Science Scene: Study sheds light on dark side of binge-watching

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Photo Credit: Isabella Palacios | Daily Texan Staff

When the “Are you still watching ‘Glee’?” message pops up on your TV after 10 straight hours of powering through the second season, it’s hard not to think Netflix is judging you. But maybe the movie-streaming service is just concerned. 

Under the guidance of communications professor Wei-Na Lee, UT advertising graduate students Yoon Hi Sung and Eun Yeon Kang decided to study the phenomenon of binge-watching. After surveying 316 people, they found that binge-watching behavior correlates with depression, loneliness and problems with self-regulation — the ability to tell yourself “enough is enough.” 

“Sometimes you’re focusing on the programs without eating,” Sung said. “Or maybe you’re eating too much. Sometimes you’ll forget an appointment or lose your social interactions with friends and families.”

Sung and Kang said the data don’t show whether depression causes the binge-watching or if binge-watching leads to worsening depression. During an interview, the researchers acknowledged a third possibility: Depression causes someone to binge-watch, which then deepens that depression.

It is tricky to differentiate between causes and symptoms of depression — a disease recognized as both extremely debilitating and potentially deadly — and that makes treatment difficult.

In the past, psychotherapists thought depression stemmed from past traumas and the only cure was years of drawn-out therapy to reveal the specific cause. It is now understood that, although environment plays a role in depression, there are also genetic factors. Some of the most exciting research in the field today compares the genes of unrelated people in an attempt to find genetic clues that will aid in future diagnosis and treatment of mental illness.

Technically speaking, proper diagnosis can only come from a professional psychologist working from the definition of depression the “Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of
Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition” (DSM-V) provides. According to the DSM-V, there are two major warning signs of depression.

When someone stops doing things that they used to enjoy, that’s a sign. For example, if a friend who used to love going out to Sixth Street on Thursday nights no longer shows any interest, then that might be cause for concern.

The other sign is a persistent sadness for at least a two-week period. Sometimes this goes away when the person is distracted by something such as schoolwork. However, if the
person defaults to unhappiness once the schoolwork is finished, then that’s an indication they may be depressed.

About 16 percent of the population experiences depression at some point, but that doesn’t mean they get the help they need.

“[Only] about a quarter of people who are depressed get adequate treatment,” said Christopher Beevers, psychology professor and director of the UT Institute for Mental Health Research. “There are a number of reasons. Access is a big one. There are some cultural differences, too, in terms of what kinds of treatment are acceptable.”

As of right now, watching 14 consecutive episodes of “Parks and Recreation” is not a warning sign of depression. Even the study’s authors admit to bouts of binge-watching — Kang likes “Prison Break” and “CSI,” and Sung watches Japanese dramas and “House of Cards” — but they advise moderation in everything.

By all means, enjoy season three of “House of Cards” at the end of the month, but, if every weekend turns into a binge-watching session, then it might be time to ask yourself if there is something more serious going on.

Clarification: This article has been amended for clarity since its original publication. Kang and Sung began their research under communications professor Wei-Na Lee.