Can your television make you feel less lonely?

Posted by Samantha Rose Hunt

Chicago (IL) - A new series of four studies conducted by psychologists at the University at Buffalo and Miami University found that illusory relationships with television stars provide individuals, including those who suffer from low self esteem or rejection by family and friends, with a sense of belonging.

 “The research provides evidence for the ’social surrogacy hypothesis’, which holds that humans can use technologies, like television, to provide the experience of belonging when no real belongingness has been experienced,” stated Shira Gabriel, a study co-author and assistant professor of Pyschology at the University of Buffalo. He continued, “We also argue that other commonplace technologies such as movies, music or interactive video games, as well as television, can fulfill this need.”

In the initial study, 701 undergraduate students used the Loneliness Activities Scale and the Likelihood of Feeling Lonely Scale, which determined that subjects reported to turning on and watching their favorite television programs when they were feeling alone and lacking company.  The individuals claimed to feel less lonely when watching these programs.

The second study referred to essays to manipulate the belongingness needs of 102 undergraduate students experimentally. The study determined that individuals whose belongingness needs were aroused, tended to describe their favorite television shows in much more detail and depth than they did with television shows that were not among their favorites.

Study three observed 116 participants and concluded that thoughts of an individual’s favorite television program prevented self-esteem drops, increases in negative feelings and a bad mood, and reduced a sense of rejection that would commonly be felt when a close relationship was threatened.

The final study looked at 222 participants who were asked to write a ten minute essay about their favorite television program and then write about programs they watch when nothing else is on television, or about experiencing an academic achievement.  They were then asked to describe verbally their essays in as much detail as possible. After writing about their favorite television program the participants expressed fewer feelings of loneliness and exclusion than when verbally describing the two controlled situations.

The researchers claim that there is evidence for “parasocial” or illusionary relationships with television characters or personalities that can make individuals feel less lonely, compensating for their need for interaction.  It is still unclear whether social surrogacy suppresses belongingness needs or fulfills them, but the researchers acknowledged that the social surrogacy delivered by the TV shows can be a negative substitution for genuine human interaction.

"Turning one's back on family and friends for the solace of television may be maladaptive and leave a person with fewer resources over time," Jaye Derrick, of the University of Buffalo stated. "But for those who have difficulty experiencing social interaction because of physical or environmental constraints, technologically induced belongingness may offer comfort."