Investigation: Television Addiction and Binging Culture

Bryan Cranston opened the host-less 71st Primetime Emmy Awards with an ode to television: “Television has never been bigger. Television has never mattered more. And television…has never been this damn good.”

We are now living in the Golden Age of Television, described by scholars as TVIII and characterised by the quality of television shows like The Sopranos, The Wire, Mad Men, Breaking Bad, and Game of Thrones. TVIII is also characterised by the easy access to these shows via subscription-video-on-demand platforms like Netflix, Stan, and Amazon Prime.

But TVIII comes with a unique dark side: television addiction and the role of binging culture.

One study of television addiction described it as “out-of-control behavior pertaining to the medium of television, as opposed to a particular show on television.”

The authors of the study, Steve Sussman and Meghan B. Moran, described the symptoms of television addiction: “one may feel a subjective craving to view television a great deal to achieve a sense of satiation, become preoccupied with the idea of viewing television, not be able to predict how long one will watch TV (loss of control), and suffer negative life consequences as the result”.

Television addiction is unlike any other addiction because it is socially acceptable to binge entire seasons of television shows, sometimes, even entire shows themselves. It is ok to watch years of people’s hard work over the span of a week, or a few days.

So why is binge watching so accepted? Sussman and Moran explain that “Clearly, wide variation exists regarding what is considered heavy viewing, and the addictive aspect is more a function of interference with completion of life tasks rather than number of hours of viewing per se”.

If binging is not an indicator of television addiction, then what is? Dependence and compulsivity are the indicators of addiction.

I asked students from universities in Brisbane on why binging is not considered a symptom of television addiction:

  • “Because there is an end to binging. If it’s just one show, there is a limit to how much binging you can do. Perhaps if you are binging lots of shows, that might be considered addiction.”
  • “Because you may binge watch a show once or twice because it is really good, without it being a habit or harmful.”
  • “I don’t think binge watching counts given that if it occurs on a very irregular basis then it isn’t the same. Dependency (probably emotional dependency) on extensive TV watching would make more sense.”
  • “Addiction is typically seen as a dependency, and since binging is short stints, it isn’t as widely considered. Also highly normalised in comparison to continuous watching.”
  • “Because you are choosing to spend your time watching the show, similar to choosing to go for a run.”
  • “Because it happens rarely.”
  • “Because it’s a choice.”

A few people said that binging was a symptom of television addiction.

  • “I consider it a symptom of television addiction in so far as the individual becomes ‘hooked’ on a particular series or the like and is unable to complete other activities unless said piece of content has been consumed.”
  • “Because there is no control in it.”
  • “It is.”

Sharna Limb from the University of Queensland explained how binging works, and why people do it.

“I think bingeing is the issue. I genuinely can’t remember the last time I watched TV for more than an episode. Since entire seasons are available one after another, it’s so much easier to get caught up bingeing the entire thing.”

According to Limb, everyone binges: “I know I do it, my sister does, all my friends do too. It’s not a constant problem, but more something that comes in bursts, like this thing just came out, I’m going to watch it in ~24 hours, which is where it starts to get in the way of life. This is also totally exasperated by internet and the quick dissemination of spoilers, it almost feels like you have to binge because everyone is, too.”

Elen, a student at The University of Queensland who had an unhealthy relationship with television but does not consider herself a recovering addict, said that what she watched did not matter, neither did the length. She just found watching the television cathartic and relaxing: “we don’t have to think about what work we’ve done, what we haven’t done.”

For Elen, watching television was a way to bond with her divorced Dad. Through ages 8–13, Elen drifted in and out of television addiction. Elen said she had a “bad reaction” to compulsive television watching: “My parents noticed a behaviour change. I was tired, grumpy, aggressive to my sister, and lethargic.”

April, a representative of Amazon Prime Video said: “It [television addiction] is just how long the user spend time in watching or streaming TV and SVOD programs. Sitting for long stretches of time increases the risk of health issues including diabetes, heart disease, etc; even if the user exercise regularly. If a person must watch or stream videos, movies or TV series it will be better to make it healthier by standing, stretching, and taking mini breaks for physical activity.”

This advice is unarticulated in Amazon Prime Video policy. Netflix and Stan refused to comment on their complicity on enabling television addiction.

According to the fifth edition of The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), there are two types of addictive disorders: substance-related disorders, and behavioural addiction disorders. Television addiction is a behavioural addiction disorder.

Behavioural addictions, such as television addiction, exercise addiction or shopping addiction “are not included [in the DSM-5] because at this time there is insufficient peer-reviewed evidence to establish the diagnostic criteria and course descriptions needed to identify these behaviors as mental disorders.”

This theme that behavioural addictions in general are under-researched is consistent.

Will Atkins

I am a student at UQ studying a bachelor of journalism and a bachelor of arts, majoring in history and English. Check out my instagram for weird/ bad photography.