NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - People who play video games or watch television to unwind after a hard day may end up feeling worse about themselves, not better, says a new study.
Although enjoying something pleasurable can restore "vitality" after a draining bout of demanding work, researchers found that users of entertainment media will get less benefit if they see the activity as procrastination rather than rest.
The spent state following a period of self-control to complete a difficult job is known as ego-depletion, according to the study authors, and people in that condition are likely to crave pleasurable foods and easy, mindless entertainment.
"To get a better understanding of what ego depletion means, it is helpful to think of human willpower in terms of a 'muscle.' Whenever we have to use self-control to resist a temptation or to continue an unpleasant task, the strength of this 'muscle' is depleted," Leonard Reinecke told Reuters Health in an email.
Reinecke, who led the study, is a researcher with the Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz in Germany
A growing body of research suggests that a little hedonistic enjoyment, including indulging in television, movies or computer games, can help people recover from ego-depletion, Reinecke and his coauthors write in the Journal of Communication.
But some studies also indicate that media use in particular is linked with guilt over wasting time or being unproductive. So Reinecke's team wanted to see how these effects pan out together in the "real world."
For the study, they enrolled 471 participants from a German gaming website and from psychology and communication classes at two universities in Germany andSwitzerland.
The participants answered online survey questions about the preceding day and how they felt after work or school and what types of media they used to unwind. Depending on their reported activities, they were asked about video games or television use, but not both.
The participants were an average age of 25 years old. The length of time spent in work or school ranged from half an hour to 16 hours. Those who played games played an average of 2.6 hours while those who watched TV, did so for an average of 1.73 hours.
Survey questions were also designed to assess the participants' levels of ego depletion, feelings of guilt, procrastination, and vitality and recovery experience.
The researchers found that participants who were more ego-depleted after work or school were more likely to feel that their media use was a form of procrastination. As a result, they had a higher risk of feeling guilty about their media use.
These feelings of guilt were associated with fewer positive effects of media use and reduced recovery and vitality after media use, the authors write.
"I thought the study added a new layer of understanding to the research that has come before, so I really think it's important work," said Elliot Panek from the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, who was not involved in the study.
"I think the new wrinkle that this study provides is context, so playing a video game isn't inherently bad - it's not necessary going to make you feel good or bad," said Panek, adding that it depends on what you've been doing and how you've been feeling that day before you engage in using entertainment media.
Panek, who has studied use of media entertainment and guilt, said that playing video games or watching TV could help you recover from a long day's work as long as you don't have a feeling that you've been draining your willpower.
"But if you've been exerting willpower then you play the same darn video games or watched the same television, you're not going to feel that same sense of recovery," he said.
"I think it would be helpful to reappraise media use -- 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," Reinecke said.
He added that in this way, people don't have to look at media use as a destructive behavior but as a helpful and productive coping strategy.