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Binge-watching TV helps some people beat the blues

When Netflix releases season three of “House of Cards” next month, scores will watch the entire season in one or two sittings. For all the warnings about extreme couch potato behavior, it also may be a way for some people who feel depressed or lonely to beat the blues. 

“When people start talking about binge-watching they chuckle and find it harmless,” says Wei-Na Lee, one of the study’s authors and a professor in the Stan Richards School of Advertising and Public Relations at the University of Texas, Austin. “If it is a binge behavior … [we wanted] to see if there [are] some negative factors.”

After hours of watching Kevin Spacey in Netflix's "House of Cards," do you feel better or like you've been sitting on the couch for too long? Today

Lee and her coauthors looked at whether TV bingeing shared characteristics with other behaviors, such as binge eating or binge drinking. To learn this, they asked 316 people, age 18-29, to answer questions on binge watching and mood. For the purpose of this study, binge watching meant viewing two or more episodes of a show in one sitting.

The study, which will be presented at the Annual International Communication Association Conference in May, finds that 75 percent of subjects, or 237 people, binge watched TV. Of that, 75 percent, 177 people, watched one to three hours of TV. 

People who reported greater feelings of depression and loneliness were more likely to binge watch than people who reported being happy. People who struggled with emotional self-regulation binged more and were more likely to keep clicking to the next episode. Also, most binge-watchers do it alone.  

“We found that factors, such as loneliness and depression and loss of self regulation and self control, are [involved in binge TV watching],” says Lee.

Some may interpret that to mean binge watching causes the problem. That's not the case: the study did not look at causation, meaning they didn't determine whether depression or loneliness lead to binge-watching or binge-watching contributes to depression, loneliness, or self-regulation. The study only found an association.

Psychologist Frank Farley, noted that only 10 percent of the cases of binge-watching (not people) occurred because someone was feeling depressed and lonely. In other words, 10 percent of the time someone binge-watched because of feeling blue or lonely. 

The study didn't explore why we binge-watch the other 90 percent of the time. Nor did it explore the difference between binge-watching "Friends" and binge-watching "The Walking Dead," for example.

“We should not get too excited about this 10 percent," said Farley, a professor of psychology at Temple University, who was not involved in the study.

So, relax. Just because you you like to watch the full season of "Orange is the New Black" in one weekend, doesn't mean you're depressed or lonely. Of course, it's not smart to sit in one spot for 10 hours — we know too much sitting can kill us. 

Still, some people readily admit to bingeing when feeling blue.  

When Danielle Evans Greenawalt stresses about money or her health issues, she frequently turns to “Desperate Housewives.” About three nights a week, she watches eight or nine episodes.

“I am a natural worrier,” says the 34-year-old stay at home mom, who lives outside Philadelphia. “It relaxes me and then I can go to sleep.”

Penny Schnarrs’ reasons for bingeing on TV vary slightly. She does view shows like “Arrested Development” and “Pushing Daisies” when sad.

“Any time I catch one on rerun or decide to stream one, it’s that nice little escape,” Schnarrs says. “It just makes me happy.”

The 35-year-old Pittsburgh resident also binge-watches shows, such as “Transparent”, because she wants to discuss them with her friends. And, she uses binge-watching as motivation.

“We got an elliptical and I still binge-watch, which also seems to help my mood a little bit. The binge-watching has actually helped me get on the elliptical because I know I can get on [watch TV].”