In October, the company – which has much to do with the popularity of the phrase “binge watching” – attempted to give birth to another one: “binge racer.” A binge racer is a viewer who aims to finish a season within 24 hours of its release, according to the press release from Netflix. The number of binge racers on the platform has increased more than 20 times between 2013 and 2016.

Conscious that this piece of trivia paints a very bleak picture of people’s lives, it added: “…before you assume that racers are just basement-dwelling couch potatoes, know that for these super fans, the speed of watching is an achievement to be proud of and brag about. TV is their passion and Binge Racing is their sport.”

It’s like Mark Zuckerberg recommending we start seeing less of our friends in person. 

Experts have talked themselves hoarse warning consumers about the dangers of technology to mental health. Facebook (FB) even wrote a surprising blog post about the negative effects social media can have after former employees started to join the conversation. Remarkably though, Netflix works to legitimize behavior that researchers have found affects sleep quality and is linked with low self-regulation, depression and anxiety.

And it works. After the press release was published, stories about “binge racing” were written about by journalists at USA Today, Fortune, Entertainment Weekly, Forbes, Mashable, Time, Variety, The Boston Globe and countless other publications.This is significant because a 2016 survey conducted by researchers at the University of Toledo showed that media influence and social acceptance of binge watching were significant predictors of self-reported binge watching. The more people hear about others binge watching, the more likely they are to feel OK about doing it themselves.

Things got very interesting when an employee running social media at the firm strayed from the "no shame" message last week and posted something snarky on Twitter.

The debate that followed (Entertainment Weekly called the tweet "creepy") focused on Netflix's use of personal customer data and its willingness to shame its users. Netflix came back with a official statement defending the tweet, but the incident was an example of the delicate balance it has to maintain. And things could only get more complicated. Very little research has been performed on binge watching so far, but that is bound to change as it grows more mainstream, and what is discovered could put its biggest supporter in a difficult position. 

Sleep Is the Enemy

We know binge watching is important to Netflix – CEO Reed Hastings has called sleep the company’s biggest competitor and the autoplay function, which takes viewers from episode to episode, is enabled by default. But more telling is that the phrase comes up in its communications repeatedly.

To date, the word “binge” has appeared 15 times in news releases put out by Netflix. Seven of these mentions were in press releases from 2017. Netflix frequently uses its data to release insights related to binge watching for the media to write about. “Binge” has also come up in multiple quarterly earnings calls and is mentioned in the streaming company’s long-term strategy on its investor relations page.

A few examples of these press releases are: "Netflix Declares Binge Watching is the New Normal," "Series, Movie, Series, Repeat: A New Netflix Binge Routine" and "Decoding the Defenders: Netflix Unveils the Gateway Shows That Lead to a Heroic Binge."

The “binge racer” press release was the latest in an ongoing marketing campaign to remove any shame attached to spending hours in front of a screen. Even more recently, it published survey data that said “ 67% of people will risk embarrassment, awkwardness and spoilers to watch their favorite shows and movies in public” ("When Bingeing Goes Public, Private Behaviors are Exposed and Social Norms are Shelved")

It’s clear that Netflix has been anticipating the backlash binge watching could possibly face for a long time. 

A study it funded in 2013 found that 73% of TV streamers have positive feelings and feel no guilt about binge watching and 76% call it a welcome refuge from their daily lives. (The methodology reveals that more than half of the 3,078 adults surveyed did not stream a TV show at least once a week, which makes one wonder whether their opinion on binge watching should actually matter. Actually, a study by a researcher at Trinity University found that viewers who reported higher levels of TV consumption in the previous week were less likely to feel guilty about binge watching than those who watched less TV.)

More interestingly, cultural anthropologist Grant McCracken, employed by Netflix to study viewing patterns, in the same press release tried to say that today’s TV streamers are not the dead-eyed, couch potatoes of the past. No, according to McCracken, they are purposeful seekers of new experiences.

“TV viewers are no longer zoning out as a way to forget about their day, they are tuning in, on their own schedule, to a different world. Getting immersed in multiple episodes or even multiple seasons of a show over a few weeks is a new kind of escapism that is especially welcomed today,” he said.

Does the company anticipate a backlash and this is its strategy to negate it? Will it be forced, like Facebook, to acknowledge in the future that some users don't have the healthiest relationship with the platform? It's impossible to say, but we know research surrounding binge watching is still in its nascent stage and Netflix's obsession with the phenomenon could hurt it later.  The New York Post already connected its finding that people are streaming on the platform in restrooms to the risk of  hemorrhoids.

Binge Is the Bread and Butter

Netflix must protect binge watching because its investors have been told it is essential to the firm’s existence.

When asked about its rationale of making entire season’s available at one time during an earnings call in 2011, CEO Reed Hastings said, “Netflix's brand for TV shows is really about binge viewing. It is to accommodate, to just get hooked and watch episode after episode. It's addictive, it's exciting, it's different.”

During a conference call in October 2014, the CEO called consumers’ desire to binge watch a “universal value.”

In its Q2 2016 earnings report, the company said it is experimenting with broadcasting few episodes on TV because it aims to “entice consumers to join Netflix to complete their binge.”

Netflix also tells investors audiences’ willingness to binge watch is an indicator of the quality of its content and that it lets its knowledge of how fast people watch guide its programming decisions.

“…you really want to think of us as just a learning machine in terms of the programming, the variety of what we've done. We get so much data about how people watch, how fast they watch, that it really propels our programming,” said Hastings during an earnings call in July 2015.

During a conference call with investors in 2013, COO Ted Sarandos said, “…it's a pretty safe bet that if somebody watches all 13 episodes of a show in a pretty short time span that they love that content, so it's a good leading indicator for us that we're doing OK with them.” Sarandos also added that Netflix content enjoys a better complete rate than anything on broadcast television.

Escapism

From the limited research that has been conducted on binge watching, we know quality of the content doesn’t fully explain the practice. (For further proof, "Fuller House" is the second-most “binge raced” show, according to Netflix data.)

The truth is binge watching has a darker side and is not always the happy, calm experience Netflix or television journalists who throw the phrase around in reviews and lists lead one to believe.

A study by researchers at the University of Texas at Austin found that people suffering from depression and anxiety were less likely to have the self-control to stop bingeing even when they had more important tasks to complete. Depressed people are more likely to be watching back-to-back episodes, according to another research paper from Georgia Southern University. The earlier cited study by researchers at the University of Toledo also says that self-identified binge-watchers are more likely to report higher stress, anxiety and depression.

Now the above studies do not conclude that binge watching causes depression. Binge watchers who are suffering could be looking for a way to escape their emotions, which is a problem on its own when it becomes an addiction and leads to total avoidance.

It's possible Netflix already knows this about its users. 

A Redditor who suffers from depression posted last week about how the company reached out to him to check if he was OK when he watched the entirety of "The Office" in 5-10 days. "I received an email from Netflix asking if I was OK," wrote Reddit user King-Salamander. "They had noticed that I had my account running non-stop for over a week and they wanted to check on me and make sure I was doing well since my viewing activities became so much more frequent than they used to be. Honestly made me feel better just knowing that someone, even a stranger working at a customer support agency, cared about my mental health."

Writer Julian Kimble in his Op-Ed for Fader provided us with a powerful glimpse of what this looks like. “Binge watching, on its surface, isn’t unhealthy. It does, however, become harmful when it treads toward complete evasion. Submerging myself in plot twists and the details of other people’s realities can’t be the way to elude my own. It’s a fleeting high, anyway. Netflix’s “Are you there?” prompt is a totem that never fails to bring me back to reality, where accomplishments don’t equate to happiness and the pressure to meet some unattainable level of excellence – to mirror a difficult TV genius in the mold of Don Draper, or Hank Moody or Walter White – only leads to a dead end. Yes, I’ve become well-acquainted with 3 a.m.’s dead calm to meet deadlines. Yes, the world issues constant, aggressive reminders that the color of my skin could be the cause of my death, but blowing through series after series in exile solves nothing long-term. After all, life still continues at the end of every season,” he wrote.

Facebook’s bottom line is helped by the dopamine hit addicted users receive when they earn “likes.” Netflix may be benefiting from psychological weaknesses, too, but a time may come when it can no longer publicly celebrate it.

 

 

 

 

 

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