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Can Binge-Watching Your Favorite Show Meet Your Social Needs?

A  new study suggests that non-traditional social strategies such as listening to your favorite band, reading a novel or binge-watching a favorite TV show may be just as effective at fulfilling critical social needs as family connections, romantic relationships or strong social support systems.

The results have significant implications during the COVID-19 pandemic as people struggle with direct social connections hindered by social distancing and other necessary precautions, according to Dr. Shira Gabriel, a professor of psychology at the University of Buffalo’s College of Arts and Sciences and one of the paper’s co-authors.

The findings are published in the journal Self and Identity.

“There’s a basic need for social connections, just as we have a basic need for food,” said Gabriel, whose work as a social psychologist looks at how individuals fulfill their interpersonal needs and navigate a social world. “The longer you go without those sorts of connections, the lower the fuel tank, and that’s when people start to get anxious, nervous or depressed, because they lack needed resources.

“What’s important is not how you’re filling the social fuel tank, but that your social fuel tank is getting filled.”

Gabriel noted that many people don’t realize that non-traditional connections are as beneficial as her research has found. “Don’t feel guilty, because we found that these strategies are fine as long as they work for you,” she said.

And these non-traditional strategies all predict positive outcomes, according to doctoral student Elaine Paravati, co-author of the paper.

“People can feel connected through all sorts of means. We found that more traditional strategies, like spending time with a friend in person, doesn’t necessarily work better for people than non-traditional strategies, like listening to a favorite musician,” said Paravati.

“In fact, using a combination of both of these types of strategies predicted the best outcomes, so it might be especially helpful to have a variety of things you do in your life to help you feel connected to others.”

For over a decade, Gabriel has researched the importance of non-traditional social strategies. These include everything from getting lost in pulp fiction page-turners to preparing and enjoying comfort foods. Volumes of research also exist on the importance of traditional social strategies, like interpersonal relationships or group memberships.

But the new study is the first to combine the traditional and non-traditional for comparative purposes to simultaneously test their relative effectiveness.

The findings represent the first evidence that not only reinforces the effectiveness of non-traditional social strategies, but also suggest that doing something like binge watching a favorite television drama is as useful as other traditional means of fulfillment.

The study involved 173 participants who were asked questions about their well-being and their social connections. Their answers provided a measurement inspired by previous research, which the team calls the “social fuel tank.”

Participants filled their tanks as many as 17 different ways (with a median of seven), using a variety of strategies in their lives to fill their social needs, with a majority of participants reporting both traditional and non-traditional social strategies.

“Symbolic social bonds don’t function as a second-place option to traditional means.They are an effective way of reaping positive mental benefits,” Paravati said. “It’s not about only using them when you can’t access ‘better’ options — these options are helpful to use any time.”

“We have evidence that as long as you feel like you’re fulfilling your belongingness needs, it doesn’t really matter how you’re doing it,” she said. “This is especially relevant now, with social distancing guidelines changing the ways people connect with others. “We can utilize these non-traditional strategies to help us feel connected, fulfilled, and find more meaning in our lives, even as we safely practice social distancing.”

And at a time when quarantine restrictions have motivated questions about how to be social, Gabriel notes how these findings differ from cultural perceptions regarding the unwritten rules for what’s appropriate for creating a sense of belonging.

“We live in a society where people are questioned if they’re not in a romantic relationship, if they decide not to have children, or they don’t like attending parties,” said Gabriel. “There are implicit messages that these people are doing something wrong. That can be detrimental to them.

“The message we want to give to people, and that our data suggest, is that that’s just not true.”

And even before Gabriel had evidence to support these conclusions, her previous research had raised the very questions addressed in the new study.

“People had assumed these non-traditional connections weren’t valuable. In fact, we used to call them ‘social surrogates,’ as if they were a surrogate for a real social connection,” says Gabriel.

“But after researching these connections for so long, we never found evidence that they weren’t valuable. Nothing suggested that people using non-traditional strategies were lonelier, or less happy, less socially skilled, or feeling any less fulfilled.”

“These aren’t surrogates for real social connections; these are real ways of feeling connected that are very important to people.”

Graduate student Esha Naidu also contributed to the study.

Source: University at Buffalo

Can Binge-Watching Your Favorite Show Meet Your Social Needs?

Traci Pedersen

Traci Pedersen is a professional writer with over a decade of experience. Her work consists of writing for both print and online publishers in a variety of genres including science chapter books, college and career articles, and elementary school curriculum.

APA Reference
Pedersen, T. (2020). Can Binge-Watching Your Favorite Show Meet Your Social Needs?. Psych Central. Retrieved on December 3, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 19 Apr 2020 (Originally: 19 Apr 2020)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 19 Apr 2020
Published on Psych All rights reserved.