It turns out that TV really does help lonely people feel like they've been socializing with friends.
Recently psychologists have hit upon the idea of "social surrogacy" to explain how television can serve the same role as friends or family. In a study, psychologists noticed that people are more likely to watch favorite TV shows when they're lonely, and feel less lonely during the show. Well, that's not particularly surprising. But there were some interesting, unexpected discoveries about what kinds of TV appeal to lonely people, versus those with rich social lives.
Anyone who has gone online has noticed long screeds about the "worst episode ever," or the "worst tv show ever." Contrary to what one might think - that these are lonely losers in a basement - the people who write negative reviews are probably well-satisfied with the rest of their lives. At least, this is what we can extrapolate based on a test where people were asked to recall a fight with a loved one, and then given a choice of writing about a TV show they liked or one that they hated. Subjects were more likely to write at length about the one that they loved than to focus on what angered them. People were also more likely to enjoy watching a favorite TV show after thinking about or experiencing a fight. So perhaps people who aren't dealing with lots of fights in their personal lives are also focused obsessively on TV that they hate.
Scientists also believe that lonely people are primed to enjoy positive TV shows. A study found that people in need of social acceptance train themselves to read more queues from facial expressions. Lonely people may be able to make stronger connections with TV shows and TV characters than people who already have a lot of people in their lives. A deprived person gets more of a social kick from imaginary characters.
The down side of this, of course, is that focusing on tv shows as "family" decreases the time and opportunity to develop a social network of one's own.