Have you ever heard the adage that the more time you spend with someone, the more you like them? Did you think this could be true for your favorite TV characters too?
Sarah Erickson, Ph.D., is a faculty member in Trinity's communication department and recent recipient of the Mark Foote Distinguished Dissertation Award. She recently published a study on binge-watching, and how it immerses viewers and changes the way they engage with media.
She found that binge-viewing makes it easier for us to bond with people we see on the screen, and to transport ourselves into that fictional world, compared to if we watched the same show with breaks in between. This study could have important implications on the lasting effects of media on us as viewers. Thinking about these implications is particularly relevant given today's growing culture of binge-viewing with the popularity and convenience of Netflix and HBO Go.
1) Congratulations on the publication! What about your background motivated this research question, and why is it an important one to ask in today’s media age?
I have always been interested in parasocial relationships, or perceived one-way relationships with media figures, and their role in how media affect viewers. This study actually came out of a guest lecture I gave in a Media Psychology course at the University of Michigan on these relationships. After the lecture, a student asked me what I thought the impact of binge watching was on parasocial relationships. That student, Hannah Byl, is now a co-author on the published paper. We designed and ran the study together while I was finishing graduate school (along with our other co-author Sonya Dal Cin).
This question is important to ask right now because we are seeing more and more people "cut the cord" and move away from traditional modes of media engagement (watching live television, going to movie theaters, etc). As this shift in how we engage with media changes, there are implications for whether and how much the media content affects us as viewers. We know engagement is associated with stronger evidence of media effects. So, if I am more engaged when binge-watching a show, it might follow that the effects of that program on me might be stronger.
2) How would you describe your findings to those of us at home watching from the couch?
Basically, binge watching is an increasingly common practice. I do it, my students do it, my friends and colleagues do it. When we binge watch, our experiment suggests, we are more involved in and engaged with the story and characters we are watching. This might explain why we sometimes binge watch shows that we would otherwise skip if we watched them on a regular weekly schedule. Importantly, being more engaged with media content is known to be related to increased media effects, and our study suggests that binge-watching might increase engagement and thus effects.
For example, if I watch The Bachelor on a weekly basis, I am exposed to many messages about romance, love, gender, sex, some of which might stick with me over time. Based on our findings, if I were to watch The Bachelor as a binge, the likelihood that the messages about romance, love, gender, and sex would influence me would be greater.
3) Since everyone's idea of binge-watching is so different, how do you define what is considered "binge-watching" for a research study?
This is an excellent question. Binge-watching is very hard to define, as we all have different understandings of the term. For some people, watching three episodes of a 30-minute sitcom would not count as binge watching, but watching three episodes of an hour-long drama would. In the study, we used data from a previous survey where we asked participants to define binge-watching. In that survey, we found that the general consensus seemed to be three episodes or more of a show at one sitting. This is not the definitive definition of binge-watching but it is the definition, based on data, that we used for this study.
4) Given your findings on binge-watching and its ability to engage audiences more deeply, do you foresee other media outlets besides Netflix starting to abandon the "weekly episode" format?
I think we are already seeing this, certainly with other streaming services like Amazon and Hulu but also in traditional broadcast and cable television. Over the past several years, we have seen more and more examples of high-profile mini-series or limited series (like American Crime Story, The Handmaid's Tale or the upcoming Fosse/Verdon series). I am not an expert in this area but as an avid media viewer, it seems like writers are increasingly writing extended narratives that are enhanced by binge-watching rather than weekly stand-alone episodes.
5) Do you plan on getting Trinity students involved in your research?
I am currently working with a few Trinity students on new research projects that actually align a bit better with my overall research interests than the binging study. In my research, I am interested in how and what adolescents and young adults learn about sex, romance, and relationships from the media. In particular, I am concerned with messages about healthy romantic relationships and the potentially unhealthy behaviors that the media normalizes (think the romanticization of Edward's controlling behavior in Twilight). Binge watching is obviously associated with this as these messages may have stronger effects if a show is binge watched. Currently, a Trinity student, Kailey Lopez, and I are working on a project examining the intersection of gender, sexual violence, and truth in the series 13 Reasons Why, and I am planning to launch a new large scale study (and possibly lab) to examine romantic relationship culture on campus with student collaborators.
6) What are some characters that you’ve bonded closest to from binge-watching?
Hmm, I would say some of the characters that I have become the most parasocially attached to from binge watching would include Jane Villanueva (from Jane the Virgin), all of the men on Queer Eye (but especially Antoni), Raylan Givens (from Justified), and Frankie (from Grace and Frankie). I would love to grow up to be Frankie (or Lily Tomlin).
7) What is the next step for your research?
The next step for me is to start tackling the ambitious project of building a Healthy Romantic Relationship Research Lab on campus. I hope to bring together faculty from multiple disciplines and interested students to develop a program of research and a series of publications examining how undergraduate students learn what is healthy and unhealthy in romantic relationships, what beliefs they hold about these relationships (particularly related to normalized forms of psychological and emotional abuse), and how we might, as educators, intervene to work with students to promote healthier and happier romantic relationships and encounters.