We've got entertainment at our fingertips like never before - but at what cost?
By
Jo Hartley

3 Jun 2015 - 2:46 PM  UPDATED 3 Jun 2015 - 2:57 PM

With video streaming services such as Netflix entering the media marketplace, never has it been easier to access our favourite shows at the touch of a button and partake in TV viewing marathons. But, what does this mean for the health of us as viewers? 

A recent survey released by the University of Texas found that binge watching TV can be linked to feelings of loneliness and depression.  

Researchers, Yoon Hi Sung, Eun Yeon Kang and Wei-Na Lee, studied 316 people between the ages of 18 to 29.  They examined how often these participants watched TV and how often they experienced feelings of a negative nature.  

The results showed there was a direct connection between the two.  The more depressed the participants were, the more likely they were to participate in binge watching. Binge watching in this instance was defined as a participant watching two or more programs consecutively.

The researchers highlighted that escaping negative feelings via the behavior of binge watching TV was not dissimilar to behaviours of binge eating or binge drinking. 

But is it really as worrying as it sounds?  

“Although some recent studies have found associations between binge watching and loneliness and depression, this doesn't mean that binge watching causes these effects,” explains media psychologist, Danya Braunstein.

Braunstein says that most people tend to go through phases of binge watching TV, and there are a variety of reasons why they do so, most of which are not negative. 

For some viewers, binge watching is because of a commitment to a series and because it’s pleasurable. For others, it’s a way of catching up or keeping up to date with latest episodes.

“Transportation theory explains how when we watch a program that we enjoy, we lose all sense of time and normal reality and become 'transported' into the fictional world,” says Braunstein. “Understandably people who enjoy this experience would want it to continue for as long as possible.”

Such a theory could help explain further findings of the Texan study. The study also identified that people who binge watch often do so to the detriment of other areas in their life, such as work, relationships and health. 

Braunstein acknowledges that these are the main negatives associated with binge watching. However, from a social point of view, she says that binge watching can actually be a social connector.

“When a group of friends are getting together to watch multiple episodes of a program together, its not likely to be associated with feelings of negativity,” she says.

But this study isn’t the first of its kind to highlight negative associations with binge watching TV. 

According to a report published in the Journal of Consumer Research, dedicated fans of boxsets and series go into a period of mourning when a show ends.

Researchers reported that the emotions expressed by viewers were so intense, that they were comparable to a real life divorce or death in a family.

Similarly, the more physical effects of this habit were mentioned in a study published in the Journal of the American Heart Association. The results showed that adults who watched more than three hours of TV a day doubled their risk of premature death, compared to those who watched less.

Despite this, Braunstein thinks we needn’t be overly worried, and says that, as with any behavior, the key is always moderation.  

“Watching television can be an enjoyable way to pass time. It can be informative and educational, and it can provide social experiences,” she says. “Binge watching TV can be a means of distraction from difficult emotional or life experiences and, in some situations, this might be a healthy coping mechanism.” 

As with any behavior, Braunstein says problems only occur when it disrupts or negatively impacts on a person’s life.  

“When a person feels they have no control over it, I think then it's advisable to discuss this with someone or seek help from a professional,” she says. 

For immediate advice or support call Lifeline on 13 1 1 14 or Kids Helpline on 1800 55 1800. For information, advice and referral on mental illness contact the SANE Helpline on 1800 18 SANE (7263) go to sane.org