Teaching & Learning Guide for: Social Psychology and Media: Critical Consideration



Author’s Introduction

We wrote this paper because we felt there was a need for a more critical examination of the ways that media were considered within social psychology. The article was written to provide an overview of social psychological research on media and to propose new lines of enquiry, particularly into the social practices within which media technologies are embedded. In particular our arguments focus on the ways in which media permeate social life and relationships, and why we should give more attention to the study of media within the practices of everyday living. Media are pervasive in society today. Media are foundational to the symbolic landscape within which people make sense of the world and their place in it. Media also comprise material objects, such as televisions and computers that dominate many domestic realms, as well as more portable devices, such as mobile phones and MP3 players that people take with them when moving through everyday life. Human relations with and through media are complex and evolving, and provide a core focus for social psychology. In the living room of any modern home there are likely to be comfortable chairs, family memorabilia and a range of media technologies ranging from telephones, radios, books and magazines to a television, a DVD player, a digital recorder, iPod, and perhaps a networked computer. These devices are often mobile, and can be moved or relocated around the house, shifting from communal to more personal devices as family members seek privacy to consume their media products or react to different tastes in movie, musical or gaming content. Such practices open up a range of social psychological issues regarding human relations, identity, time and space. The presence of media devices in daily life has invoked concerns about the possible negative effects of exposure to media violence and broader issues around reduced civic participation, as well as more positively focused issues such as the use of media to build and maintain social ties.

Many social psychologists have been preoccupied with issues of media effects, often viewed as negative, sometimes as pro-social. Others have worked to generate understandings of people’s use of media in everyday life. This reveals a tension in the discipline around what the media does to individuals, and what people do with media. The emphasis in this teaching resource is on considering relationships and social practices surrounding media use in everyday life. This is not to deny that media use may have negative consequences in some instances. Rather, we want to temper the dominance of the traditional focus in psychology on negative media effects with a perspective that involves a broader consideration of social practices associated with media use in daily life. We consider some of the ways in which people engage with media and each other using communication technologies, and thereby promote a social psychology of media that attends to media-based practices as and where they occur.

Author Recommends

We have recommended readings from media and communications as well as from social psychology for this teaching resource, because a great deal of good theory and research relevant for social psychology is being conducted in the media and communications field as well as within social psychology.

1. Silverstone, R. (1999). Why Study the Media? Sage: London.

This book provides an accessible introduction to why it is important to study the media. Emphasis is placed on exploring the pervasive nature of media in everyday life and how media can captivate our attention in a variety of ways, as well as go virtually unnoticed. In emphasising the importance of media in this regard, Silverstone points to the need to avoid media-centricity – asserting media as an overdetermining influence on our understandings of social life and practices. Social psychologists need to consider how people use media to maintain interpersonal relations and to cope with tragic life events. Social psychologists also need to consider how powerful interests in society can also use media in an attempt to distract the public from the harsh political realities and social injustices.

2. Giles, D. (2003). Media Psychology. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

This book provides an extensive engagement with the field of media psychology, issues around defining media and the extension of social psychological theories through media research. Giles opens up a space for beginning to consider how media are increasingly interlinked, and how content developed for television, newspapers, radio and magazines are increasingly mobilised for digital devices and computer networks. We can now watch our favourite soaps on the move and in fact re-edit television programmes for our own amusement. The concept of media convergence denotes the processes by which various media forms, such as computers, can now screen television programmes and films and can be used to download music. One can also read comic books online and download texts onto a mobile phone. Convergence also relates to media cross-fertilisation whereby a comic book character such as the hulk now appears in a movie, video game and his growl can be used as the ring tone on one’s mobile phone.

3. Couldry, N. (2004). Theorising media as practice. Social Semiotics, 14, 115–132.

In recent years, media research has begun to build on the theoretical work of Nick Couldry and other media theorists to consider media as social practice. This involves a focus on how people integrate media technologies into their daily lives, rather than approaching media simply as an external influence. This turns attention to what is happening in public places and domestic settings as people engage in a range of social activities and relationships involving media technologies. Couldry notes that media does not simply enter everyday life, our homes, workplaces and social environments, but are created there. The meaning and role of the television set in the corner depends on what we do with it and the practices and relationships with which we surround it.

4. García-Montes, J., Caballero-Muñoz, D., & Pérez-Álvarez, M. (2006). Changes in the self resulting from the use of mobile phones. Media, Culture & Society, 28 , 67–82.

García-Montes, Caballero-Muñoz and Pérez-Álvarez provide an example of social psychological research into media practices surrounding the use of mobile phones. The use of these mobile communication devices has contributed to dissolving the separation between public and private spaces (receiving personal calls at work, or work calls during dinner in a restaurant). The use of phones requires users to negotiate the intersection or fusion of these spaces skilfully and also demands new forms of identity work. The mobile phone has consequences for how we live in time as well as space, and these researchers suggest that this technology has consequences for how we construct selves, with mobile phone use causing fragmentation (loss of the past as a context for current behaviour) and irresponsibility (loss of the future as a consequence for actions).

5. Livingstone, S. (2007). On the material and the symbolic: Silverstone’s double articulation of research traditions in new media studies. New Media & Society, 9, 16–24.

Media devices are seldom used in isolation. Livingstone provides a useful overview of youth engagements with a range of media in domestic settings. These media range from landline and mobile phones, games, DVDs, to networked computers and social networking sights such as Facebook and Bebo. This article illustrates how media forms are not separable from one another, how these can saturate daily living and how media practices produce complex influences within everyday life. Livingstone shows the variety of social uses of media forms within domestic spaces – watching a DVD together or cohabitating in silence while plugged into iPods, and so on. A core issue is that media retexture domestic worlds to render spaces as simultaneously public and private, individual and shared. The complex use of media in domestic spaces should be of central interest to social psychologists because they provide insights into everyday environments and the social relations of everyday living.

6. Silverstone, R. (2007) Media and Morality: On the Rise of the Mediapolis. Polity: Cambridge.

This book explores how media provides shared spaces for engaging in collective practices through which identities can be nurtured and developed, belonging and participation can be fostered, supportive networks can be maintained and a sense of trust and belonging can be cultivated. Issues of symbolic power and whose versions of reality come to shape public discourse through media technologies are central to the book. Silverstone introduces the concept of the mediapolis to explain the presence of media in public life today. This involves an extension of the ancient Greek polis, the shared civic space where political communication occurred. The mediapolis extends this to the shared spaces provided by media technologies today.

7. Hodgetts, D., Stolte, O., Chamberlain, K., Radley, A., Nikora, L., Nabalarua, E., & Groot, S. (2008). A trip to the library: Homelessness and social inclusion. Social and Cultural Geography, 9, 933–953.

Continuing with the themes of civic engagement, the mediapolis, and the function of media in texturing physical space, Hodgetts and colleagues provide an example of how psychologists worked with journalists to ensure equitable access to public spaces for homeless people. This study explores a case involving negative news media representations of homeless men as a threat to others in a public library. The researchers worked directly with a journalist, providing access to alternative sources of information (the directors of major service agencies and homeless men), and on framing a feature article to provide a more positive view of the issue. This article discusses the capacity of news media journalists to pause and reflect on the ways in which events have been covered and people characterised, and to work differently, to provide a more civic-oriented journalism.

Online Materials

1. Media Advocacy

Any social psychology of the media needs to consider how research be used to promote public good. There are several web resources useful in this regard. Adbusters (http://www.adbusters.org) is a global network of media advocates who promote media education through the dissemination of satirical works designed to deconstruct and bring into question the norms of consumer and advertising culture. Further resources for information on media advocacy and useful resources include:

http://www.marininstitute.org/action_packs/media_advocacy.htm and


2. Media Psychology (Division 46 of the American Psychological Association)

This APA division, founded in 1985, collects together psychologists with an interest in media. It encompasses a diverse array of activity, including translating psychological research into assessable materials for public consumption, consulting with media producers on the production of educational materials (e.g. children’s TV), hosting TV and radio shows, developing new communication technology and researching the effects of media on ‘vulnerable’ members of society. Students may like to visit the division’s website: http://www.apa.org/divisions/div46, and explore the range of work being done by division members working with the media.

3. PEW Internet Project

The Pew Internet and American Life Project is one of seven projects in the Pew Research Center (http://www.pewinternet.org/About-Us/About-the-Pew-Research-Center.aspx). This centre is a non-partisan ‘fact tank’ that seeks to provide information on issues, attitudes and trends shaping the United States of America and the world. It conducts public opinion polling and social science research, reports and analyses news coverage, and holds forums and briefings on a range of topics, but avoids taking positions on policy issues. Their reports, presentations and data sets, dating back to 2000, are all available for free. The Pew Internet Project investigates the social impact of the internet (see http://www.pewinternet.org) and contains a number of media reports about youth and media use. These materials are discussed next in terms of a sample syllabus for teaching the social psychology of the media.

Lenhart, A., Kahne, J., Middaugh, E., Macgill, A., Evans, C., & Vitak, J. (2008). Teens, Video Games, and Civics. Washington, DC: PEW/Internet & American Life Project. Available at: http://www.pewinternet.org/Reports/2008/Teens-Video-Games-and-Civics.aspx

Lenhart, A., Madden, M., Macgill, A., & Smith, A. (2007). Teens and Social Media. Washington, DC: PEW/Internet & American Life Project. Available at: http://www.pewinternet.org/Reports/2007/Teens-and-Social-Media.aspx

Sample Syllabus

The article, along with the associated resources, is proposed for use as the basis for one or two lectures within an undergraduate course in social psychology, but could also be used as the basis for lectures and tutorials in courses on cultural or health psychology, providing a means to involve media in those areas. Rather than propose a whole social psychology syllabus, we suggest several lecture topics that could be developed around this reading and associated resources.

A Possible Lecture

The reading can be used as a basic structure for a lecture making key points as follows:

  • • media are pervasive, complex and varied
  • • the focus on media effects in social psychology is important but needs to be re-conceptualised
  • • the limitations of existing approaches to media research in social psychology
  • • loosing (and regaining) the social context
  • • towards a critical social psychology of media.

A second lecture could also focus on the role of media in shaping social practices around the inclusion and exclusion of groups in society. Such a lecture could draw on Chapter 10 from:

Hodgetts, D., Drew, N., Stoltie, O., Sonn, C, Nikora, N., & Curtis, C. (2009). Social Psychology and Everyday Life. London: Palgrave/MacMillian.

Alternative Lecture

The rise of contemporary media continues to raise concerns in some circles regarding the ways in which increased media consumption may undermine traditional social and community ties. Media have been blamed for the demise of social life. Putman (2000) famously associated increased social isolation and a general decline in civic life with the rise of television, where viewing saps time that could be spent engaging ‘productively’ with fellow citizens. Social psychologists are increasingly considering the role of media in supporting or undermining public deliberations regarding community problems (Hodgetts et al., 2009). The lecture could explore how it is somewhat simplistic to maintain distinctions between reduced face-to-face community engagements and the rise of mediated communities, and to associate a supposed drop in civic life with increased media consumption. Psychologists have considered the ways in which public debates via media forums provide resources for face-to-face conversations where further considerations for issues can occur and courses of action be planned. This work is important because our daily talk regarding issues is often informed by media deliberations, which offer perspectives and resources for making sense of these issues. Research increasingly shows that media often provide spaces for a range of social practices, meetings and interactions beyond the world of virtual friends, movie characters and pop stars. We often watch television together, consuming sports events or concerts with friends and family (Silverstone, 2007). Media-based community activities stretch our meaningful social networks out beyond home locales.

Puttman, D. (2000). Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Survival of American Community. New York: Simon and Schuster.

A follow-up lecture or tutorial could explore these issues noted before in relation to the use of media by young people in relation to notions of civic participation. The session could draw upon two reports from the PEW Internet Project at: http://www.pewinternet.org/

The key issue explored in this report is how young people often conduct their social lives across online and offline worlds. Lenhart and colleagues found that US teens use media devices that they have at hand, be it landlines, mobile phones and/or computers, as well as engaging face-to-face. The participatory culture of youth created through the use of such devices transcends the online and offline divide. Lenhart and colleagues note that “…those [teens] who are the most active online with social media applications like blogging and social networking also tend to be the most involved with offline activities like sports, music, or part-time employment” (p. 9). These authors found that social networking and the creation of digital materials is central to the lives of many teenagers. The research showed that 93% of US teens aged 12–17 years participated in the internet, which has become an important landscape for social interaction and creating shared materials. Blogs, web pages and artistic creations were created by 64% of respondents, and 55% of these teens were present on social network sites such as Myspace and Facebook. Teens use these sites to maintain links with existing friends and family, to make plans for online and offline activities, and to meet new people. They also stay informed about social issues through producing or consuming and commenting on blogs.

Allaying the fears of some parents that their children’s computer use will lead to social withdrawal, recent research associates internet use with increased civic participation. Lenhart and colleagues explored links between digital gaming and civic participation. Half the research participants reported playing games on the previous day, typically for an hour or more. Almost all (97%) youth played web, computer, consul, or portable games that included racing, puzzles, action, strategy and role-playing genres. A majority of these teens (65%) play with others in the same room and 27% with people linked via the internet. Many play with friends and family as well as with people met online. The authors found that aspects of game-playing have a positive relationship with civic outcomes, and include opportunities to simulate political activities, learning about governance, debate issues, forming and facilitating guilds or gaming groups (often globally) and helping others. Having to learn to cooperate and work as a member of a team to achieve shared objectives in many games can be associated with developing a skill set of relevance to the workplace and community life. Interest in games extends well beyond the consul with players also discussing game-playing both face-to-face and via the web. Further, youth kept in touch with friends while playing games over the web, and engage with each other at school regarding the intricacies of their gaming and associated conventions and groupings. To deprive children of time to game can be seen as a social isolating act.

Focus Questions and Exercises

Focus Question 1

Ask the class who plays digital games. Ask these students to pause for a moment and think about what their play involves; whether or not it involves aggression against victims, or engagements with scenarios and explorations of game worlds. Students should consider the following questions:

  • • Are game players rehearsing to kill people?
  • • How real are the characters in the games they play?
  • • Do violent games contain opportunities to help one another?

These are important questions that have not been taken up until recently in psychological studies of media effects. They invoke a social context and the broader motives and experiences of people who game. The exercise could also open up a discussion of how not all psychologists support the view that violent media content causes violent behaviour.

Focus Question 2

Students should be tasked with asking people they know about what impact media have on them:

  • • Do those who consume violent media content see themselves as sociopaths ready to lay waste to those around them?
  • • Does seeing images of young, fit, thin people make young women feel overweight or dissatisfied with their body shape?
  • • Do media appeals for charitable giving produce strong levels of donating?

A common response from many people is that media does not affect them personally, but that they are concerned about the effects on other people. This is commonly referred to as the third person effect. Read up on the third person effect (see Hodgetts et al., 2009).

Focus Question 3

Students should be asked to reflect on the communities they engage with via the media. These can involve interactions on social networking sites, the friends you text after class, shared reading of magazines of family viewings of television. Students may participate in ‘imagined communities’ when watching a national sports event. In reflecting on these communities, students should consider the following questions:

  • • What is similar and different about these communities?
  • • How do they relate to the conduct of your life online and offline?
  • • Do your online and offline communities overlap sometimes while being distinct at other times?

Seminar/Project Idea

Project 1

With your slate and chalk, rock and chisel, or even on your computer, list all the media you use regularly (do not forget things such as packaging and billboards). As a class compare your lists with one other. Now compare your lists with those that would have been made by your grandparents when they were your age. In considering your lists, consider the following questions:

  • • What trends do you see across these lists?
  • • Where are media listed typically located?
  • • What media are in your home and where are these situated?
  • • Do people use different media in different ways in different places?

The point of this exercise is to illustrate the pervasive nature of media and how, in recent decades, the presence of media in daily lives has proliferated. It is also to raise differences between people in media use. The exercise can be extended to a written assignment or a class presentation on the pervasiveness of media in everyday life.

Project 2

Students could be asked to locate a news or current affairs journalist for any media form (print, television, internet) and interview them about how they would research and write a story on a particular social psychology topic (bystander helping, drug-taking at a rock concert, a poor person being ejected from her housing, homeless people sleeping in parks, etc). Questions for the journalist should include how they would frame the story, what sources they would use to research the story, who would/should get quoted in the story, what values and ethics guide their work, pressures they face in producing news or current affairs stories and how much control they have over final content. Students should analyse the interview content and prepare a report or presentation that considers the degree to which their journalist understands and uses a civic journalism approach.