Binge-Watching Isn’t Making Us Depressed – But It Might Not Help

Image credit: Pablo GarciaSaldaña

It’s a brand-new week, so we have a brand-new panic about how modern technology is just ruining our mental health. This time, it’s Netflix. Beloved Netflix, provider of so many amazing stories–why have you forsaken us?

Yep, binge-watching is making us depressed.

Well, “making us” is a strong way to put it, but how about those sensational headlines? “Binge-Watching TV Is Making Us Depressed, According to an Incredibly Depressing Study,” says VICE. “Could Netflix make you DEPRESSED?” asked the Daily Mail, loudly. Well, no. Probably not. But the headlines are based loosely in reality given the results of a recent study.

The study in question was presented at the American Public Health Association’s annual meeting last fall. 408 participants were surveyed about their TV-watching habits. Of those participants, 35 percent self-identified as binge watchers, and binge watchers were more likely to consider themselves addicted to TV. Since TV addiction is linked with all sorts of negative mental and physical health outcomes, we come to the conclusion that binge-watching TV is “making us depressed.”

Let’s unpack that a bit. First, the study itself didn’t link negative mental health outcomes with binge-watching, simply with self-reported TV addiction. If a strong link were to be found, it would still only be a correlative one–depressed people may well binge-watch more in an attempt to cope with depression.

It’s also worth looking at the sample. The participants of this study included 408 volunteers recruited through Mechanical Turk, an Amazon program that has users perform menial tasks for tiny sums of money. What do we know about mental health and Mechanical Turk users? Nothing at all. We do know that using Mechanical Turk involves long periods of time with very little stimulation–the perfect environment for binge watching.

So despite the headlines, we can’t just take these results and apply them widely. We also can’t point to this study as proof that binge watching causes depression, because again, they weren’t even looking at that.

What we can say is this: binge-watching TV can be linked with depression. Is that a bad thing? Not necessarily.

If you’re unhappy with your viewing habits, or you feel like you may be using TV to avoid dealing with other issues, then yes, it’s a problem. Just like it’s a problem if you do the same thing with an MMORPG, or Call of Duty, or your phone, or food. Unhealthy habits are, by definition, unhealthy.

But if you’re comfortable with your viewing habits and they don’t cause you any harm, don’t let the headlines scare you. Depression is tough enough without blaming it unnecessarily on all the things we love.

[American Public Health Association]
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