Tag: digital

Social media studies: A new approach?

We live in an age of unprecedented intimacy with computer technology. Aside from computers at school, at work and at home, an increasing number of us are tethered to omnipresent smart devices. This is certainly true for the current cohort of young adults. In the U.S., in 2014, 85% of young people aged 18-24 owned smart devices (Nielsen, 2016), while in Ireland, RedC reported in 2012, that 65% of the emerging adults owned a smart phone (RedC, 2016); by 2014 this had increased to 85% (Thinkhouse, 2015). It is estimated that young Irish internet users spend up to six hours per day connected to devices (IPSOS/MRBI, 2014), with three hours spent social networking. And “we are not alone”. According to GlobalWebIndex, in 2014, the average global user spent more than 6 hours online, compared to 5.5 hours in 2012; almost 2 hours were spent on social networking compared to just 1.5 in 2012.
How do you spend 2 hours a day on social media? Well, it was found that, in the U.K., young people perform “checking behaviours” on smart devices up to 85 times per day (Andrews et al, 2015). That’s a start.

Research into young adults and their use of social media paints a partial and fragmented picture. Studies generally correlate social media use with outcomes such as self-esteem (Valkenburg & Peter, 2011), grade point average (Kirschner & Karpinski, 2010), emotions (Bevan, Pfyl, & Barclay, 2012), mood (Sagioglu & Greitemeyer, 2014), life satisfaction (Krasnova, Wenninger, Widjaja, & Bruxmann, 2013), social comparison (de Vries & Kühne, 2015) etc. Researchers reveal a host of undesirable social, emotional and behavioural consequences; decreased motivation (Flanigan & Babchuk, 2015), poor academic performance and psychosocial maladjustment (Cerretani, Iturrioz, & Garay, 2016), envy and depression (Appel, Gerlach, & Crusuis, 2016), body surveillance and appearance comparisons (Tiggemann & Slater, 2013), and cyberbullying (Gahagan, Vaterlaus, & Frost, 2016). That said, social media has also been shown to have positive consequences for the user; positive psychological and physiological experiences (Mauri et al, 2011), belongingness (Nadkarni & Hofmann , 2012), relationship formation and maintenance (Ellison et al, 2007), enhancing self-esteem (Gonzales & Hancock, 2011), reaffirming social bonds (Knowles et al, 2015), and socialisation functions (Barker & White, 2010), have all been related to social media use.

Important and all as these findings are though (and they are), it has been argued that the scope of this research is limited, that gaps exist in the current understanding, and with new platforms appearing regularly, with changing features and design, more integrated research examining the positive and negative consequences of social media use is required (Caers et al, 2013). Moreover, there have been calls for research that provides a coherent understanding of the drivers and the positive consequences of social media use; research which explores how “social media experiences” stimulate, help young people establish and maintain relationships or provide optimism (Finkelhor, 2014). Given the levels of engagement and immersion, and given that we have only gained an incomplete, disjointed understanding of the consequences of the social media experience, it is vitally important, particularly for young people and their development, that we gain a complete understanding of the broad range of positive and negative, social, emotional and behavioural outcomes of use.

Studies in the social media arena reveal a clear picture of the assumptions made by researchers. Research tends to be survey based, cross-sectional, conveniently sampled and correlational. Concepts, constructs and definitions are driven by adult researchers with limited knowledge of the lived experience, and whose interests do not necessarily coincide with those of the user. Participants, by virtue of having been born between certain dates are assumed to be “digital natives”(Prensky, 2001); uniformly familiar with, reliant on and immersed in internet technology. Simply being a member of a social networking site but not knowledge of what features of the site one is using, is enough to qualify one for inclusion in studies. Interestingly, comparisons between users and non-users are rarely, if ever, made. The list goes on! And these shortcomings have consequences.

Cohen (1972), said that “moral panic” occurs when a group in society is portrayed in the media as representing a threat to the norms, practices and values of society. The behaviour of this subgroup is sensationalised and magnified by its portrayal in the media. Public discourse around the behaviour is driven by the media, without regard to the actual “panic” being experienced, or evidence to support the phenomenon. Indeed, since this definition was offered, a new and worrying trend has emerged; sensationalist interpretations and dissemination of scientific or pseudoscientific findings by popular press. In this regard, the negative effects of social media use by young people is well publicised, with articles, based on findings like those mentioned above, appearing almost daily in mainstream media warning of the dangers of use, of excessive use, of “addiction” or of particular platforms.

Technological ingenuity and its evolution increasingly effects how we interact with each other, and as a collective. The social, emotional, behavioural and broader cultural consequences are just beginning to be felt. With our increased engagement with and exposure to platforms and their content, digital media is changing us, individually and organisationally, and young people are at the vanguard of that change. On-line surveys and correlations are no longer good enough, nor is it good enough for us to assume that all young people are “digital natives”. It is now time that research exploring the new hyper-connected landscape and its inhabitants reflected these changes.

To situate research findings in the world of the user, cognisant of the fact that she is using dynamic, evolving media, in a socially connected environment, novel research methods are required. First though, we need to examine the assumptions underpinning young people and their status as “digital natives”. Is mere membership of a social networking community enough to draw conclusions about the psychological state of the user? Secondly, I would argue that we need contextual, user-defined examinations, combined with research and theory, to provide us with accurate information. It is no longer adequate to correlate the use of social media with complex psychological constructs using online, self-report surveys; publication of this type of research is misleading. Certainly, taking into account the perspective and social interactivity of young people; the shifting, dynamic landscape of social media and that fact that users experience both positive and negative consequences, will ensure that correct, appropriate and relevant information enters the public domain.

Facebook and Adaptation?

There are a myriad of reasons behind our use of social media; we inform and are informed, we present ourselves and we scrutinise the presentations of others, and, importantly, we make and maintain reciprocal and unidirectional connections with others.

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From an evolutionary perspective, it could be said that, in managing our online reputations, we gain adaptive advantages. In fact, belonging to a social grouping is, at times, as important as our need for food, shelter and sex. Within the protective pod, herd or tribe our chances of survival and reproductive success increase. Our social support network buffers against depression and anxiety and, indeed, connection to the group has been shown to not only bolster survival, but increase thriving. Long before the advent of social media, we ‘liked’ and ‘friended’ people. So, it could be argued that Facebook just takes advantage of our innate, primordial need for the social.

evolution
In 1992, British anthropologist Robin Dunbar, suggested that neocortical processing capacity limited the number of people with whom we could maintain inter-personal relationships. In other words, with the limited cognitive processing power of our puny brains, we had to limit the size of our social networks. By examining the size of the social networks of apes and measuring the size of their brains, Dunbar proposed that because of our big old brains we could maintain stable social networks of 148 warm bodies, rounded up to 150…..voilà, “The Dunbar Number”.

[Update 080216: Dunbar et al, 2015 examined Facebook and Twitter data-sets and confirmed that sizes of networks and mean frequencies of contact closely match observed values from offline networks. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0378873315000313%5D

Not everyone agrees with the good doctors’ theory, with researchers at Harvard, for example, finding that even prolific socialisers often only have a small group of friends with whom they can discuss important matters. Bernard and Killworth of “small world” fame, have put forward estimates which almost double the “Dunbar Number” (290) and some sociologists make a distinction between one’s social “core” and our wider social network.

At a recent lecture, about 200 first year psychology students were asked, by show of hands (scientific?), how many friends each had on Facebook. The average participant, in this rigorous study, admitted to having between 300 and 400; some, at the tail-end of the graph admitting to numbers exceeding 500. Aside from this study (dripping with scientific rigour), there is little doubt that Facebook increases the size of our social network, but this makes sense if we think of Dunbar’s hypothesis…acquiring new “friends” online is cognitively frictionless and maintaining Facebook Connectedness (Grieve et al, 2013) is mentally, almost, free of charge.

Interestingly, Cameron Marlow and his associates, at Facebook, have found that, on average, the number of “friends” in a social network is…wait for it…calling Dr. Dunbar….120! More interestingly still, the authors found that Facebook users usually interact with a small, stable group. Corroborating what the researchers at Harvard had found, that generally, men with 120 friends actively interact with 7 people and women interact with 10. And what about those who have 500 Facebook friends? Well, the men leave comments for 17 friends, women for 26, men communicate with 10 people, and women with 16. So, our active, core social network remains small and stable, but it seems that we passively track a much larger, but casual system of social relations.

So, when we post content to Facebook are we not being extraordinarily adaptive? Are we not moving beyond our small, stable “core”? Are we not advertising our wares outside our “Dunbar Number”? Have we not evolved and become fitter and more efficient? Our ancestors had to work considerably harder than us, physically and mentally, to maintain relationships, but in our digitised world, metaphorically picking fleas out of our friends fur takes a little bit less mental computation.
Grieve, R., Indian, M., Witteveen, K., Tolan, G., & Marrington, J. (2013). Face-to-face or Facebook: Can social connectedness be derived online? Computers in human behaviour, 29, 3. 604-609.
Carl Bialik (16 November 2007). “Sorry, You May Have Gone Over Your Limit Of Network Friends”. The Wall Street Journal Online. Retrieved 13th Nov 2015.

Paper never refused ink

“Digital dependence ‘eroding human memory'” (http://www.bbc.com/news/education-34454264)

“Digital amnesia on the rise as we outsource our memory to the web” (http://www.sciencealert.com/digital-amnesia-on-the-rise-as-we-outsource-our-memory-to-the-web)

“Digital amnesia leaves us vulnerable” (http://www.cbc.ca/news/technology/digital-amnesia-kaspersky-1.3262600)

Over the last few days, a number of news websites and news organisations around the world have run a story about a piece of research conducted by Kaspersky Lab. The study, pithily entitled “The rise and impact of digital amnesia: Why we need to protect what we no longer remember”, seems to have received widespread support from these organisations, in that the results have been published without any of the journalists questioning the methodology used in the study or for that matter the results themselves. Terrifyingly, the study states that “Connected devices enrich our lives but they have also given rise to the potentially risky phenomenon of digital amnesia…increasingly relying on devices to store information as our memory leaves us immensely vulnerable should the device be lost or stolen or the data compromised — particularly if we are out and about.”

I don’t know about you, but my risky behaviour as left me feeling “immensely vulnerable”, right now and I’m afraid to go “out and about”. I might just close the curtains…..

As Jennifer Aniston would say, “Here’s the science bit”: The researchers surveyed 6,000 male and female consumers, aged between 16 and 55+, with 1,000 from each of the UK, France, Germany, Italy, Spain and Benelux . The survey was undertaken online in February/March 2015.

That sounds like a fairly powerful study and given the number of people involved, the results should be very believable.

The only problem is that the participants in the study were only asked if they could recall phone numbers and it turned out that across Europe, up to 60% of adults could phone the house they lived in aged 10; but not their children (53%), or the office (51%) without first looking up the number. Around a third couldn’t call their partners.

Thankfully, Kaspersky Lab (short for “laboratory”….science-ey), a cyber-security firm, “is committed to helping people understand the risks their data could be exposed to and empowering them to tackle those risks”. Phew!

Memory is not only incredibly complex, but it has a limited capacity; we forget things that we don’t need to remember in order to remember things that we do. The fantastically named researchers Storm & Stone, examined if saving information to a device would effect the ability to learn and remember new information. Results showed that saving one file before studying a new file significantly improved memory for the contents of the new file. The authors suggest that “saving” provides people with the ability to dump memory onto the environment in order to reduce the interference it might cause to new learning and storing new information. Without going into more research and looking at these findings, would it not be as easy to say “Incredibly efficient human system dumps useless information” or “Human memory capacities enhanced by mobile devices”?

Digital Dependence?

imageWe live in a digital age. Whether it’s with the newest Smartphone or the latest laptop, technology and communicating with that technology are an all-pervading feature of life, particularly for young people. It seems that using communications technology and communication through social networking has become as acceptable as communicating face-to-face. In fact, young people have become so used to interacting with each other using social media, that this form of communication has become legitimate and indeed, vital.
In a recent survey conducted by Thinkhouse, it was found that 96% of Irish 15-35 year olds owned their own smartphone. Of that group, 98% used Facebook on those devices, with 90% checking their phone “when they wake up”, 87% checking in “on public transport” and 84% “while watching T.V. A majority of respondents (57%) to the survey even went so far as to say that they were more likely to check their phone “on the loo” than while on a date.
In July 2012, the IACP released a statement regarding social media addiction. The press release, quoting a “leading Irish counsellor”, warned of the dangers of social media addiction. The release likened the addiction to that of alcohol and tobacco; it claimed that relationships, jobs and studies would be adversely effected; that by giving into the urges to use social media, users were likely to be depressed and to suffer from low self-esteem (IACP, 2012). This press release, based on the finding of one study, was published with the headline “Does someone need to open a social media rehab?” on one popular website, Joe.ie. Further, the Addiction Counsellors of Ireland warn, without providing evidence, that internet addiction can cause anxiety and sexual addiction (Addiction Counsellors of Ireland, 2014).
In July 2014, The Irish Independent published an article claiming that social media and particularly the insatiable desire for connection (often referred to as FoMO – Fear of missing out) “is having an adverse effect on our mental health” (Whelan, 2014). This article, entitled “How social media is hitting our mental health”, goes on to state that social media usage can exacerbate pre-existing mental health problems and the author foresees a time when web services will have to carry a health warning. These alarming warnings seem to be based on a number of assumptions; that the online world is a dangerous place; that resultant outcomes, which manifest in the digital environment, are caused by that environment and that specialised solutions are required.
Social networks and constant high speed communication provide many benefits, allowing young users to feel connected and socially involved. Though the benefits of these technologies (almost instant communication, security, self awareness, self presentation, autonomy, mastery, competence etc) are many, there are consequences to living in the digital age which we are still coming to terms with.
That said, in their most recent Annual Review of Research, Livingstone & Smith (2014) point out that serious and repetitive online bullying occurs to 5% of young people, less than in face-to-face interactions. Further, they find that the majority of young people are not viewing pornography, with fewer still sending explicit sexual messages and images. Furthermore, only a small subset of the 2% of young people who “may” receive sexual solicitations are victimised. Additionally, the authors state that the digital world is no more dangerous than the actual world which young people inhabit. fb
Perhaps the problems posed by technology are merely a reflection of normal social interactions and that, rather than focusing research and resources on internet safety, efforts should be targeted on what excites and enthuses young people about technology and what benefits they derive from platforms like Facebook. Conceivably, more holistic, emotional intelligence and media training would be more appropriate than issuing sensationalist, often groundless warnings.