claims were made (which are listed below verbatim):

  • “Watching TV box-set marathons is warning sign you’re lonely and depressed – and will also make you fat
  • Watching TV for long periods of time can lead to obesity and exhaustion.
  • ‘Binge-watchers’ are more likely to lack self-control and have addictions.
  • University of Texas researchers said it’s no longer a ‘harmless addiction’.
  • They said people will watch TV as a distraction when they are feeling low”.

Unfortunately there was little detail of the method used or much about 316 participants aged 18 to 29 years (e.g., how the participants were recruited, how representative the sample was of all those who engage in box-set bingeing, etc.) but the Daily Mail was adamant that box-set bingeing is bad for your health. More specifically, the journalist Daniel Bates wrote:

“People who suffer from low moods are more likely to spend hours or days viewing multiple episodes of their favourite programme online or on DVD box set. But by doing so they could neglect work, relationships and even their family. The researchers from the University of Texas at Austin said that binge-watching should no longer be considered a ‘harmless addiction’ and that people should think twice before settling in for a long session in front of the TV…The findings showed a direct link. The worse somebody felt, the more likely they were to watch a lot of TV in an apparent attempt to avoid their low mood”.

Ms. Sung was quoted as saying:

“Even though some people argue that binge-watching is a harmless addiction, findings from our study suggest that binge-watching should no longer be viewed this way. Physical fatigue and problems such as obesity and other health problems are related to binge-watching and they are a cause for concern. When binge-watching becomes rampant, viewers may start to neglect their work and their relationships with others. Even though people know they should not, they have difficulty resisting the desire to watch episodes continuously”.

Not having access to the details of the study make it difficult to make methodological criticism but as a Professor of Gambling Studies I would bet my bottom dollar that the claims go beyond the data. As far as I am aware there has never been any academic study of box set viewing behaviour (either watching ‘on demand’ via interactive television or DVD box-sets) but I did come across some commercial research carried out by the company MarketCast in 2013 (and reported in a Variety magazine article entitled ’10 insights from studies of binge watchers’ by Marc Fraser). In the study, over 1000 US television viewers, the report claimed that there were “elevated binge levels” when watching box-set television series on demand such as House of Cards, Breaking Bad, Dexter, The Walking Dead, True Blood, and Sons of Anarchy. As Fraser reported:

“As networks grapple with the potential effect of binge-viewing to their bottom line, what they’re starting to learn is less threatening than some early analysts have suggested. The good news for broadcasters is that bingeing actually creates more viewers for TV shows, MarketCast found, which should broaden the audience for advertisers and their commercials when new episodes air. That’s primarily because most binge viewers are just trying to catch up on a series they may have missed, and tend to tune into a series during its regular airings. For example, 65% of those surveyed said they would watch new episodes of ‘Breaking Bad’ without bingeing when the series returned, while another 58% said they would tune into ‘The Walking Dead’ in similar fashion. At the same time, despite the large amount of time required for bingeing, other forms of entertainment aren’t seeing a large decrease as a result of binge-viewing, the study [found]”.

The MarketCast study also reported that 5% of their study participants said bingeing was the only way that they watched their favourite TV shows, and just under one-third of the sample planned to use the bingeing method of viewing their favourite TV series in the future. Here are some of the other key findings listed in the report:

  • There are four types of binge-viewers. Those who binge (i) because they don’t like to wait a week to find out what happens next, (ii) because friends tell them they’re missing out; (iii) to watch TV shows they’ve seen before, and (iv) when they are ill or housebound because of injury,
  • The main reasons for box-set bingeing are to (i) catch up on TV series that were missed when they first aired, (ii) avoid having to watch adverts (and save time), and (iii) avoid waiting to see what happens next.
  • Two-thirds of the sample (67%) claimed to have had at least one binge-watching experience.
  • Those who binge watch only are typically males under the age of 30 years (although there is no overall difference between males and females in binge watching behaviour). (Another piece of market research by Magid Generational Strategies in early 2013 reported tat 70% of binge viewers are aged 16 to 35 years).
  • More binge watching is done alone (56%) and at home (98%). Binge watching is also done while travelling (13%) and/or while on holiday (16%).
  • Box-set bingeing occurs online (e.g., via on-demand services) more than offline (e.g., DVD box-sets).
  • Drama is most watched genre for bingeing (60%), followed by comedy (45%), and reality shows (26%).

Fraser also made reference to another piece of market research by Solutions Research Group that examined 1,200 Canadian subscribers of Netflix and their viewing habits related to the television series House of Cards (that puts all 13 episodes online simultaneously). The study found that one in three viewers watched all 13 episodes within four weeks of first airing).

Another news story I came across (in Australia’s Herald Sun) provided a more positive spin and claimed in the headline ‘Binge-viewing box sets on the couch now the best way to build romance’. The article by journalist Megan Miller reported:

“For more and more couples, churning through a lazy 12-episode series is a romance rekindler that takes less effort than a meal somewhere nice and is cheaper than a beach holiday. It can be done without leaving the comfort of one’s home (or even one’s flannie pyjamas) and provides valuable couple time as well as down time from the rigours of work and family. Everyone’s on board. Barack and Michelle Obama are said to be hooked on spy drama ‘Homeland’ and our own PM Tony Abbott loves sitting down with wife Margie to an [episode] (or three) of ‘Downton Abbey’”.

It appears that the inspiration for the herald Sun story may have been the “couple Phoebe and Mike, both 31 [years of age], were so addicted to cult hit Breaking Bad they took discs with the latest series on their Fijian honeymoon earlier this year, desperate to race back to their villa each night to keep up with the escapades of meth-maker Walter White”. Miller then interviewed Melbourne-based psychologist Sally-Anne McCormack who commented that:

“Doing something you both enjoy is at the heart of engaging in a binge session in front of the box. Shared interests create a bond and connection that’s great for relationships. Cuddling up on the couch and snuggling while watching a show that you both get enjoyment from gives a common interest and some relaxed time together…New partners may watch shows together for the sake of the other, not because they hold a great interest in it. An established relationship is one where the two people have a greater level of comfort together, and don’t depend on the environment to help impress the other. At a later point in a relationship the two are relaxed with one another and can negotiate each other’s interests and needs, and find a mutually interesting series that is exciting for both of them”.

All of the articles I have read on the topic describe binge-watching as an ‘addiction’ (at least in passing). Although there is a small literature on ‘television addiction’ (for a recent review in the Journal of Behavioral Addictions by my colleague Dr. Steve Sussman – see ‘Further reading’ below) I know of no empirical research on the topic of ‘binge-viewing addiction’. However, I did come across an arguably tongue-in-cheek list of signs in an article in the Daily Edge:

  • The thought of a day doing nothing except watching a box set makes you genuinely excited.
  • You have avoided a social engagement to stay in and watch something.
  • At least once, you have woken up early specifically to watch the latest episode.
  • You’ve had this thought – ‘Just one more episode’ or ‘Not sure if an actual memory or something I saw on TV’.
  • You have accidentally drooled on at least one sofa cushion during a binge.
  • You have cheated on your loved one with a box set. By which we mean, watching ahead while they’re out/on the phone to their mam/have gone to bed. AKA ‘Netflix Adultery’.
  • You have had that moment where you get up from the couch, and have to shake food out of the folds of your clothes.
  • You tell yourself you could stop at any time.
  • When it’s all over, you feel confusion, shame and regret.

Even though these signs were probably written in jest, they would probably have good face validity should anyone decide to construct a new instrument to assess binge-watching addiction. However, even with the new study by the researchers at the University of Texas, I’m still to be convinced that box-set bingeing is a serious health concern – at least based on the scientific evidence.

Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Bates, D. (2015). Watching TV box-set marathons is warning sign you’re lonely and depressed – and will also make you fat. Daily Mail, January 29. Located at: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/health/article-2931572/Love-marathon-TV-session-warning-sign-lonely-depressed.html

Daily Edge (2014). 11 signs of you’re suffering from a binge-watching problem. Located at: http://www.dailyedge.ie/binge-watching-problem-signs-1391910-Apr2014/

Graser, M. (2013). Marathon TV viewers tend to be millenials playing catch up on shows; say they’ll watch new seasons as they air. Variety, March 7. Located at: http://variety.com/2013/digital/news/10-insights-from-studies-of-binge-watchers-1200004807/

Koepsell, D. (2013). In defence of the box set binge: a global shared culture. New Statesman, December 29. Located at: http://www.newstatesman.com/culture/2013/12/defence-box-set-binge-global-shared-culture

Kompare, D. (2006). Publishing flow DVD Box Sets and the reconception of television. Television & New Media, 7(4), 335-360.

Miller, M. (2014). Binge-viewing box sets on the couch now the best way to build romance. Herald Sun, December 13. Located at: http://www.heraldsun.com.au/news/victoria/bingeviewing-box-sets-on-the-couch-now-the-best-way-to-build-romance/story-fni0fit3-1226782514245?nk=0ed250e88a2970045f6fc84123b03f10

Spangler, T. (2013). Poll of online TV watchers finds 61% watch 2-3 episodes in one sitting at least every few weeks. Variety, December 13. Located at: http://variety.com/2013/digital/news/netflix-survey-binge-watching-is-not-weird-or-unusual-1200952292/

Sussman, S., & Moran, M.B. (2013). Hidden addiction: Television. Journal of Behavioral Addictions, 2(3), 125-132.

Episodic memories: The psychology of ‘box set bingeing’

I apologise in advance for the somewhat arguably frivolous nature of my blog but earlier this week I was interviewed by my local radio station (BBC Radio Nottingham) about the seeming increase in ‘binge watching’ of DVD box sets of television series. I have to admit that one of the reasons that I did the interview (even though I have not personally researched the topic) was that this is actually something I do myself. Also, I often appear on my local radio station talking about excessive use of technology and this topic loosely fitted that criterion.

I did actually check on a couple of academic databases to see whether there was any scientific research on ‘binge watching’ of television of box sets (but unsurprisingly there was nothing specific). I have written academic papers on various technological addictions (including addiction to watching television). However, one of my research colleagues (Dr. Steve Sussman) recently published a paper (with Meghan Moran) on television addiction in a 2013 issue of the Journal of Behavioral Addictions. Based on a review of the academic literature they claimed that 5% to 10% of the US population is addicted to television (although much of this depends on how ‘addiction’ is defined in the first place). Sussman and Moran’s review concluded that:

“There does appear to be a phenomenon of television addiction, at least for some people. TV addicts are likely watch TV to satiate certain appetitive motives, demonstrate preoccupation with TV, report lacking control over their TV viewing, and experience various role, social, or even secondary physical (sedentary lifestyle) consequences due to their out of control viewing. These consequences are in part contextually driven, due to amount of viewing time contrasted with competing time demands…Much research is needed to better understand this addiction which prima facie seems relatively innocuous but in reality may incur numerous life problems”.

In addition to reports of television being potentially addictive, the concept of bingeing has been applied to other behaviours including ‘binge drinking’ and ‘binge gambling’ (a topic that I have written on academically – see ‘Further reading’ below), although the binge watching of DVD box sets is highly unlikely to cause too many negative side effects apart from (maybe) a lack of sleep (that may impact on work productivity).

So why might people engage in the binge watching of television box set? Obviously – at a basic level – individuals do not engage in repeated leisure behaviours unless they are psychologically and/or behaviourally reinforced (i.e., rewarded) in some way. People watch particular shows because they like the show and experience emotional connections that may lead to a change in mood state. However, this goes for any leisure behaviour and is not specific to binge watching television shows. When it comes to ‘box set binging’, I think there are many possible reasons both psychological and practical (most of which I can say I have personally experienced so there’s probably good face validity for all these reasons):

  • A sign of the times: Over the past couple decades, the way we experience our disposable leisure time has dramatically changed. All my children are the archetypal ‘screenagers’ that spend a disproportionate amount of their leisure time sat in front of screen-based technology (and to be honest I am no different). Technological excess has arguably become the norm and ‘binge watching’ of television (via ‘on demand’ services and/or DVDs) is simply a sign of the times.
  • Instant gratification: Another noticeable change that has occurred over the last couple of decades is a move towards what I describe as ‘instant culture’ in which individuals expect to receive instant gratification in almost any situation. Almost everything that we want and/or desire can be done at the click of a button. Who wants to wait up to a week to find out what has happened in your favourite television drama shows? Watching episode after episode of a television show inhibits the frustration we might feel having to wait hours, days, and in some cases weeks for the resolution of a ‘cliffhanger’. In short, binge watching (DVD and/or television ‘on demand’) box sets provides instant ‘closure’ to a drama that increases emotional involvement.
  • No adverts: On a very practical level, one great thing about television box sets is that they don’t have any adverts. Most hour-long television shows on commercial channels include 15 minutes of adverts. Personally, I love the fact that I can watch episode after episode knowing that the only breaks will be of my choosing.
  • The ultimate in personal choice: Television viewing has evolved considerably over the last decade. When I grew up as a child and adolescent there were only three television channels and I had to watch whatever my parents watched (or what they would let me watch). It was also a very passive experience. We now have almost unlimited choice to watch whatever we want, when we want, and how we want. DVD box sets are the ultimate in personal choice. No more sitting through dross to get to the television programme you really want to watch.
  • Completist/collector heaven: Anyone that is a regular reader of my blog will know that when it comes to collecting (especially music) I am a completest and aim to collect everything I can that relate to the artists I love and admire. (For instance, have a read of my blog on the psychology of Hannibal Lecter where I describe how I have acquired all the books and films on Hannibal Lecter including the latest 12-episode television box set that I sat and watched in a couple of sittings including all the DVD extras). The DVD box set is part of the whole collecting experience.

As a psychologist, I would also argue that my DVD box set collection says something about me as an individual – it is an extension of the self. My favourite box sets (e.g., The Sopranos, Prison Break, 24, Columbo, Hannibal, DexterThe West Wing, etc.) are all regularly re-watched. I once spent a whole weekend while my children and partner were away watching every episode from every series of Prison Break). It was a guilty pleasure that happens only occasionally and that I loved doing.

Bingeing on box sets shares many psychosocial commonalities of the collecting experience. In a 1991 issue of the Journal of Social Behavior and Personality, Dr. Ruth Formanek suggested five common motivations for collecting that I think mirror the kind of people that can be engrossed in watching their favourite television shows. These were: (i) extension of the self (e.g., acquiring knowledge, or in controlling one’s collection); (ii) social (finding, relating to, and sharing with, like-minded others); (iii) preserving history and creating a sense of continuity; (iv) financial investment; and (v), an addiction or compulsion. Formanek claimed that the commonality to all motivations to collect was a passion for the particular things collected. I would argue this holds for binge watching too.

In her book Museums, Objects, and Collections, Dr. Susan Pearce argues collecting falls into three distinct (but sometimes overlapping) types. As Professor Kevin Moist summarized in a 2008 issue of the journal Studies in Popular Culture:

“One of these she calls ‘souvenirs’, items or objects that have significance primarily as reminders of an individual’s or group’s experiences. The second mode is what she calls ‘fetish objects’ (conflating the anthropological and psychological senses of the term), relating primarily to the personality of the collector; the collector’s own desires lead to the accumulation of objects that feed back into those desires, with the collection playing a central role in defining the personality of the collector, memorializing the development of a personal interest or passion. The third mode, ‘systematics’, has the broader goal of creating a set of objects that expresses some larger meaning. Systematic collecting involves a stronger element of consciously presenting an idea, seen from a particular point of view and expressed via the cultural world of objects”.

When it comes to DVD box sets, I appear to most fit the second (i.e., fetish) type. The box sets that I collect are an extension of my own personality and say something about me. My tastes are diverse and eclectic (to say the least) and range from the obvious ‘classic’ series (Columbo), the not so obvious (A Very Peculiar Practice), and the arguably obscure (Spiral). Unless ‘binge watching’ of television series ever becomes problematic, it is unlikely to be a subject of academic research but that won’t stop me in engaging in my guilty pleasure.

Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Belk, R. W. (1982). Acquiring, possessing, and collecting: fundamental processes in consumer behavior. Marketing Theory: Philosophy of Science Perspectives, 185-190.

Belk, R. W. (1992). Attachment to possessions. In: Place attachment (pp. 37-62). New York: Springer.

Belk, R. W. (1994). Collectors and collecting. Interpreting objects and collections, 317-326.

Belk, R.W. (1995). Collecting as luxury consumption: Effects on individuals and households. Journal of Economic Psychology, 16(3), 477-490.

Belk, R.W. (2001). Collecting in a Consumer Society. New York: Routledge.

Formanek, R. (1991). Why they collect: Collectors reveal their motivations. Journal of Social Behavior and Personality, 6(6), 275-286.

Griffiths, M.D. (1995). Technological addictions. Clinical Psychology Forum, 76, 14-19.

Griffiths, M.D. (2006). A case study of binge problem gambling. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, 4, 369-376.

Moist, K. (2008). “To renew the Old World”: Record collecting as cultural production. Studies in Popular Culture, 31(1), 99-122.

Pearce, S. (1993). Museums, Objects, and Collections. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press.

Pearce, S. (1998). Contemporary Collecting in Britain. London: Sage.

Sussman, S., Lisha, N. & Griffiths, M.D. (2011). Prevalence of the addictions: A problem of the majority or the minority? Evaluation and the Health Professions, 34, 3-56.

Sussman, S. & Moran, M. (2013). Hidden addiction: Television. Journal of Behavioral Addictions, 2, 125-132.