New research by psychologists at the University at Buffalo and Miami University shows that characters on favourite TV shows and video games can provide people with genuine feelings of belonging.
The scientists carried out four linked studies among students and concluded that technology can drive away feelings of loneliness and rejection.
The first study found that subjects reported tuning to favoured television programs when they felt lonely and felt less lonely when viewing those programs.
The remaining studies showed that people felt better when watching, thinking or writing about their favourite TV shows, and even buffered them against drops in self-esteem or negative moods.
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"The research provides evidence for the 'social surrogacy hypothesis,' which holds that humans can use technologies like television to provide the experience of belonging when no real belongingness has been experienced," said Dr Shira Gabriel, an assistant professor of psychology at the University at Buffalo.
"We also argue that other commonplace technologies such as movies, music or interactive video games, as well as television, can fulfill this need."
However, the researchers say that the social surrogacy provoked by technology can be a poor substitution for human-to-human experience.
"Turning one's back on family and friends for the solace of television may be maladaptive and leave a person with fewer resources over time," said one researcher.
"But for those who have difficulty experiencing social interaction because of physical or environmental constraints, technologically-induced belongingness may offer comfort."