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Social Media
from The Psych 101 Series: Media Psychology 101
One of the most curious aspects of contemporary life is that so much of it can be conducted not in real life but rather in virtual worlds through interconnected computer systems. Today it is possible to order groceries or have food delivered, maintain friendships, debate politics, science, or religion, or meet and date potential romantic partners entirely on the web (one would imagine the marriage partners would eventually meet in real life but perhaps even this is only a recommendation!). This change in society is, in many ways, a real dramatic shift. Consider, in the previous chapter, what the Internet did to pornography, vastly increasing our exposure to it and essentially bringing it out into the sun. It’s not hard to imagine that the Internet revolution that began in the 1990s must have revolutionized many other aspects of our society. But does this come at a price? In interacting so often in virtual space, have we lost something fundamentally valuable about the way we used to communicate in real space? Does all this time online fundamentally rewire our brains as some claim, making us narcissists or depressed? What concerns do we have or should we have regarding privacy in this new show-everything age?
As with most issues with media psychology, the travails of social media involve separating the hype from the truth. We’ve long since seen that all new media go through periods of moral panic. But this does not rule out the potential for some real concerns either. One of the curious things about social media is that, unlike some other previous forms of feared media such as rock music, rap, comic books, or video games, social media has been relatively effectively embraced even by older generations. For instance, data suggests that half of adults over 65 are online, and at least a third regularly use social media sites such as Facebook or Twitter (Leist, 2013). That’s lower than the rate for younger people, of course, but nonetheless a significant number of older adults have become involved in social media, higher numbers of older adults than you typically find playing games like Grand Theft Auto 5 or listening to gangsta rap. This leads me to posit two corollaries regarding the duration and intensity of moral panics surrounding new technology and media:

The degree and intensity of moral panics can be predicted by the degree to which they tap into existing moral concerns, such as sex, violence, or privacy.
The degree and intensity of moral panics are mitigated by the extent to which older adults embrace the new technology.

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As we’ve discussed in previous chapters, moral panics tend to be driven in large part by the concerns of older generations rather than younger (Przybylski, 2014), and fears of new media are often reduced by direct exposure (Ivory & Kalyanaraman, 2009). Thus, older adults embracing social media may have done much to stifle some of the fears of social media. After all, following mass shootings, few people call for massive crackdowns on social media (despite that social media is well known to be involved in the recruitment of terrorists, for instance), but people are quick to blame video games. Moral panics are fundamentally about finding blame in media that older adults don’t value, and many older adults do value social media!
Concerns about social media, though, tend to fall into two broad categories. First, there are privacy concerns. Are social media companies digging for information on us and then using that information to boost their own profits, potentially at our expense? What is called data mining is a big thing now in business, such as using our previous shopping habits to direct us toward more products we might be inclined to buy. See how Amazon, for instance, helpfully suggests lots of new items based on your previous buying history. But people are also sharing more information via social media now than was possible in the premedia past. At the extreme of this is sexting, in which individuals may share explicit photos, some of which then emerge into the public sphere. But we’ve also entered an age in which every off-hand comment can be immediately scrutinized by a kind of outrage machine, and a single misguided or offensive thought can derail lives or careers.
Second, people do worry about what impact social media has on our communication, socialization, and moods as individuals. Are we being fundamentally rewired, whether positively or negatively, by our interactions with social media? Is social media breeding a generation of narcissists? We first tackle the issues of privacy, then turn to potential impact on individuals.
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