ADOLESCENT: TECHNOLOGY USES AND GRATIFICATION THEORY

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, researchers 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.

Given that Uses and Gratifications Theory (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(Content Gratification) 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.

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 (Process Gratification). These and other online experiences 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, 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 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 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(Social Gratification). 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, the 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, in other research, it was 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.

This information introduced the notion of adolescents’ digital world as a potentially potent resource for youthful coping. Given technology’s prevalence and central role in adolescents’ daily life, it is not surprising that adolescents undertake normative developmental tasks online. Much of this experience is arguably productive and positive. In fact, one explanation for the rather mixed literature on technology’s impact on youth well-being may be due, at least in part, to the theoretical underpinnings of early research in the field. In this case, a focus on outcomes of technology use, as opposed to consideration of different motivations for use and the resulting (and often varying) outcomes. This in turn has led to a somewhat myopic picture of technology’s risks or failures, as opposed to its opportunities of enhancing well-being. Alternatively, the Uses and Gratifications Theory (UGT) provides a dynamic framework for exploring adolescents’ engagement with technology in association with coping motives, including information seeking, support seeking, and distraction.

Although this information lays the groundwork by linking relevant communication theory with adolescents’ coping motives and behaviour, empirical work is needed to validate the occurrence of these coping motives in everyday adolescent life. Likewise, beyond providing a sense of prevalence of adolescent online coping, research of course needs to explore and understand the degree to which different online coping strategies might be helpful (or harmful) for youth. As a result, the research described, which characterizes adolescents’ qualitative discussions on why and how they use the internet in the face of stress, provides a needed proof of concept. Likewise, empirical data described in the technology uses and gratification theory Study, linking adolescents’ reports of online coping to other youthful characteristics such as technology use, stress, and psychopathology provides a critical validity check. 

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