Care to Play? Squid Game and the Psychology of Binge-Watching

Leanna M.W. Lui, HBSc


October 29, 2021

Have you "binged" Squid Game recently?

Over the past several years, binge-watching streaming TV series has become a phenomenon. You probably have experienced this yourself or know someone who has binge-watched a show lately, whether it was a popular new Netflix series or a classic show like Breaking Bad.

I must admit that I'm also part of this culture. I enjoy watching shows in one sitting (or a few) — whether the show lasts one season or five, with episodes that range from 20 minutes to an hour. It's safe to say that this kind of activity is somewhat addictive. 

Binge-watching is generally defined as watching multiple episodes of a show or spending a considerable period of time viewing content. However, there is a need for a standardized definition of binge-watching. 

Studies investigating this phenomenon have likened binge-watching to a behavioral addiction (eg, the problematic use of social media or video games), which leads to consequences such as unhealthy relationships, negligence of responsibilities, and poor health. And several theories behind the binge-watching phenomenon have been proposed.

TV shows are part of social culture. Because of this, to be "in" or feel included and accepted by others, it's necessary to keep up with the latest content and remain socially connected. Being "in the know" is an important aid to being part of the conversation: The type of content we consume is connected to our engagement with our peers and colleagues.

Let's take Squid Game, the most-watched series on Netflix, as an example. Several conversations that I've had over the past couple of weeks and memes that I've recently been tagged in have referenced the show. Almost everyone I know who has watched this show has finished the series within a couple sittings.

Related to this notion of social connectedness, binge-watching also reduces the "fear of missing out," or FOMO. Results from this original study suggest that there is a significant relationship between binge-watching and FOMO: FOMO steers activity related to TV consumption. A separate hypothesis posits that people who binge-watch TV do so in an attempt to escape reality. TV shows may create an incredibly immersive experience, with fictional characters or environments serving as an alternate reality for escape. Because of this, those who binge-watch may create strong parasocial relationships and use fictional situations to cope with their current real-life situations. Notwithstanding the maladaptive therapeutic value of the binge-watching phenomenon, it has also been suggested that the general enveloping effect of TV shows induces intense emotional and cognitive interaction that fosters a sense of allurement and interest. 

Yet, there is concern regarding the addictive nature of binge-watching. This type of behavior may be emotionally controlling (eg, instant gratification) and may resemble the challenges individuals experience with other addictive behaviors (eg, loneliness, avoiding responsibilities, anxiety, irritability). 

It's important to distinguish between "normal" TV watching habits and binge-watching behavior. Although COVID-19 has created an opportunity that is conducive to binge-watching, it's important to recognize this behavior as potentially problematic if it is carried out in excess — something I'm mindful of myself! Research exploring this phenomenon among different populations, age groups, and situations could go a long way in helping us understand our tendency to spend a little too much time fixed on Netflix.  

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About Leanna Lui
Leanna M.W. Lui, HBSc, completed an HBSc global health specialist degree at the University of Toronto, where she is now an MSc student. Her interests include mood disorders, health economics, public health, and applications of artificial intelligence.


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