WHAT MEDIA DOES TO PEOPLE: MEDIA EFFECTS APPROACH

Among the first approaches scholars used to conceptualize the role of media in human development was the media effects model. Within this model, the content of media is believed to affect the emotions, thoughts, behaviours and attitudes of the user. Proponents of this model view media as external to the user, with its effects flowing unidirectionally-from the outside in. Although not explicitly stated, the media effects approach views users as passive recipients of media influence, with the inference being that media uniformly impacts adolescents, rather than considering individual differences in the way youth access or utilize content. Further, within the media effects framework, a proposed mechanism between digital technology use and its effects centres on overall time spent online. The displacement hypothesis suggests that time spent online represents not only time spent on the internet, but also time spent away from other activities such as sleep, participation in physical activities and meaningful social interactions.

Although useful for conceptualizing time as a limited resource, and the effects (positive or negative) of engaging with technology, a limitation of the media effects model is its failure to acknowledge that the impact of media engagement are not uniform. Moreover, this approach discounts youths’ reasons for use. For instance, with regard to the displacement of meaningful social interactions, much of the time adolescents spend online is used to maintain, or even enhance their existing relationships. Further, although many think of online gaming as being a socially isolating activity, research indicates that gaming-usernames are one of the first pieces of identifying information that 38% of adolescent boys share when they meet someone with whom they would like to be friends. Further, research has found that video games are associated with lower anxiety levels among teenage boys. As the majority of teenage boys interact with each other while gaming, they tend to likewise experience enhanced social connectedness. This is just one example of how technology use can serve to enhance adolescent well-being through connection and support. 

Further, although digital technology may indeed displace activities in certain areas of adolescents’ lives, the effects are also likely contingent upon ways of use, in that, when used excessively, technology tends to be disruptive. At the same time, it could be argued that excessive engagement in any activity can be associated with poor well-being, and thus technology use is not entirely unique. More importantly, it is unlikely that technology effects are fully causal. Some studies have found that excessive use of digital technology is likewise predicted by poor adolescent functioning. Specifically, researcher found that low social competence, low self-esteem and high loneliness were all antecedents of problematic online gaming in youth. In this case, engagement with the online space may be resulting from or reinforcing existing struggles for these youth rather than being the origin of their poor functioning. In sum, findings tying adolescent media use to adverse outcomes are generally rooted, to some degree, within a media effects model, which is uni-directional and thus overlooks reasons for engaging with media in the first place. As a result, scholars have moved to acknowledge and explore more nuanced and bi- directional effects of adolescents’ active selection of media.

As noted above, an essential component for considering the role of technology in young people’s well-being is to clarify the specific reasons for adolescents’ use and how those reasons might translate to adaptive or maladaptive outcomes. Several theoretical models speak to this notion, including Mood Management Theory and Uses and Gratification Theory (UGT).

Mood management theory, as the theory’s name implies, highlights the various ways in which people employ media based on their current affective experience. Specifically, this theory posits that individuals will select media content that promises to optimise their current mood. Perhaps the most empirically supported observation in mood management research is that users who are experiencing positive moods will seek positively valanced media to maintain their moods. However, numerous studies have also observed that media choices often diverge from the hedonistic principles of minimizing pain and maximizing pleasure. Some studies have found that happy people do not always seek out positive media and further, people in negative moods have been found to select negatively valanced media rather than searching for uplifting content. Thus, individuals may be seeking media to match their mood (e.g., negative mood seeks out negative media) and this differs from mood management’s posting of continually seeking to enhance mood. Interestingly, researcher found that adolescents consistently turn to media when feeling down or less positive, but this did not link to selection of uplifting or positive media. Rather, they report a non-significant relationship between negative mood and the selection of positively valanced media. All told then, adolescents are not just turning to technology to merely “cheer up”, and a more likely scenario is that adolescents’ use of technology varies depending on their current goals and needs.

Unlike the media effects model, the Uses and Gratifications approach assumes that the consumer has an active role in their selection of media, and therefore, potentially plays a part in the effects that media may have on them.This distinction is important, as the theory highlights individual differences in relation to the positive and negative well- being outcomes associated with adolescent technology use. More specifically, Uses and Gratifications Theory (UGT) is conceptualized as a means to study how media, including social media, are utilised to fulfil the needs of individual users with different goals.

As a result, Uses and Gratifications Theory(UGT) is grounded in five assumptions: 1) media selection and use is goal-directed, purposive and motivated, 2) people take the initiative in selection and use media to satisfy needs or desires, 3) a host of social and psychological factors mediate people’s communication behaviour, 4) media compete with other forms of communication for selection, attention, and use to gratify needs and wants, and 5) people are typically more influential than media in the relationship. These theoretical groundings highlight the UGT viewpoint that individuals, including adolescents are active users of technology; the adaptive function technology plays (at least in the short-term) to perpetuate adolescents’ use; the role of individual differences in conditioning links between technology use and well-being outcomes; and the fact that online and offline supports may both compete with, and compliment, one-another in helping to sustain adolescent functioning.

Perhaps not surprisingly, given its emphasis on active use and adaptive functions, the UGT model has been used to identify motivations for Internet use and three main categories of gratification have been identified: 1) Content gratification, which includes the need for researching or finding specific information, 2) Process gratification, gaining gratification from the process of browsing the internet, either purposefully or randomly, and 3) Social gratification, which is based on forming or deepening social ties. Generally speaking, these gratifications are applicable to various forms of digital technologies, acknowledging that certain forms of media may be used primarily for one gratification. For instance, researcher found that Twitter is used primarily as an information source rather than for addressing other needs. That said, with the current state of technology, different forms of media are all now readily accessible through a single digital device, and youth are able to seamlessly navigate between applications, depending on the type of gratification they are seeking to obtain.

Uses and Gratifications that are Motivated by Stress

Given that UGT asserts that youth seek out different technological contexts depending on their gratification goals, UGT can usefully be drawn upon in conceptualising how individuals seek out the outline space in an effort to cope with stressors. The studies in this thesis propose that when specific uses and gratifications of media use are motivated by the need to manage stress, these behaviours can be considered to be akin to online coping strategies. Although, as noted earlier, researchers have largely overlooked the digital space as an arena for youth to manage stress. There are several exceptions. Among these, researchers define online coping as “thoughts and behaviours that are facilitated by the internet, that people use to manage stressful situations”. Thus, the next section briefly outlines the literature on adolescent online coping behaviours in relation to the three main gratifications for internet use outlined in UGT: Content, Process and Social gratifications.

A key reason that youth turn to technology in times of stress is that the online space offers a wealth of information. Indeed, adolescent self-report data suggests that youth are turning to the Internet to research adolescent-specific concerns, particularly those of a sensitive nature that they might not feel comfortable discussing with parents or peers. In fact, much research attests to adolescents’ searching for health information online.

Beyond formal online information sources, the online space is also a key medium where youth seek information and advice from their peers. For instance, a content analysis of online bulletins for adolescents revealed that the most frequently shared health-related concerns were based on the following topics: sexual health, pregnancy/birth control, body image and self-grooming. Additionally, teens seeking advice regarding mental health difficulties are increasingly using online contexts to connect with peers. However, some risks to youth well-being have also been identified in relation to youth information seeking online. Illustratively, researchers coded advice shared online through the platform, Tumblr and found that 25% of posts provided potentially harmful advice (e.g., advising how to engage in self-harm or maladaptive behaviours) and that only 13% of posts suggested seeking professional help or therapy to cope with mental health struggles. Thus, although the online space provides a widely available resource for youth seeking information, it is also likely that youth could benefit from better directions as to where and how to seek relevant and accurate material.

Online Self-Distraction (Process Gratification)

Beyond information, the digital space of course serves as a source of enjoyment, and youth look to online videos, gaming, researching interests and social networking sites for entertainment. These and other online experience provide short-term diversions, and thus the digital world provides ample opportunity for youth to distract themselves from their stressors, In fact, such short-term diversion may allow youth to recoup from stress, and in turn, help them manage it more effectively. For example, a commonly scrutinized online activity is online gaming, yet research has found that gaming may be used to manage stressors. Specifically, one of the research found that at least in adults, video and computer games are systematically accessed after exposure to daily stressors, particularly for participants who reported low levels of social support. Thus, online experiences including gaming may play a compensatory role as a coping strategy for youth.

Likewise, social media use, specifically Facebook, has actually been found to be protective against the experience of stress. Specifically, in a laboratory study, researchers found that the use of Facebook before the experience of an acute social stressor buffered participants’ psychosocial experience of stress, as well as their physiological reactions to stress. Importantly, these results were based on passive Facebook use, which entails consuming social media content, as opposed to actively messaging and posting online. Thus, this study is among the first to provide evidence that social media use may be used as a buffer against stressors when used as a form of distraction.

That said, when it comes to adolescents, research investigating the potential palliative effects of online self-distraction strategies is lacking. Instead, the field is dominated by studies investigating the potential dangers of using the digital space as a means of escape. However, the distinction between escape and self-distraction is an important one in the coping literature, as self-distraction can be considered adaptive when engaged in moderately. In contrast, escapism, especially in relation to the online context, has been consistently related to high levels of psychopathology and problematic levels of internet use. Thus, online self- distraction, (as opposed to escapism) and when engaged with at appropriate levels, should not necessarily equate to poor well-being outcomes, and may serve as an adaptive function.

Lastly, beyond information seeking and distraction online, adolescent peer relationships are often built and/or sustained online. During adolescence, youth increasingly discuss personal problems with each other, and the digital space provides an important area to communicate with and support each other in the face of daily stress. Indeed, adolescents report that they use the Internet predominantly for interpersonal communication. This body of research is a welcome change of pace for the field more generally, as it attests to the potential benefits of near-constant access to social supports via the internet. As one example, Instant Messaging services may play a pivotal role for youth, as they enable private, synchronous ways of communication, and have been found to provide emotional relief for youth in particular, when turned to in distress.

In fact, studies have pointed to the potential compensatory benefits online emotional support may serve, especially among vulnerable youth. For example, researchers tested longitudinal associations between mental health symptoms and time spent communicating on the internet (versus non-communication purposes). Results showed that, for youth with low levels of offline social support, use of the online space for communication purposes predicted fewer depressive symptoms. Thus, the online space may serve as a supportive respite for youth with fewer offline resources. Similarly, reserchers found that youth high in social anxiety reported using the internet more often than their less anxious counterparts for the purpose of alleviating feelings of loneliness. Again, it may be that the online world can be especially helpful when offline worlds present as particularly difficult or challenging. However, although these studies point to the online space as a source of connection for youth, none to date have explored the effectiveness of online emotional support seeking as a coping strategy in the face of daily stressors.

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