Effects of Social Media

Past studies about media effects mostly focused on how mass media changed societies. It was presumed that exposure to one-way communication mediums such as TV can alter what people pay attention to instead of paying attention to important things (agenda-setting theory), and increase people’s tolerance for violence and materialism (cultivation theory).

Media researchers also thought that there are many individual and situational factors that change how media influence each person. The following paragraphs outline the different dimensions of media effects based on Bryant and Oliver’s seminal book Media Effects.

Figure 6.1 Social Media and Traditional Media

Long-term and Short-term Effects: The effect of media messages wears off over time, as there can be short-term and delayed effects. An example of a short-term effect can be excitation transfer, meaning when we watch a comedy or a horror movie, we become aroused and even after the movie we may respond to our environment a bit differently. A typical example of a long-term effect is perhaps our distorted beliefs about gender roles and racial stereotypes based on how people are represented in mass media. Social media can also have short-term and long-term effects. To assess the short-term effects of Facebook use, a recent study asked participants to either check articles on CNN.com or browse Facebook profiles and then choose between a chocolate chip cookie and a granola bar. Those who checked Facebook profiles were more likely to choose a chocolate chip cookie with high calories, meaning exposure to Facebook may reduce self-control (a short-term effect). The second leg of the same study also observed that people were more likely to give up on a challenging task right after browsing Facebook (a short-term effect). The final phase of the study found that respondents who heavily used social media had a higher credit-card debt and higher body mass index score (all long-term effects).

Direct and Indirect Effects: Media can directly affect those who are directly exposed to its messages. The same media messages can also affect those not directly exposed to those messages but informed by the ones who are directly influenced. A typical example of direct and indirect effects would be opinion leader’s purchase of a fashionable T-shirt after seeing it in a magazine (direct effect) and his friend buying the same T-shirt after seeing him wear it or hearing him talk about it (indirect effects). As the following figure explains, in traditional media, indirect effects are not always present (only certain behaviors of opinion leaders are visible to only a small fraction of their friends, and opinion leaders do not always share their thoughts and feelings) and there is no interactivity between media source and message recipients. More importantly, in social media not only opinion leaders but also average users can drive indirect effects of messages.

Cognitive, Affective, and Behavioral Effects: Exposure to media does not necessarily change one’s behavior. It may be able to only change or slightly influence beliefs or attitudes. If we want to measure the effects of a brand’s social media page on users, we should measure attitudes toward the brand, beliefs about the brand, and intentions to buy that brand both before and after the exposure to that social media page or a social media campaign. The following Affect, Behavior, and Cognition (ABC) model explains how human behavior is formed: attitudes influence our behavior which then influences our beliefs. Media can influence all these aspects of the decision-making process.

Figure 6.2 The ABC Model

Individual Differences: We actively select and are influenced by media messages based on our individual characteristics. Below are listed some major individual characteristics that may explain why some people choose to use different media types or why some people are not influenced more by media messages:

  • Individual Needs: People in general, seek the same stimulus after it has satisfied a particular need. It is also assumed that needs vary dramatically from person to person.
    • Need for Cognition: Enjoyment of cognitive activities. This need can predict attention to news reports, or watching local news to gain information.
    • Sensation Seeking: A biologically based need to seek out experiences that have the potential to elicit high levels of arousal. It can predict viewing and enjoyment of arousing or action-packed media such as horror films or violent programming.
  • Other Needs: Need for entertainment, humor, achievement, affiliation, as well as utilitarian (material and physical needs) versus affective needs (social benefits).

Personality Traits: Personality traits refer to our disposition to behave in certain ways that are either inborn or gained during early childhood. Communication scholars commonly use the Big Five traits (openness, conscientiousness, extroversion, neuroticism, and psychoticism) and self-esteem to explain individual variation in media adoption and media effects.

  • Self-esteem: In general social media boosts users’ self-esteem; however, excessive use of social media has been found to lower self-esteem and body-esteem. We also found that people who have high self-esteem and low self-esteem do not use social media in the same way, as those who score high on self-esteem are less likely to include strangers into their online social networks.
  • Big Five Traits: Generally speaking, extroverts tend to use social media more frequently and have larger social networks. People who score high on openness tend to share more info on the net and are more likely to try new services. On the other hand, low neuroticism and high conscientiousness usually result in sharing less information about oneself in social media.

Demographic differences: Simple individual differences such as age, gender, and location may explain why social media influences people differently. For instance, cyberbullying or sexting may constitute a serious risk for younger users but not for older users. Today, about 8% of American teenagers report being bullied online and 90% of them indicate having witnessed someone bullying another person in social media. Similarly, in a Texas high school, more than 20% of the students admitted to sexting (sending nude or semi-nude videos or sex-related texts) while more than 30% said they received sex-related messages from friends (N=1034).

Societal Effects of Social Media

As explained in the first chapter, social media changed the way we interact with each other and the way we gather information about the world around us. However, before listing what has changed in our lives after the social media boom, we need to understand that it is difficult to dissect the social media effects, as there are no scientifically proven differences between Web 2.0, new media, and social media. Furthermore, recent changes in our lives may not be the results of social media use but of the mass adoption of the Internet or mobile communication devices.

Positive Effects

As explained in the first chapter, social media changed the way we interact with each other and the way we gather information about the world around us. However, before listing what has changed in our lives after the social media boom, we need to understand that it is difficult to dissect the social media effects, as there are no scientifically proven differences between Web 2.0, new media, and social media. Furthermore, recent changes in our lives may not be the results of social media use but of the mass adoption of the Internet or mobile communication devices.

Cognitive Surplus
Clay Shirky, whose research area is modern culture and social networks, claims that in the digital age we don’t waste as much time watching television as we did in the mid-twentieth century. This, together with the fact that the web connects us to millions of people, means we now have extra time and capability to collaboratively create and produce original and useful content. He calls this extra time and capability cognitive surplus. Many crowd-funded projects like Wikipedia, InnoCentive, and open-source programs are the result of collaboration among people connected by broadband Internet and digital social networks that did not exist in the past. Shirky argues that people collaborate and create free online content because this helps them gain social capital and reputation.

Because of the nature of the Internet, now the news is faster, cheaper, and less censored with the help of so-called citizen journalists. In the past, what was newsworthy was determined by reporters and editors and the media conglomerates that distributed the news.Today, average citizens, via web communities like Reddit and free public distribution channels like Twitter and YouTube, can determine what becomes news. Since anyone can be a one-person, fully functioning media entity by owning a TV channel (YouTube), a radio station (podcasts), a newspaper (WordPress/ Twitter), or a magazine (Flipboard), media conglomerates are not as powerful and audiences not as passive as they used to be. Clay Shirky emphasizes the importance of public civic participation, which was simplified by social media. With the new social platforms, forming a group and gathering new members— something that used to take days and months—is now very easy and very fast. According to Shirky, this is not because social media help people gather new members, but because such media remove barriers to forming a group.

The following pyramid can explain low and high levels of Internet collaboration. At the bottom level, users create documents and upload them online. In the middle there are working groups with a specific task where members may or may not be visible. At the top, there are massive projects like Wikipedia where people from all around the world contribute to create an extensive database.

Political Participation
One should never overlook the effects of social media on social transformations and movements. For instance, the Arab Spring, when mass protests toppled antidemocratic regimes in Egypt and Tunisia, is now considered to be a social media–driven political movement. Although Malcolm Gladwell rejected the idea that social media can cause revolutions, as it couldn’t in Iran, many researchers agree that social media was critical during the Arab Spring because

a) political debates circulating prior to the events were driven by social media,
b) an uptick in social media conversations was followed by an increased level of on-street activities, and
c) with the help of social media, protesters garnered international support.

Social media will likely be a preferred tool for activism in the 21st century since it is not censored, can help people organize in a short time, and has strong immediate effects.

Figure 6.3 Mass Collaboration on the Internet. Source: Shah, 2010
Figure 2 The Levels of Collaboration.
Source: Mayfield, 2006

Alone Together
Sherry Turkle, author of Alone Together, claims that by choosing to communicate with our network members through social media we may get a sense of constant connectedness but actually we have begun to isolate ourselves. Having the digital presence of all of our network members at any given moment, we start treating others as social robots: we converse more but we pay less attention to what we are saying and what other people are saying. Particularly adolescents, who always hold their cellphones in their hands and who dislike face-to-face communication, may never have decent negotiation and communication skills because of their solitude and lack of emotional development as a result of growing in the digital age.

Reality Distortion

Being immersed into social media, we may eventually lose our perception of what is real and what is not. Generally speaking, we are hardwired to tell stories about ourselves and present ourselves publicly according to the image we want to build (a.k.a. cultivating postures). On Facebook, people tend to omit their flaws and post only positive and appealing things about themselves. Hiding all negative and unfortunate things prevents us from becoming more intimate with others. Therefore, frequent Facebook use may be detrimental, particularly for teenagers, because sometimes they may do things to match their Facebook image instead of posting things that reflect who they actually are. In other words, social media may negatively influence our identity development and confuse our understanding of others’ identities because obviously things that are done online may or may not be faithful reflections of what happen offline. By the same token, Morozov proposed that we may feel good by participating in political movements on the Internet but these activities (e.g., clicking Like on a page, retweeting a message, etc.) may have no significant impact in real life. He coined the term slacktivism to describe online activism that does not work.

All in all, it seems that social media, especially Facebook, may have both positive and negative effects on our lives. Perhaps this excerpt from Psychology Today summarizes it best:

Facebook is a multi-edged sword riddled with many paradoxes. On the one hand, Facebook builds social connectivity … but it also isolates people and creates situations where we are “alone together.” Facebook can build self-esteem in a healthy way … but it can also fuel narcissistic personality traits. Facebook can fortify friendships … but it can also destroy relationships. The list goes on and on.


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