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Media Effects

Specialists in communications media study both media effects and media impact. Media impact refers to data such as ratings or unit sales that might be affected by media purchases such as advertising.

Media effects are what psychol­ogists study. They are measurable changes of individual behavior or cognition, caused by information delivered by technology.

Scholarly interest in media effects slow gained momentum during the 20th Century. McQuail (1979) described the first phase as lasting from about 1900 to the late 1930s. It did not involve research so much as speculation and commentary.

Journalists and intellectuals were fascinated by the effects of radio, phonographs, and movies, all of which were new and increasingly popular. For the first time, anybody who wanted to hear (for example) the world-famous opera singer Caruso could buy a phonograph record or hear a performance over the radio.

This was revolutionary for people outside cities. Politicians were quick to see the opportunities. Franklin Delano Roosevelt's "fireside chats" (radio broadcasts) were very influential during the depression and pre-WW II era.

What were early examples of interest in media effects?

Next came early studies of the effective­ness of propaganda delivered with movies. Hovland did his research on Army films used with recruits during WW II. Each presidential election in the U.S. was studied to see effects of radio and, starting in the 1950s, television.

Starting around 1960, American social psychologists developed serious con­cerns about the effects of television. Television was something new and far-reaching, a force to be reckoned with.

In 1948 fewer than 1% of American families owned a TV. By 1960, close to 90% of households had one.

The 1960 presidential debate between Kennedy and Nixon was televised, and it clearly affected the election. People who only heard the debate thought Nixon won, but those who watched on TV had the oppo­site opinion. This was the first time TV seemed so important for politics.

How did a 1960 presidential debate show the power of TV?

In retrospect, Nixon probably lost the 1960 debate because of his appearance and manner. Kennedy used make-up, Nixon did not. Nixon had a 5 o'clock shadow, sweated visibly, and looked nervous. Kennedy seemed steady and self-assured.

Nixon learned his lesson and became more telegenic. McLaughlin (2014) noted:

When Nixon ran for president again in 1968, he made a brief appear­ance on the sketch comedy show "Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In" and uttered the show's famous catch­phrase, 'Sock it to me.' It was the first time a presidential candidate had appeared on a comedy show.

For the rest of his life, Nixon main­tained that his appearance on 'Laugh-In' won him the 1968 election.

Nicholas Johnson, a former Federal Communications Commission chairman in the U.S., concluded in 1971 that TV was "the single most powerful intelectual, social, cultural, and political force in his­tory." By 1976, 98% of U.S. households owned a TV; 25% owned two or more.

Researchers in the 1970s esti­mated that nearly half of 12-year-olds averaged six or more hours a day viewing television. The average child was likely to accumu­late 22,000 hours of viewing time before entering high school (Srygley, 1978).

At the same time (1970s) a Gallup poll showed that 71% of the public in the U.S. thought television was too violent. At the same time, in the 1960s and 1970s, Bandura came out with his social learn­ing theory showing powerful effects from observational learning and modeling.

That led to concerns that violence on TV would cause children to be violent, a sort of moral panic over TV. Moral panics are defined as "a feeling of fear spread among a large number of people that some evil threatens the well-being of society." (Goode and Ben-Yahuda, 1994)

What is a moral panic? How did psychologists contribute to one?

Fears over the effect of TV increased when psychologists showed that children would imitate what they saw on TV. Albert Bandura was the best known researcher in this tradition (discussed in Chapter 5).

Bandura and colleagues published a famous study showing observa­tional learning of aggression in children. It is known as the Bobo doll research (Bandura, Ross, and Ross, 1961).

A Bobo doll is an inflatable doll with a weight such as sand in the bottom, so each time it is knocked down, it pops right back up. (These toys are almost never called Bobo dolls in toy stores, but they were in this study.)

Bandura, Ross, and Ross arranged for nursery school children to watch an adult spend nine out of ten minutes in aggres­sive play with a five foot Bobo doll. The adult first assem­bled some toys, then turned his attention to the Bobo doll.

He knocked it down, kicked it into the air, made angry comments toward it. He hit it with a mallet.

What was the famous "Bobo doll" study?

Later, the children were put in a mildly frustrating situation. The children were given some of their favorite toys, and then the toys were taken away. At the time, psychologists thought frustration caused aggression, so this manipula­tion was designed to make aggression more likely.

After this, the children were left in a room with a three-foot Bobo doll and other toys, such as crayons, dolls, and toy bears. The research­ers secretly observed for 20 minutes.

The children who had witnessed an adult striking the 5 foot Bobo doll were far more likely to strike their own three-foot Bobo doll. A control group (which had not seen the adult abusing the Bobo doll) was less likely to act aggressive.

In further studies, a video recording of an aggressive adult was found to be just as effective as exposure to a real adult. The video stimulated aggressive beha­vior in the children. This suggested to many people that violence on TV could trigger violence in real-life situations.

Variations on the Bobo doll experiment supported pivotal concepts of Bandura's social learning theory. This included vicarious reinforcement (the ability of a learner to be reinforced by watching somebody else being reinforced).

Aggression toward the Bobo doll was more likely if (1) the adult model was rewarded for acting aggressive toward the doll, or (2) the adult model was the same gender as the child, and (3) if the child had a previous friendship with the adult model.

Researchers found that preschoolers already rated high in aggression were more likely to respond to a video showing aggression. Boys were more likely to be aggressive than girls.

To find out whether TV violence could stimulate real violence, Liebert and Baron (1972) tested 136 children. The children were asked to stay in a waiting room before the experiment began.

One group of children was exposed to a violent episode of an old TV detective show, "The Untouchables," that featured knifings, shootings, and fist fights. The other group was exposed to a tape of a track meet, full of action but lacking in violence.

Next the children were invited to play a game in which they could act either helpful or aggressive toward other players. The children exposed to the violence on TV were more likely to be violent toward the other players, punishing them often and being unwilling to cooperate with them.

In a final phase of the experiment, the children were allowed to play in a room that contained violent toys, like toy guns and knives, and nonviolent toys, such as dolls and a slinky. Children exposed to the violent programming were more likely to play with the violent toys.

What did Feshbach and Singer discover, in a naturalistic study of TV and violence?

One problem with this type of research on TV and violence was that it tended to be artificial, conducted in laboratory settings, and the results were short-lived. To address this concern, Feshbach and Singer (1971) studied whether TV vio­lence caused real violence over a sus­tained period of time in a natural setting.

They arranged for adolescent boys at a boarding school to watch violent or nonviolent programming. Then the boys were observed to see if there was any change in the amount of fighting or other aggressive behavior. No such relation­ship was observed.

These two studies from the early 1970s typify research on media effects. Initial studies report alarming effects. Follow-up studies are often considerably less alarming.

Hearold (1986) conducted a meta-analy­sis of 1043 media effects (mostly about violence and TV) reported in 230 studies with over 100,000 subjects over the preceding 60 years. Effects were small.

What did Hearold find out in a meta-analysis of TV effects on violence?

Even statistically significant effects were not necessarily socially significant, Hearold pointed out. A study might show 5% of the variation in violent behavior of teenage boys was accounted for by television viewing, and that might be statistically significant, but it was not socially significant. It left 95% of the variation unexplained.

Most of the research on television view­ing through the 1980s was based on assumption that people might imitate what they saw on TV. A different possible effect is habituation. A person who habituates to violence might cease to find it alarming or disgusting.

Worse yet, they might grow addicted to it. That was the implication of Richard Solomon's opponent process theory. A stimulus that is initially shocking and disgusting can become addictive, with repeated encounters.

Why do videogames concern many people?

Violence in videogames also started to raise concerns. The most popular video­games among teenage boys were "first-person shooters."

In a first person shooter, the person play­ing the game uses simulated weapons to mow down monsters, robots, aliens, and sometimes humans. Doom and Quake, two of the best selling video games, were based on killing bad guys.

To most videogame players, these games seem like harmless entertain­ment. However, psychologists worried that few disturbed individuals might be prompted to act out fantasies of violent shooting.

In the last half of the 1990s, the United States experienced a new form of violence in the form of school shootings by teenage boys. There were nine incidents between 1994 and 1998, representing "the first mass murders by children in this nation's history" (Murray, 1998).

About a year later, in April 1999, the trend culminated in the shootings at Columbine High. Two students brought three guns and more than 60 bombs into Columbine High in Littleton, Colorado.

A diary left behind showed that they intended to blow up the whole school then hijack a plane and crash it into downtown New York. They never made it out of the school, but they shot 11 other students to death and died themselves. Media commentators were quick to point out that the Columbine High gunmen were fans of the videogame Doom.

However, violent videogames were just as popular in Japan as they were in the United States. Japan had a very low murder rate and no reports of gun violence in schools, so it was difficult to conclude that videogames were responsible for school shootings.

How is the comparison to Japan instructive, regarding effects of video games?

Critics of the "blame the videogames" theory cited the psychological problems of the shooters, plus the easy availability of guns in America. Another obvious problem was families who failed to respond to signs of trouble.

One of the Columbine shooters had a sawed-off shotgun barrel in plain sight on his bedroom dresser. Both were known to meet in a garage where they spoke German and gave Nazi salutes to portraits of Hitler. The parents somehow remained oblivious to this or did not take it seriously.

Adam Lanza, the 20-year-old who shot 20 children and six staff members in Newtown, Connecticut in 2012, was provided with guns and shooting lessons by his mother, despite many signs of psychological disturbance. He ended up shooting her before going on to Sandy Hook Elementary School and murdering children there, then killing himself.

What are characteristics of adolescents who carry out school shootings?

Adolescents involved in school shoot­ings tend to kill and injure multiple people in a single incident (although sometimes an ex-girlfriend or known tormentor is among the victims). The shooters are invariably males, as young as 14, with a history of social problems (Sleek, 1998).

The individuals are usually motivated by social rejection and an urge to strike back at perceived tormentors. They also want attention in mass media, and that is a "media effect" that nobody doubts.

School shootings are not a new phen­omenon. Wikipedia compiled a list showing 200 incidents before 1990, with the earliest carried out by three Native Americans who killed a school­master and several children in 1764.

Not every incident ended in fatalities. To make the list, an incident only had to involve a gun being fired in a school. By that criterion, the 1999 shootings at Columbine High School were the 260th in U.S. history.

However, by the end of 2016 the total was over 450 incidents. The big increase over 15 years suggested a media contagion effect. Contagion effects occur when media reporting inspires copycat acts or crimes.

At least five different teams of research­ers found evidence for media contagion in school shootings. Most shooters desired fame and wanted to imitate a previous mass shooter, and often school shooters made explicit references to earlier incidents (Meloy, Sheridan, and Hoffman, 2008).

Suicide contagion is another unwanted media effect, widely studied and documented (Gould, 2001). Vivid media reports of suicides can inspire other people to imitate the acts.

What are two examples of contagion effects?

What about positive or helpful effects of media? Sesame Street is a prime example of a television program created for the purpose of education.

Sesame Street was based on research showing what attracted children to TV programs, and it was modified on an ongoing basis by studies of how it impacted children. Fisch, Truglio, and Cole (1999) summarized 30 years of research showing "significant positive effects for its viewers across a broad range of subject areas."

Television can also be helpful by high­lighting difficult circumstances and implying how to avoid them. The MTV program 16 and Pregnant was widely credited for a 5.7 percent reduction in teen births in the 18 months after its introduction (Kearney and Levine, 2014).

What was the impact of 16 and Pregnant?

16 and Pregnant did not preach. It did not have to. Viewers could see for themselves the difficulties and compli­cations caused by having a baby as an unmarried teenager.

Social Media

The media landscape shifted in the 21st Century as young people watched less TV and spent more time on social media. This led to new concerns about social media, perhaps not rising to the level of moral panic but reflecting concerns about a powerful new medium.

Starting in the 1990s, psychologists produced research showing that time spent on the internet (mostly in chat rooms, in those days) correlated with loneliness, depression, and low self-esteem. For example, Kraut et al. (1998) wrote an article in American Psycho­logist titled, "Internet paradox: A social technology that reduces social involve­ment and psychological well-being."

What fear did psychologists raise, concerning internet use?

They described longitudinal research of 169 people in 73 households showing "greater use of the Internet was associated with declines in participants' communication with family members in the household, declines in the size of their social circle, and increases in their depression and loneliness."

Other psychologists immediately pointed out this was correlational research and might be confusing cause with effect. Researchers had previously found out that people who felt lonely and cut-off from society were more likely to watch TV. The same thing could be happening with chat rooms and internet usage.

The problem for researchers is called self-selection. Nobody is randomly assigned to spend more time texting friends or using Instagram or any other social medium. People select this behavior themselves.

Now ask yourself about the "winner" types in a given age group. Are they spending all their time texting friends or posting pictures to media accounts?

How could self-selection account for negative correlations between social media usage and various measures of success?

More likely they are busy living their winning lives, or so one might assume. This skews the results of any research that tries to correlate social media usage with measures such as popularity, desirability, or productivity. Those activities arguably compete with time available for social media usage.

Facebook is its own force in the social media world, banned in many countries because it is perceived to be so powerful. Originally released in 2004, Facebook grew with amazing speed. It was opened to anybody over 13 in 2006, and within two years 98% of students at some campuses had Facebook accounts.

By 2010 Facebook accounted for a quarter of all page views in U.S. internet traffic. By 2012 Facebook hit a billion users worldwide. For lonely people, this was a potential solution. Laing (2015) described the stereotype:

Hidden behind a computer screen, the lonely person has control. They can search for company without the danger of being revealed or found wanting. They can reach out or they can hide; they can lurk and they can show themselves, safe from the humiliation of face-to-face rejection.

The screen acts as a kind of protective membrane, a scrim that allows invisibility and transformation. You can filter your image, concealing unattractive elements, and you can emerge enhanced: an online avatar designed to attract likes.

But now a problem arises, for the contact this produces is not the same thing as intimacy. Curating a perfected self might win followers or Facebook friends, but it will not necessarily cure loneliness... (Laing, 2015)

That may be true, but researcher Hayeon Song and colleagues, after a meta-analysis of studies linking Facebook and loneliness, concluded that loneliness was causing more Facebook use, not vice versa (Song, Zmyslinski-Seelig, Kim, Drent, Victor, Omori, and Allen, 2014). "Lonely people use Facebook," they wrote. Facebook itself was not necessarily making its users lonely.

What are possible reasons for a correlation between time spent on Facebook and loneliness?

Facebook might have some negative effect through a social comparison effect. People tend to post positive things about themselves on Facebook and other social media platforms: parties, vacations, and family get-togethers.

A person who lacks such activities could feel they are socially impoverished by comparison. About a dozen studies during 2016 suggested that Facebook could make people feel lonelier because of such social comparison effects.

University of Houston researcher Mai-Ly Steers wrote one of them (titled, "Seeing Everyone Else's Highlight Reels: How Facebook Usage is Linked to Depressive Symptoms.") She explained to a reporter:

You can't really control the impulse to compare because you never know what your friends are going to post. In addition, most of our Facebook friends tend to post about the good things that occur in their lives, while leaving out the bad.

If we're comparing ourselves to our friends' 'highlight reels,' this may lead us to think their lives are better than they actually are and conversely, make us feel worse about our own lives."

However, she also concluded, "It doesn't mean Facebook causes depression, but that depressed feelings and lots of time on Facebook and comparing oneself to others tend to go hand in hand." (Carroll, 2015)

Many young people many hours per day on social media. A study by researchers at Johnson & Wales University in Rhode Island found that nearly half their sample of college students spent 6-8 hours per day checking social media sites. (Wang, Chen, and Liang, 2011)

The social media had both beneficial and harmful effects. On the one hand, there are the obvious benefits. "Young men and women now exchange ideas, feelings, personal information, pictures and videos at a truly astonishing rate."

What are beneficial and harmful effects of social media for students?

On the other hand, social media might detract from studying. Social media use was negatively correlated with grades, and two-thirds of students report using electronic media for multi-tasking while in class, studying, or doing homework (Jacobson and Forste, 2011).

A research firm said 65% of respondents felt that social media was more powerful than traditional journalism. 58% said news from social media had "a lot or some" impact on their support of public policy. ("Social media's influence," 2015)

People usually estimate the impact of a message will be higher on other people than on themselves. This is called the third person effect. Davusib (1983) described it this way:

Each individual reasons: "I will not be influenced, but they (the third persons) may well be persuaded." ...The third-person effect may help to explain...the fear of heretical propaganda by religious leaders and the fear of dissent by political rulers. It appears to be related to the phenomenon of censorship in general: the censor never admits to being influenced; it is others with "more impressionable minds" who will be affected.

What is the "third person effect"?

Most people would deny that their vote for a candidate could be changed by a Twitter message. But many people seem to assume such messages influence other people.

The result was robotic Twitter accounts (bots) cranking out partisan messages by the thousands during the 2016 presidential elections in the U.S. and also elsewhere in the world. Woolley and Howard (2016) wrote:

Our team of researchers at the University of Washington and the University of Oxford tracks bot activity in politics all over the world, and what we see is disturbing. In past elections, politicians, government agencies, and advocacy groups have used bots to engage voters and spread messages. We've caught bots disseminating lies, attacking people, and poisoning conversations.

How might the third party effect have encouraged bots?

Woolley and Howard estimated that 60% of the traffic on the web at large is generated by bots, including tens of millions of Twitter messages. Twitter began to shut down some of the automated responders in late 2016, but not all.

Many other media effects are interesting to social psychologists and cyberpsychologists (who specialize in studying internet effects).

Each of those is represented now by a large body of scholarly literature. Consider norms of beauty. That would include such topics as body satisfaction and self-esteem and how it is influenced by social media. That, by itself, accounts for many hundreds of research studies on media effects.

What are additional media effect topics that are widely researched?

Or consider "priming and nudging" in combination with "framing and spinning." That would include political protests, demands, petitions, and influences, again a vast topic of research. For example, when Fox News becomes available in an area, the number of Republican votes go up (DellaVigna and Kaplan, 2007).

Another example of a media effect is mean world syndrome. This is the impression some people get, from the predominance of bad news, crime stories, and accident reporting, that the world is cruel, evil, and dangerous.

What is "mean world syndrome"?

Authors like Peter Diamandis (Abundance (2012) and Steven Pinker (The Better Angels of Our Nature (2011) delivered counter-arguments. Both rallied evidence that, on the whole, things have gotten a lot better in the world in recent decades, and conditions continue to improve. Both authors found that audiences were frequently surprised by that message.

Diamandis wrote about material prosperity and the reduction in poverty around the globe. Pinker wrote about how violence and war is now at an all-time low on our planet.

What did Diamandis and Pinker point out in their books?

Lifespans are longer, fewer children die young, there is less crime, there is more technology at lower cost, less disease, less war... This can be a real surprise to somebody suffering from "mean world syndrome."


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Write to Dr. Dewey at

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