Turning to Media for Stress Reduction? Ego Depletion and Entertainment


Home / Turning to Media for Stress Reduction? Ego Depletion and Entertainment
Do you watch tv to unwind? Image by caprisco.

Do you watch television to unwind? Image by caprisco.

Settling down to watch a few of your favorite shows or  to play a video game to relax and recharge?

Do you feel a bit guilty about tuning in?

Researcher Leonard Reinecke from the Department of Communication, Johannes Gutenberg University  in Mainz, Germany and colleagues from the University Amsterdam want to help you feel better about unwinding in front of the screen, but why?

It turns out that feeling guilty about stress-reduction activities actually reduces their benefits.

Inhibiting Desire and Ego Depletion

Can you ‘use up’ your willpower? In order to successfully participate in modern society, it is necessary to exercise restraint, which could lead to a phenomenon called ‘ego depletion.’

Ego depletion, according to Dr. Roy F. Baumeister of Florida State University’s 2014 study entitled, “Self-Regulation, Ego Depletion, and Inhibition” is the:

[c]onscious inhibition of desires is a pervasive feature of everyday life and may be a requirement of life in civilized, cultural society, and in that sense it goes to the evolved core of human nature.”

According to the authors, not being able to follow our own impulses all day may lead to a state of weakened willpower called “ego depletion.”  Baumeister explains, “Ego depletion is the state of reduced willpower caused by prior exertion of self-control.”

According to this theory, when individuals exercise self control all day, such as in a work setting, their will power levels are depleted. When they come home, they may just put up their feet, and watch television or play a favorite video game.

Do You Feel Guilty About Using Media to Wind-Down After Work?

Your family might prefer having your company, there may be chores to do, or other obligations to attend to. Not only that, watching television isn’t as healthy as other ‘unwinding’ activities: Research has linked television with obesity for twenty five years, according to Harvard’s School of Public Health. Other research published in the American Journal of Epidemiology  by Michel Lucas et al. has correlated time spent watching television with depression. All these and more may contribute to a nagging feeling of guilt when you watch television after a long, hard day’s work.

As these various studies suggest, however, there may also be a positive aspect to using a reasonable amount of television viewing as stress reduction – but your guilt feelings will interfere with the benefits.

The Restorative Power of Screen-time

Research by Dianne Tice and colleagues in 2007 in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, titled, “Restoring the self: Positive affect helps improve self-regulation following ego depletion” found that watching a comic video was effective at restoring eg0-depleted individuals.  Both watching a funny video and receiving a surprise gift “counteracted” ego-depletion – allowing participants to perform as well as non-depleted individuals on tests of physical stamina (a handgrip test) and task persistence.

Reinecke and colleagues’ 2014 study entitled, “The Guilty Couch Potato: The Role of Ego Depletion in Reducing Recovery Through Media Use” further examines the connection between media and ego-depletion, and finds that the restorative power of entertaining screen-time in the form of video games and television viewing is hampered if folks feel too bad about engaging in screen-time to unwind.

media guilt

Do you feel guilty about playing video games after work? Image by Decoded Science, all rights reserved

Television and Guilt: The Research Design

The researchers for Reinecke’s 2014 guilt-and-media study included a total of 471 respondents in the study after excluding those who did not report using media after working the prior day. Some participants were recruited from a gaming website, and completed an online survey. Others were recruited from university classes in Germany and Switzerland.

After assessing whether or not the respondent’s media use consisted of primarily television-watching or video game-playing, the researchers assigned each respondent either a survey about television (209 individuals) viewing or video game playing (262 individuals).

The authors report: “Participants in the games survey reported an average of M=2.60 hours of video game use on the preceding day (SD=1.73 hours) whereas participants responding to the television survey reported having watched television for M=1.99 hours on the preceding day (SD=1.09 hours).” 

M refers to the mean or average time spent and SD is the ‘standard deviation,’ or range. Most measures lie one standard deviation from the mean. One SD from the mean for television, for instance would be a response reporting between .9 hours and 3.08 hours. of television watched.

Participants reported working an average of 6.5 hours the previous day ranging from .5 to 16 hours with a SD=2.47 hours.  Most respondents worked between 4.03 hours to 8.97 hours, or within one SD of the mean or average.

Levels of ego depletion were measured using the State Self-Control Capacity Scale.  Participants were asked to rate items such as ““Yesterday after work/school, I felt drained” on a scale from one to seven. Researchers measured the participants’ sense of procrastination using modified versions of the 1991 Procrastination Scale such as: “Yesterday, I after work/school to find an excuse for not doing something else”

They assessed the participants’ guilty feelings using five questions from the State Shame and Guilt Scale by rating items such as “When I yesterday after work/school, I felt remorse.”

Levels of recovery were measured using the Recovery Experience Questionnaire with answers to questions such as “When I yesterday after work/school, I relaxed” on a scale of one to five.

Measures of vitality from the day before and day after media was used were assessed using Activation Deactivation Adjective Checklist which consists of rating how well five adjectives matched respondent’s feelings on a scale from one to five.  The adjectives included terms like “sleepy” and “energetic.”  The respondents also rated their enjoyment levels from one to five.

The difficulty of the television content was measured by people rating the shows from “simple but fun” to those that “made me think.”

Losing Your Will To Resist: The Results

The researchers found no significant differences between those who watched television and those who played video games. Television viewers with higher levels of ego-depletion showed a “preference for easy and entertaining, rather than challenging, television content.”  

Nevertheless, the authors report: “…ego-depleted participants showed a higher tendency to perceive entertaining media use as a form of procrastination. This finding is consistent with previous research that has linked ego depletion to decreased levels of self-control and demonstrated that ego-depleted individuals are at a higher risk of giving in to temptations such as entertaining media use than individuals not suffering from ego depletion … perceived procrastination was strongly associated with feelings of guilt with regard to entertaining media use.”

After using media, “negative appraisal of the use of entertaining media associated with ego depletion reduced the positive effects of media exposure on psychological well-being.

In other words, people who reported feeling guilty about unwinding with media enjoyed the experience less.  Specifically, people report feeling bad about “giving in” to using media.

Media-Induced Recovery or Media as Stressor?

Both gamers and televsion viewers report guilt over screen time. Image by taliesin.

Both gamers and televsion viewers report guilt over screen time. Image by taliesin.

The study’s authors note the conflicting nature of our relationship with media: “…the popular conceptualization of entertainment media characterizes them as undesirable activities with no restorative value (e.g., television as the “boob-tube,” “idiot box,” “squawk box,” etc.). Despite this negative public image of entertaining media use, we nevertheless engage in this activity for almost three hours a day...”

Yet research such as that conducted by the authors demonstrate a restorative effect.

Reinecke is quoted in his press release, “We are beginning to better understand that media use can have beneficial effects for people’s well-being, through media-induced recovery. Our present study is an important step towards a deeper understanding of this. It demonstrates that in the real life, the relationship between media use and well-being is complicated and that the use of media may conflict with other, less pleasurable but more important duties and goals in everyday life.”

Reineke also admits researchers are aware of the media’s downside as well, saying,”We are starting to look at media use as a cause of depletion. In times of smartphones and mobile Internet, the ubiquitous availability of content and communication often seems to be a burden and a stressor rather than a recovery resource.

Public Health and Striking a Balance?

If Reineke were a member of the public health department, rather than the department of communications, his enthusiasm for television as a stress reducer might be tempered.  Obesity and depression are both linked to high levels of television consumption.  Yet, uplifting television viewing does appear to give us the ability to reset and recharge. With these studies, one could make an argument for judicious media consumption, especially for those with depleted egos.

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