Science brought us some good news last week: you may be able to recast your procrastination on YouTube as a form of digital pet therapy. A new study, published in Computers in Human Behavior, suggests that watching cat videos on the internet might actually be good for you.
Most animal lovers can offer an anecdote (or 40) about the joy of pet ownership. The research backs them up—several studies have shown that, for many people, having a pet is good for your mental and physical health. Pet therapy has proven benefits as well. But this new study takes a leap into the digital, investigating whether just seeing animal videos can have a similar effect on our mental well being. To answer the question “Who watches Internet cats, why, and to what effect,” Professor Jessica Myrick of Indiana University surveyed almost 7,000 self-identified cat video viewers recruited through social media. (For each participant who took the survey, Myrick donated 10 cents to Lil Bub’s Big Fund for the ASPCA.)
First the who: Myrick found that cat owners were more likely to look at cat pictures and videos than non-owners, but they were not alone. While 36 percent of participants described themselves as a “cat person,” 60 percent self-identified as bipetual, and a (presumably masochistic) three percent as dog people. The majority of people surveyed were introverts and shared certain personality traits, such as shyness and agreeableness.
In what I’m sure will surprise no one with internet access at the office, participants most often watched internet cats at work and while “studying.” Three quarters of cat content viewing was unintentional; apparently the road to productivity is paved with distracting autoplaying videos of meowing cats. Luckily, people largely reported that the pleasure derived from watching the videos outweighed any guilt over procrastination.
So, what effect do these internet cats having on our psyche? After watching cat-related online media, participants reported feeling more energetic and experiencing an increase in positive emotions like hope and contentment. They also reported less anxiety and sadness than they had before watching videos. It seems that clicking over to YouTube for a quick jaunt through the kitten tag may help you combat feelings like annoyance and guilt and steel you for the day ahead by boosting positive emotions.
Though this study looked at cats, no cute animal is an island—it’s possible that these internet cat consumers were also viewing images of other animals online. A 2012 study out of Hiroshima University found that simply looking at pictures of baby animals improves focus and performance. So there’s no need to rule out the power of puppies and bunnies just yet: if future studies back it up, future researchers may be seeking out the perfect formula of cute and fluffy animal videos as the internet equivalent to popping a Xanax.
There are a lot of caveats here though, so we are a far cry from officially prescribing cat videos as a form of therapy. The demographics skewed heavily to women and white people (88.4 percent and 90.4 percent respectively) with an average age of 39 years. This is not a finding we can generalize to the rest of the internet-using public. Additionally, rather than surveying people directly before and after viewing a video, participants were asked to recall the last time they had viewed cat videos or photos online. A general tip to keep in mind when interpreting studies like this: human recall is a fickle thing.
Future studies should consider all of these issues in further parsing out what it is, exactly, about viewing animals on the internet that improves our moods. But flaws notwithstanding, this is a promising finding with the potential for a novel approach to improving mental health. Addressing any naysayers who might suggest that this study is frivolous, Myrick said:
Some people may think watching online cat videos isn’t a serious enough topic for academic research, but the fact is that it’s one of the most popular uses of the Internet today. If we want to better understand the effects the Internet may have on us as individuals and on society, then researchers can’t ignore Internet cats anymore...As a media researcher and online cat video viewer, I felt compelled to gather some data about this pop culture phenomenon.
In 2014, YouTube cat videos accumulated almost 26 billion views, accounting for more views per video than any other category of youtube content. That includes news reports, music videos, cooking shows, laughing babies, pratfalls, and porn.
Caroline Weinberg is a doctor with a masters in public health. She has previously written about science and health at Eater, Vice Motherboard, Aeon, and a few dry academic publications. You can find her on twitter @ckw583.
Gif via YouTube.