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The Mass Media

The Mass Media

The Mass Media

The Psychological Effects of Binge Watching

Before Netflix and online media, we didn’t have immediate access to our favorite shows. For many of us, the best option was to watch it weekly. It was our ritual. I remember at 7 p.m. as a fifth-grader, I would watch the eponymous Fridays on Cartoon Network. If I couldn’t watch it at my best friend’s house, we would call each other and talk on the phone as the latest episodes of our favorite shows unfolded.
Now, we don’t have to wait for that fateful day. We can plan to watch whatever, whenever. We can escape our lives for much more than just an hour. When you watch more than a few episodes at a time, especially of the same series, this is called binge watching.
Being a recluse in high school introduced me to a lot of TV programming, specifically animated shows from Japan, called anime. There were series upon series catalogued on third-party websites.
I’ve experience both weekly watching and just going through libraries of completed series. Whenever I wasn’t watching a newly released episode, I was catching up on a different completed series. I even queued up multiple windows with buffering videos just so there wouldn’t be any delay between the end of one episode and the beginning of another.
I can say for myself that I was using it as an escape. It was an escape from the insane stresses of family life, academic life, and lack of a social life.
A psychologist would call it a coping mechanism. But these things do not necessitate binge watching; for others who do not experience those high levels of stress, binge watching shows is just a way of life—a culture. In psychology, fulfilling a role or an expectation is called following a “script.” We all follow social scripts, whether we acknowledge them or not.
In psychology, there is also something called Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. It is a model of understanding what our priorities are. From the bottom, it goes: physiological, safety, social, esteem, and at the top, self-actualization. At the bottom are the things that (Maslow says) people need to take care of first. After physical needs (like eating, sleeping, and going #1 and #2) and safety needs are met, you need sociality. This is where social scripts come into play. By doing what everyone else is doing, even if they aren’t watching or don’t know you’re doing it, you may get a sense of satisfaction from fitting in.
This especially if you are fully immersed in a TV show and know all its little details. At that point, you may be considered a “nerd” by some. You may also meet in conventions or “cons” (e.g. Comic-Con) to celebrate this culture and reinforce your behavior of watching TV shows (or consuming any media such as books, video games, movies, etc). Even if you don’t go to conventions, there are some shows that are so pervasive through American culture today that you have a pretty good chance of striking up a conversation on the street with someone who watches at least one of these shows.
For my generation, these are shows like Breaking Bad, The Walking Dead, and Game of Thrones. It’s almost completely expected that you’ve watched at least one of these, and certainly frowned upon if you haven’t even heard of them. I’ve been scolded many times by friends for not being caught up with Walking Dead or GoT, especially because they’re easily accessible online, if only in 360p.
In the case of the Walking Dead and Game of Thrones, it has become much more socially acceptable to be a nerd. Although the threshold for entrance into nerd-world is lowered, those who are fully into these shows are still considered full-on nerds. They have their own conventions and their own fan clubs. Oftentimes, fans will go to great lengths to show pride in their fandom, taking part in something called cosplaying, or the act of dressing up and imitating the appearance and behavior of a fictional character.
This is most often done with characters on screen, but can also be done with characters from other media. Cosplaying takes a lot of time to prepare/make the costume, and it is often satisfying when other fans acknowledge and praise the hard work put in and the realistic or accurate quality of the cosplay.
When one spends much of one’s time on an action, that action helps form their identity. Suffice to say that a deeper level of commitment, manifested through cosplaying or knowing trivia, shows other people your enculturation. Now, instead of the old adage “you are what you eat,” it is more accurate to say, “you are what you consume.”
With the advent of libraries of shows, regular releases in online media, and the ubiquity of smartphones and internet-connected devices, it is becoming a norm that you not only watch TV, but also identify yourself by the content found therein. By watching it weekly or watching it all at once, as long as you finish it all, you can consider yourself invested.