There’s a snobbishness about relaxation time. Tell someone your hobby is watching TV and chances are they’ll look at you with derision. Mention meditation, reading or yoga and you’re far more likely to attract nods of approval.
And yet there is substantial evidence that time watching TV or playing video games can have a powerful restorative effect – just what many of us need after a hard day. This benefit isn’t found for everyone, and in new paper Leonard Reinecke and his collaborators propose that a key reason has to do with guilt.
The researchers think that it is people who are mentally exhausted, who are most likely to experience guilt after vegging out with a box set or video game. This is because, in their depleted state, these people see their behaviour as procrastination. This leads to the paradoxical situation in which it is the people who could most benefit from the restorative effects of lounge-based downtime who are the least likely to do so.
To test their ideas, Reinecke’s team surveyed nearly 500 people in Germany and Switzerland. Participants were recruited via a gaming website and through psychology and communication classes. Specifically, the participants answered questions about the previous day, including how much work or study they’d done (answers ranged from half an hour to 16 hours), how depleted they felt after work or college, how much TV they’d watched or video-gaming they’d played (this averaged around two hours), whether they viewed it as procrastination, whether they felt guilty, and how recharged they felt afterwards.
The key finding is that the more depleted people felt after work (agreeing with statements like “I felt like my willpower was gone”), the more they tended to view their TV or gaming as procrastination, the more guilt they felt, and the less likely they were to say they felt restored afterwards. The same findings applied for TV or video games.
“Rather than diminishing the beneficial potential of entertaining media,” the researchers said, “we believe that the results of this study may ultimately help to optimise the well-being outcomes of entertaining media use by extending our knowledge of the mechanisms furthering and hindering media-induced recovery and general well-being.” If the researchers are correct, then if you cut yourself some slack when you watch TV after a hard day, you’re more likely feel rejuvenated afterwards.
Unfortunately, as the researchers admit in their paper, their methodological approach has several limitations. Above all, this wasn’t an experimental study (with people allocated randomly to different interventions). This means the data can be interpreted in many different ways. One alternative reading of the results is that when TV or gaming fails to have a restorative effect, this leads people to view the time as wasteful procrastination, thus causing them to feel guilty.
Reinecke, L., Hartmann, T., Eden, A. (2014). The Guilty Couch Potato: The Role of Ego Depletion in Reducing Recovery Through Media Use Journal of Communication, 64 (4), 569-589 DOI: 10.1111/jcom.12107