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Binge-Watching Can Warp Your View of the World

The most popular streaming shows are quite violent, and new research suggests they convey a dark, distorted view of society.
Netflix Marco Polo

The more hours someone spent per day watching online streaming services, the more they tended to view the world as a mean, unfriendly place, researchers report.

It has long been clear that watching lots of television can leave one with a distorted view of society. All that violent imagery, whether on crime-centric dramas or on sensationalistic local newscasts, conveys the message that the world is a dangerous place.

Does that troubling pattern still hold true in the new age of digital streaming, with its promise of more nuanced, sophisticated shows? New research finds that if you choose some of the most popular streaming shows, it does indeed.

"Viewers who spend more time consuming commonly binge-watched online original programming are more likely to see others in the world as mean, and less likely to perceive them as altruistic," write Boston University researchers Sarah Krongard and Mina Tsay-Vogel.

They found that the most popular original online shows featured "intense, graphic violence, with problematic representations of race and gender." Superior production values notwithstanding, viewing these series appears to have the same problematic effect that watching Dragnet had on your grandparents.

The study, in the journal Psychology of Popular Media Culture, begins with a content analysis of the five most frequently binge-watched programs, all of which are Netflix original series: House of Cards, The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, Marco Polo, Bloodline, and Daredevil.

Among the 62 episodes that collectively constitute these shows' first seasons, the researchers counted 310 violent acts—an average of nearly six per hour. They rated 85 percent of the violence as "graphic." They also found some deeply disturbing racial dynamics.

"White perpetrators were more likely to be featured as fighting for the greater good than not," the researchers write. The opposite was true for non-whites. Non-whites were also "more likely to be perpetrators of sexual violence than non-sexual violence"—a trend that, however unintentionally, "appeared to perpetuate a harmful and prejudiced narrative that non-white individuals are sexually threatening."

The researchers explored the effects of this imagery in a second study, which featured 366 university undergraduates. They answered a series of questions about their television viewing habits, and noted how many episodes (if any) they had watched of the aforementioned five series.

Finally, they answered "a series of questions measuring their perceptions of others as trusted and altruistic," the researchers write. Specifically, they expressed their level of agreement with such statements as, "Most people are kind-hearted" and, "Most of the time, people are just looking out for themselves."

The key result: The more hours someone spent per day watching online streaming services, and the more episodes of those popular streaming shows they had seen, the more they tended to view the world as a mean, unfriendly place.

The researchers concede that these results cannot prove causality; it's possible people with a darker view of the world simply gravitate toward darker shows. But it's likely that many tune in because friends, or trusted media sources, have recommended the shows, meaning they're getting exposed to attitude-altering content they would have otherwise missed.

Now, the inclusion of Kimmy Schmidt in the list gives one pause; any violence in that show is presumably for comic effect, and the protagonist retains her upbeat attitude even in the face of a hostile or indifferent world. Those sorts of nuances are tough for a study of this type to pick up.

But on the whole, this research suggests that, while the delivery technology has changed, the use of violence to attract and retain viewers remains pretty much the same—as does the disturbing effect such violence appears to have on regular viewers.

So if you succumb to binging some dark drama, follow it up with something uplifting—say, Won't You Be My Neighbor. Otherwise, when you finally turn off your set and walk outside, the real world may seem as threatening as the one you've been immersed in. And that sense of fear can color important decisions—including which political candidates you decide to support.