Social Media Can Calm Us; TV Makes Us Binge on Junk Food

New studies on broadcast and social media effects affirm old results: It depends

Posted Jan 18, 2018

Patricia Prijatel
Source: Patricia Prijatel

Media use can change our view of our inner and outer worlds, sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse. That vague generalization is actually a synopsis of nearly a hundred years of media research and it is supported by new studies on two of the most potent current outlets: broadcast and social media.

A study out of England affirms what we have known since television first became a social force in the 1950s—its overuse can change our behavior. In this case, Cancer Research UK studied teenagers who binged on television, watching more than three hours a day. After that, the teens also wanted to binge on junk food. The culprit is the commercials, says lead researcher Jyotsna Vohra, Ph.D. This is, of course, the whole point of advertising and additional evidence that those behind these messages know what they are doing and they are doing it quite well—at least for them.

The parental conclusion from this and the tens of thousands of other studies that have shown a link between television advertising and poor eating or unhealthy behaviors in general: limit television exposure, especially by teens, and use a DVR or other type of recorder to watch shows later and zoom past the ads. Some viewing services offer ad-free recorders.  

And research on social media continues, with the general conclusion being that use of outlets such as Facebook and Twitter cause an emotional contagion in which we “catch” one another’s online anger, frustration, and angst. Libtards and Repugnants are everywhere!  But social media might actually calm us, even if our online friends are posting negative messages, according to research by a doctoral student at the University of California at Berkeley.  

That study showed that “people tend to wind down—feel more relaxed, sleepy, bored—when they browse social media, both Facebook and Twitter,” says researcher Galen Panger, Ph.D. who now works at Google, where he analyzes user experience. His research won first place in the 2018 Doctoral Dissertation Award from iSchools Inc., a worldwide group of more than 80 universities and other research institutions.

His most surprising, and heartening, result was that, in general, social media “is not a terribly warped representation of us and is not doing extreme things to our emotions. The effects are subtler,” he says. “It turns out, for example, that the calm and basic pleasantness of daily life, on average, is reflected in how people tweet on Twitter or post on Facebook.”

Panger’s research relied on a survey of a week’s worth of social media use of 696 individuals and subsequent data gathering of their emotions. It’s a small start and might deserve to be replicated on a larger, more long-term scale.

Both Vohra and Panger acknowledged what previous research on media effects has found: cultural, economic, educational influences all affect our media usage and our reaction to it. Panger notes that even our physical comfort when using social media—lounging in bed, for example—can reduce its negative effects. (Although if you're doing this at night, you'll be hurting your sleep.) And, while some effects are immediate, most are long term. The junk food advertising study just reaffirms that broadcast advertising, used for short-term economic benefit of an individual, group or corporation, can be dangerous. And the social media study affirms that we are still guinea pigs in this little online experiment that has so captured our imaginations and, possibly, part of our minds.