Technology, including social and other forms of media, is often considered neutral - its value is determined by how we use it (see Social Media is Related to Both Ill-Being and Well-Being). Finding a social group online that understands you can be a positive, life-changing, and even life-saving experience. However, becoming consumed with doomscrolling on TikTok or Reels (see Doomscrolling: the Ultimate Negative Flow State), for example, can have the opposite effect and impact us negatively. This is just one example of the impact of social media. Television, movies, and national news also have significant effects on our mental health, as many of us interact with media devices more than we do with other people. It's undeniable that media has a substantial impact on our thoughts, emotions, and behaviors.
The American Psychological Association's 46th Division is known as the Society for Media Psychology and Technology. This division encompasses traditional and mass media, including radio, television, film, newsprint, magazines, music, and art, as well as emerging technologies like social media, mobile media, interface design, educational technologies, and interactive media technologies. The Society for Media Psychology and Technology has two primary focuses: the study of media's impact on human behavior and the development of media literacy (APA, n.d.).
Media literacy is the skillset leading to the accurate and reasonable interpretation of media. It is a prominent area in media psychology that has gained increasing attention in recent years. Although not a new concept (we wrote about it way back in 2016), media literacy has become integrated into our education system and even our laws. Just a month ago, New Jersey became the first state to require media literacy coursework in K-12 education, with the goal of helping students understand how to analyze and interpret the information they receive through online and offline media.
According to Politico (Jan 5, 2023), the New Jersey curriculum aimed at teaching media literacy includes the following components:
- The research process and how information is created and produced
- Critical thinking and using information resources
- Research methods, including the difference between primary and secondary sources
- The difference between facts, points of view, and opinions
- Accessing peer-reviewed print and digital library resources
- The economic, legal and social issues surrounding the use of information
- The ethical production of information
When teaching media literacy, PBS suggests that we begin by discussing and establishing our standards and determining which components we want to examine (Lonergan, 2022). For instance, a good starting point for a literacy program would be to identify the questions we should ask when evaluating the viewpoint of a blog post and what the different answers might signify. Project Look Smart at Ithaca College has developed an infographic featuring sample questions that should be asked when deciphering media accuracy. These questions are categorized into nine groups, including nominal questions about authorship, purpose, and economics, as well as more qualitative questions relating to context, credibility, and the impact of media in the real world. Researchers are also investigating the commonalities and outcomes of these initiatives (see Polancán-Levican and Salvo-Garrido, 2022).
The goal of initiatives such as these is to improve how we interpret, utilize, and disseminate information to ensure accuracy and rationality. A growing number of research studies are being conducted on various learning pedagogies. For instance, a recent study in Nigeria (Wei, et al., 2023) discovered that trust in social media and status-seeking had a greater influence on the sharing of fake news. They also discovered that social media literacy abilities moderated the connection between sharing fake news and trust in social media. In other words, people with greater trust in social media are more likely to share fake news than those with a lower level of trust. More studies like this are necessary to gain a better understanding of the impact of media literacy programs and how we can encourage greater media literacy among the general population.
Technology Advancements and Its Impact on Psychology
Three areas have been pivotal in advancing psychology and understanding the impact of technology on human behavior. The first is the COVID-19 pandemic, which forced most practitioners to shift their services online, including telehealth for therapy, supervision, and consultation. Training programs also moved to virtual classrooms, and many colleges, like mine, went for three years without ever seeing each other in-person. The need to use technology to continue our work as psychologists prompted the exponential rise in telebehavioral health.
Mental Health Apps
The second area is the rise of mental health apps for smartphones and other devices, which are becoming some of the most downloaded apps for all age groups. These apps are convenient, anonymous, and offer 24-hour services, and their use has expanded access to mental health services. However, there are concerns about their effectiveness, confidentiality and privacy, standards of care, and the for-profit nature of both self-help and professional mental health apps.
Artificial Intelligence and Virtual Reality
The third area, which is still new and largely unknown, involves advancements in Augmented Reality (AR), Virtual Reality (VR), Artificial Intelligence (AI), and related technologies. Image manipulation is nothing new, but recent advances in software and AI have made it easier for even novice users to manipulate audio and video content. However, this technology has also raised concerns about the potential for deep fakes, which could make it difficult for people to differentiate between real and fake events. As these technologies continue to develop, it will be important to understand their potential impact on human behavior and to develop strategies to mitigate any negative effects.
When technology advances at such a fast rate, it is difficult to keep up. Initiatives are often designed to address the most immediate issues, but fall short in looking at what is lurking below - good and bad. For example, schools are starting to require media literacy courses in their curriculum, just as they require general courses in writing and math. In Illinois, media literacy training is mandatory for all high school students (NPR, 2022), and the same goes for New Jersey (Politico, 2023). This trend is likely to continue, and we may see similar laws across most or all US states, and possibly media literacy requirements in schools across the globe.
Similarly, AI has been getting a lot of attention lately and for good reason. It is developing so quickly that in many cases, it is difficult to discern the responses of humans from those of computers. For instance, Jubilee (2023) recently conducted a social experiment involving six humans and one AI named Oliver. The task was for all seven to respond to a series of questions, and then for the six humans to determine whose responses were written by AI. Oliver was programmed to use conversational knowledge, make mistakes, show emotions, limit response speed, and display general knowledge. The humans were looking for standouts, but Oliver was working hard to blend in.
Questions started relatively easy in this experiment, such as "who is your celebrity crush and why?" and progressed to more complex questions, such as "what is the meaning of life, and how would you define sadness?" In Round 1, no one voted for Oliver. In Round 2, Oliver received some votes, but not the majority. In Round 3, Oliver got another single vote, but a human player was still voted as the AI for a third time in a row. The final round asked the toughest questions, such as "what happens after we die, and how would you describe love?" The final vote was dramatic, but the AI was still able to do some impressively human things.
VR is also expanding nearly as quickly, and this includes the replication of humans through both audio and video. While it is not as difficult as AR in determining what is real, it is quickly approaching that level. We may soon see videos of famous people that are 100% fake but indistinguishable from real videos. It's becoming clear that fake news and media bias are just the tip of the iceberg supporting the newer technologies. Psychologists and other researchers need to work harder and faster in understanding what's below the waterline and how it is impacting the human condition.
American Psychological Association [APA] (n.d.) Society for Media Psychology and Technology. Retrieved from https://www.apa.org/about/division/div46.
CNN (2023). Anderson Cooper 360. Retrieved from https://www.cnn.com/videos/business/2023/03/08/donie-osullivan-calls-mom-using-deepfake-audio-pkg-ac360-vpx-zw-orig.cnn-business
Dyer, J. (2017, April 14). Can news literacy be taught? Retrieved from https://niemanreports.org/articles/can-news-literacy-be-taught/
Heffner, C. L. (2022, October 26). Doomscrolling: The ultimate negative flow state. Retrieved from https://allpsych.com/doomscrolling-the-ultimate-negative-flow-state/
Heffner, C. L. (2022, July 24). Social media use is related to ill-being and well-being. Retrieved from https://allpsych.com/social-media-use-is-related-to-both-ill-being-and-well-being/
Lonergan, M. K. (2022, October 28). What is media literacy and how can simple shifts center it. PBS Teachers Lounge. Retrieved from https://www.pbs.org/education/blog/what-is-media-literacy-and-how-can-simple-shifts-center-it
National Institute of Mental Health [NIMH] (2022, April). Technology and the future of mental health treatment. Retrieved from https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/technology-and-the-future-of-mental-health-treatment
National Public Radio [NPR] (2022, September 14). Illinois now requires media literacy instruction in its high school curriculum. Retrieved from https://www.npr.org/2022/09/14/1122895362/illinois-now-requires-media-literacy-instruction-in-its-high-school-curriculum.
Politico (2023, January 5). New Jersey becomes first state to mandate K-12 students learn information literacy. Retrieved from https://www.politico.com/news/2023/01/05/new-jersey-is-the-first-state-to-mandate-k-12-students-learn-information-literacy-00076352.
Polancán-Levican and Salvo-Garrido (2022). Understanding social media literacy: A systemic review of the concept and its competences. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 19(14), doi: 10.3390/ijerph19148807
Project Look Smart (n.d.). Categories and sample questions for media decoding. Retrieved from https://projectlooksharp.org/Resources%202/Key-Questions-for-Decoding%20Dec-21.pdf
Wei, L., et al. (2023). Do social media literacy skills help in combating fake news spread? Modelling the moderating role of social media literacy skills in the relationship between rational choice factors and fake news sharing behaviour. Telematics and Informatics, 76. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.tele.2022.101910