Keep bingeing Netflix: Researchers find you can still get your social needs without human interaction

Friday night parties or Saturday night dates feel like ancient history. Whether you were an avid partygoer or more of an introvert before COVID-19 appeared, we’re all feeling more isolated than usual these days. Going back to the stone age humans have always been a social bunch. We need to socialize, break bread, and connect with our fellow humans. It’s about as essential to one’s health as eating or sleeping. 

Traditional socializing and interaction just aren’t possible for most of us right now. Besides seeing our immediate housemates, no one is getting together to gossip or catch up. So, we’re all relying more than usual on comforts like streaming services, music, books and novels, and podcasts. 

If you’ve been feeling guilty about all that content you’ve been consuming, a new study from the University at Buffalo has some surprising but welcome news. Researchers have found that these so-called “guilty pleasures” are actually just as effective at meeting our social needs as family interactions, romantic relationships, and social support systems in general.

“I don’t think people realize that these non-traditional connections are as beneficial as we found in our research,” comments study co-author Shira Gabriel, a professor of psychology at UB’s College of Arts and Sciences, in a university release. “Don’t feel guilty, because we found that these strategies are fine as long as they work for you.”

In a perfect world, we would all be out right now with our friends on the way to a concert or sporting event. 2020, though, clearly had other ideas. We’re all coping in our own way, and these findings drive home the fact that anything that helps a person relax and feel connected to the world is a positive right now.

“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,” explains study co-author Elaine 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.”

It goes without saying that classic forms of social interaction are quite beneficial as well, but no piece of prior research had compared traditional and nontraditional connection methods. For example, does meeting up with friends in person fulfill one’s social needs, or as the study’s authors call it “social fuel tank,” any more than binge-watching one’s favorite TV show?

It sounds like a silly comparison at first, but this study’s results suggest that both of those activities result in about the same level of social fulfillment. 

“There’s a basic need for social connections, just as we have a basic need for food. 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,” Gabriel expounds. “What’s important is not how you’re filling the social fuel tank, but that your social fuel tank is getting filled.”

A total of 173 people were gathered for this research, and each person was asked a series of questions about their overall wellbeing, social connections, and usual day-to-day social interactions. Researchers used those responses to calculate a “social fuel tank” measurement for each participant. 

On average, participants reported quenching their social needs seven ways, with some listing as many as 17 different methods. These activities varied greatly, from partying with friends to something as simple as a good mystery novel or listening to their favorite songs. Interestingly, the research team found no evidence that people who chose activities like podcasts or movies were any less happy or more lonely than people going out all the time.

“This is especially relevant now, with social distancing guidelines changing the ways people connect with others,” Paravati adds. “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.”

Long before COVID-19 appeared and changed everything, there was always a certain stigma about staying in on a Friday night or not going out to a social event if invited. We’ve all been conditioned to feel just a little bit ashamed if we prefer curling up in bed with a good book instead of meeting for drinks. The researchers behind this study want to change that narrative. 

“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,” Gabriel says. “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.”

Once this pandemic is over we’re all going to want to get outside and enjoy the world we all took for granted just a couple of months ago. But, we’re also blessed in the sense that our modern world allows us to connect with other humans in a variety of ways that would have been unimaginable even fifty years ago.

“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,” Paravati concludes.

The full study can be found here, published in Self and Identity.