August 09, 2009

New Media Revolution


By Karen Sternheimer

Media tend to get a bad rap in social science research. With each new form of media come new studies, mostly testing for negative effects. Will it make users more violent? Promiscuous? Obese? Anorexic? Stupid? Unable to concentrate? Hopelessly self-centered?

Can new media also help users become revolutionaries for democracy?

The demonstrations in Iran this summer appear to answer this question. While many journalists were expelled from the country or at least banned from covering protests, cell phone cameras, Twitter, Facebook, and initially text messaging all served as ways to subvert the attempts of the regime to control information about the country’s suspect election and silence dissent. This cell phone video is one of many that has showed the world what the Iranian government would prefer we not see.

While they were certainly not the first to use these new media to create a political movement—the Obama campaign used them to galvanize voters and volunteers last year—protesters in Iran have been able to circumvent a regime that only weeks ago seemed impenetrable.

A group whose voices and experiences have been all but silenced has trickled out in grainy video and 140 character tweets.

The bloodied face of murdered protester Neda Agha Soltan could travel around the world in seconds thanks to a cell phone, becoming an instant symbol of the regime’s brutality and fostering solidarity in a growing movement for change.

That new media becomes more and more difficult for authorities to control creates both opportunity and anxiety. The opportunity for greater, faster communication makes the sheer volume of messages difficult (though certainly not impossible) to monitor. Anxiety rises for those looking to suppress open communication.

Herein lies the rub: on a global scale, free societies welcome open communication and generally greet these new technologies as liberating. But on a small scale, parents might consider new media with suspicion, and a challenge to parental authority, particularly since young people tend to adopt many the new communication technologies first. This helps explain the long history of research testing for negative effects: we are scared of the changes—and challenges to connecting pop culture coveradult control—that new media may bring.

I discuss these fears in my new book, Connecting Social Problems and Popular Culture: Why Media is Not the Answer. In the book I examine dozens of studies that claim that popular culture has serious negative effects. Many of the studies are not nearly as convincing as we are led to believe, but collectively they help us focus on media as a primary source of problems. Focusing so much attention on popular culture as a problem not only helps us ignore serious social problems like poverty, neighborhood and family violence, and lack of access to quality education or health care. These fears also help us ignore some of the positive uses of new media.

Each new form of media has been greeted with suspicion. In 1929, the Payne Fund underwrote studies examining movies’ effects on children. The studies focused on a variety of factors, but most notably they attempted to link movies with delinquent behavior.

Similar studies on television emerged during the 1960s, again testing links between violent content and violent behavior in children. As video games have gained popularity in recent years, research has mainly focused on their possible negative effects. New research on the internet and children examines the potential negative effects of multitasking.

These are all questions worthy of study. But it is less common for social scientists to study how people use and understand new media, let alone potential positive effects. Some studies of video games, for instance, look at how they can be used to enhance hand-eye coordination, which might be useful for some people with physical disabilities. Further research needs to be done exploring the potential for these new technologies, rather than devoting so many resources to worst case scenarios.

More often than not, new media and the corresponding research about it reflects our fears. One fear is the inability to control content, both its production and consumption.

Over the years new forms of media have become increasingly private: most people could only view movies in a public theater at first, early television sets were in a family living room, compared with today, when media typically involves a personal hand-held device. This shift understandably makes some parents nervous, as it becomes harder to monitor what their children see, hear, and learn.

But on a global level new media has the potential to undermine dictatorships, which thrive on controlling information. Short of a complete clampdown on cell phones and internet use—which some totalitarian states enforce—information is much harder to control. While former Secretary of Education William Bennett suggested that the United States provide Iranian dissidents with "duplication machines," in fact we already have. Twitter and Facebook are cheaper, faster, and in the palm of millions of hands.

It’s likely we are just beginning to scratch the surface of new media’s potential. Social science research needs to let go of the twentieth century model of fear and embrace the future.


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Thanks for irrefragable article, which encompasses all possible aspects (at least it seems so to me) of the topic. As a parent, I do share some of the concerns mentioned here - monitoring what children are being exposed to. However, I'm strongly convinced that home and family positive environment, warm, supportive inter-relationship between children and parents are able to suppress and/or neutralize most negative effects of child exposure to media.

Also, as a person who finds interest and pleasure in constantly exploring/trying technological innovations (both software and hardware) I undoubtedly take the pro-technology and pro-innovation side :-)

Yes with days newer media is used for propaganda nd reaching out and why not when the advanced techno support is available?

Children can not be stopped by force when they over do them,they can just be monitored and guided.

I don't think that various types of media have as much of an influence as politicians and lobbyists credit them for. Children learn at a very early age the difference between fantasy and reality (this is assuming of course the child has a loving relationship with his or her parents, where the parents have given the child their ideas of right and wrong) and I don't think that if a child who plays grand theft auto all the time is given a real gun, that that will somehow unlock the "inner killing machine" that these people who lobby for censorship reform make kids out to be.

Thank you for remembering NEDA, the Iranian symbol of freedom and democracy.

I enjoyed this article! With the technology changing parents will still be able to monitor their children. It may be a challenge, but it can still be done.

This was a very good article. I do believe that now that we have better technology we can do so much more, in a good way, and a bad.

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