You’re in your La-Z-Boy, on your third-consecutive episode of your latest Netflix obsession. By all outward appearances, you’re relaxed. Content. But there’s a voice gnawing at you from inside. It’s the same voice that’s always there when you watch television. “Go outside,” it says. “Read a book. Clean the house. Get some work done. You have deadlines.”
You try to ignore it but it’s there, and it grows louder as you debate whether to hit “play” after the option to keep watching pops up.
In short, you feel guilty. According to new research published in the Journal of Communication, that’s probably because you’re “ego-depleted.” More on that in a moment.
"A fast-growing body of research, however, demonstrates that media use can have a great variety of positive effects on psychological well-being."
So why do some people feel guilty when they watch TV while others just feel refreshed? Researchers in Germany and the Netherlands wanted to know, so they created a survey for 635 participants. Some of the subjects were recruited via a popular German gaming site, and others were psychology and communication students at Swiss and German universities. From there, they identified 471 people who had both worked and watched TV or played a video game the previous day. The survey asked about the respondents’ recent media-consumption experience, including their feelings of procrastination, guilt, and revitalization.
There were also questions meant to determine whether someone was “ego-depleted”—a condition that results, the study says, from a constant state of “making decisions, adjusting to social norms, avoiding mistakes, and many other tasks frequently encountered in daily life.”
It turns out that the people who feel guiltiest about indulging in TV were also the most ego-depleted. The study—whose title, “The Guilty Couch Potato,” is among the better ones we’ve seen—found that people who have a negative perception of media consumption derive fewer recovery benefits from watching TV and playing video games.
“Rather than seeing it as a guilty pleasure, a waste of time, and a proof of one’s own self-regulatory failure, it makes sense to also look at the bright side and think of media use as a deserved treat after a long working day and an effective recovery strategy that may help us to be more productive afterwards,” says Leonard Reinecke, one of the paper's authors. “This way, we do not have to look at media use as a destructive behavior but as a helpful and productive coping strategy.”
He emphasizes, of course, that TV shouldn’t be our only way to retreat from stress, that time in front of screens should stay within reasonable limits, and that we should combine it with other important activities in our attempts to unwind.
Still, Reinecke says, it’s time to de-stigmatize entertainment: “For a long time, the public discourse has focused on the negative and unintended effects of media entertainment,” he says. “A fast-growing body of research, however, demonstrates that media use can have a great variety of positive effects on psychological well-being.”
So go ahead, hit “play.” And don’t feel guilty about it.
Rosie Spinks contributed reporting.