New Research on TV Binge-Watching Behaviors

From the spring of 2015 through the fall of 2016, Professor Karyn Riddle and four graduate students at UW–Madison researched and wrote a new paper on the nature of TV binge-watching. After a lengthy peer review process, the paper will be published in the journal Psychology of Popular Media Culture in the coming months. Notably, the project was a collaborative endeavor involving Professor Riddle, Catasha Davis, and Fangxin Xu from the School of Journalism and Mass Communication, Alanna Peebles from the Department of Communication Arts, and Elizabeth Schroeder from Human Development and Family Studies in the School of Human Ecology.

Silhouette of someone watching a bright television screen. Early in the process, the researchers defined binge-watching as watching 3+ consecutive episodes of the same show in one sitting, and took into account two types of binge-watching behavior: intentional and unintentional. The team decided to focus on the “impulsivity” personality trait and hypothesized that some people are more susceptible to unintentional binge-watching than others.

“Impulsive individuals tend to engage in activities without considering the consequences of those actions, acting quickly and swiftly without adequate forethought,” principal investigator Professor Riddle said. “Therefore, we hypothesized that impulsivity would be correlated with frequent unintentional bingeing behaviors, but would be less correlated with frequent intentional binges.”

Given the growing area of research in media addiction (to television, to online games, and to the internet), the research team was also interested in addiction and its relationship to impulsivity and unintentional binge-watching.

To test their hypotheses, the group surveyed 218 undergraduate students at UW–Madison. While not a representative sample, they felt that college students were an appropriate population to examine due to its high rate of binge-watching.

What they found may be somewhat expected, but nonetheless fascinating. For one, 80% of the sample reported that they had engaged in both unintentional and intentional bingeing behaviors in the past. A high percentage, to be sure. Secondly, semester breaks involved different binge-watching behaviors than bingeing during the semester—namely, more binge-watching occurs during semester breaks, with higher levels of intentional bingeing compared to unintentional bingeing.

“This suggests with more free time away from classes and schoolwork, college students perhaps have more time to engage in intentional binges during semester breaks. Unintentional and intentional bingeing levels were equal during the semester, however,” Professor Riddle said.

Additionally, their findings showed that during semesters, impulsive individuals were more likely to engage in high levels of unintentional binges, but they were not more likely to engage in high levels of intentional binges. This possibly indicates that high impulsivity individuals are more likely to be unexpectedly captivated by a TV show. Furthermore, there was some evidence of bingeing addiction symptoms among some members of the study, as well as a correlation between impulsivity and addiction symptoms. The symptoms seemed more likely to occur as a byproduct of unintentional binges than of intentional ones.

One aspect of their findings did surprise the research team, though. “We were surprised that the findings were so contextual,” Professor Riddle said. “The practice of binge-watching should not be viewed as a monolithic activity. Rather, some binges are intentional, some are not. And the timing of the binge matters.”

While the academic dimensions of the researchers’ findings do not apply to non-college student populations, the implications of the study remain insightful. In the age of “peak TV,” it is only a matter of time before wider studies are conducted to examine binge-watching behaviors and their effects.