Susan Carnell, Ph.D.
Susan Carnell, Ph.D., investigated how binge-watching changed during the COVID-19 pandemic and how stress and BMI related to binge-watching behaviors. Carnell shares her findings published in Nutrients, based on a large sample of U.S. adults.
1. What was your hypothesis?
With the advent of streaming services and other technology, binge-watching is becoming increasingly common in many households. For a while now, we’ve been interested in whether binge-watching might have some similarities with binge eating, in terms of having impulsive and emotional components, and potentially being driven by stress. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March 2020, we quickly realized that the environmental conditions, in terms of lockdowns, among other things, but also that stressors associated with the pandemic were going to be highly conducive to binge-watching.
So we quickly designed a survey study to test the hypothesis that those experiencing a greater degree of pandemic-associated stress would be more likely to engage in binge-watching, and also to show negative correlates and consequences of binge-watching that are similar to what people experience with binge eating, e.g., feeling out of control while binge-watching, feeling bad after doing it, and feeling like it is interfering with daily life. We also wanted to see whether pandemic stress was associated with a greater likelihood of eating while binge-watching, and whether the relationship between stress and binge-watching differed, depending on current body weight.
2. Could you walk us through the questionnaire that your team developed for the study?
Sure. It was a pretty lengthy survey, so we were lucky that nearly 500 participants completed it in June 2020.
To measure pandemic-associated stress, we asked participants: “How stressed are you about the following in relation to the COVID crisis?” for 16 different pandemic-related factors, including finances and availability of resources; health and health care concerns; job and career concerns; and interpersonal concerns within and outside the home.
To assess binge-watching, we asked participants to tell us how many hours and episodes they thought they would have to watch for it to be considered a binge. Then, referring to their own definitions, participants told us their binge-watching frequency and duration during the past month and before the COVID-19 crisis.
To evaluate potentially negative correlates and consequences of binge-watching, we adapted questions commonly used to assess binge-eating. For example, we asked how often in the last seven days the participant ate while binge-watching; started binge-watching because they felt depressed, sad or bored; felt bad or uncomfortable after binge watching; felt a sense of lack of control while binge-watching; or felt that binge-watching was interfering with their day-to-day responsibilities.
3. What were the key findings from your study?
We found that people binge-watched more frequently during the pandemic than they did before. For example, before the pandemic, only 15% of participants binge-watched between three to four times a week to three or more times per day. But during the pandemic, the number of participants who binge-watched rose to 33%. People also binge-watched for longer periods during the pandemic. Before the pandemic, a binge-watching episode was, on average, about 3.5 hours. During the pandemic, a binge-watching episode was nearer 4 hours, on average. Interestingly, participants who had both high pandemic-associated stress levels and obesity experienced the greatest increases in binge-watching frequency. We also found that highly stressed participants were more likely to eat while binge-watching, to feel a sense of lack of control while binge-watching, to binge-watch due to emotional triggers, to feel bad after binge-watching, and to feel that binge-watching was interfering with their day-to-day responsibilities.
4. Were there any sex differences in binge-watching?
In general, we didn’t see consistent sex differences in our data. For example, the relationship between pandemic-associated stress and binge-watching frequency was similar in both males and females. However, binge-watching duration seemed to be slightly longer in females, and the relationship between stress and binge-watching duration was somewhat stronger in females. So, future research should examine further whether women undergoing stress may be particularly likely to engage in binge-watching.
5. What are some interventions for binge-watching?
Specific interventions to reduce binge-watching have not been widely studied. But a number of studies have identified successful ways to reduce sedentary behaviors, such as using technology to deliver movement reminders, and environmental changes, such as standing desks. Approaches like this could also be used for binge-watching. For example, people wanting to ameliorate potential health effects could pair binge-watching their favorite show with doing some kind of physical activity, like walking on a treadmill. This would have the added benefit of being inconsistent with eating while binge-watching! Or, if walking on a treadmill doesn’t sound like much fun, it might help to engage the hands with another eating-incompatible behavior, such as knitting, or folding laundry.
That said, the major insight of our research was that binge-watching may be something that is done in response to stress. With that in mind, stress reduction techniques, such as meditation, or getting some social support via a phone call with a friend, may prove helpful. Doing something physically active has also been shown to reduce stress. And, of course, if people are really suffering with pandemic-associated anxiety or depression, then they should consider seeking professional help. Many people have been hit with a tremendous amount of stress during this difficult time, and they may need help to start feeling better.
6. What areas of research are next for your team?
We are interested in continuing to examine the phenomenon of binge-watching, including how it relates to other behaviors with an impulsive component, and how people might use it to regulate emotions. We are also conducting research in children to see how the pandemic might have affected their eating behavior, body weight and brain development, and how things will change — now that we seem to be on the road to recovery.