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Exploring Media Choices

By Erica Levi Zelinger, Communication Specialist, Pennoni Honors College

Media Choices Symposium

In the digital age, certain character traits are increasingly nurtured online – impulsivity, aggression, narcissism. They come alive in cyberspace, but what happens when they are incorporated into offline life?

“We become our avatar,” said Dr. Elias Aboujaode, one of six speakers at the one-day Media Choices Symposium, sponsored by Drexel’s Great Works Symposium, a unit of Pennoni Honors College.

The May 30th seminar at the Pearlstein Business Learning Center brought students, professors, and media professionals together to produce practical knowledge for both media users and creators.

The impetus for such an event, says organizer Dr. Elliot Panek, Visiting Fellow for the Great Works Symposium, was to facilitate a discussion on media-use behaviors. Topics included Aboujaode’s exploration of mental health in the digital age; virtual addiction; self-control and media choice; news and politics in the era of social media; and the correlation between media diet and political preference.

With 2.5 billion users enjoying online opportunities, Dr. Elias Aboujaode has found a niche studying the virtual self; he posits a parallel between our online selves and Freud’s id – “the dark, inaccessible part of our personality.”

“The online lifestyle can start looking like a pathology,” he said. “All of our psychologies are a bit changed by this.”

Is it the medium that’s addictive or is it the pursuit? Aboujaode analyzes the acts of online gambling, pornography and shopping to treat patients for co-occurring conditions such as ADD, ADHD, OCD, depression, and anxiety.

The second speaker, Dr. David Greenfield appeared – appropriately enough –  to the group virtually from Connecticut, where he is the Assistant Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Connecticut School of Medicine.

The author of “Virtual Addiction,” Dr. Greenfield says the medical and media communities are not in close agreement as to how to define Internet addiction.

“What we are in agreement about is that the Internet is potent.”

Greenfield studies content (the actual information or substance that people are consuming through their online devices); process factors (variables that account for the attractiveness and therefore addictiveness to these technologies); and socio-techno factors (“digital natives” or “Gen D,” age 25 and under who have grown up with a digital presence so they don’t really know anything else).

“I look at the cell phone as a communication tool,” he said. “But I think Gen D looks at it as part of their culture. It is an accessory to their lives.”

Dr. Brooke Duffy agrees. The Temple University Assistant Professor in the School of Communications, attended the symposium for its great lineup of speakers but also to assess her role as an adult and academic as far as “digital natives” are concerned.

Two of those “natives,” Drexel students Victoria Durand, a sophomore honors history and political science major and roommate Greta Jusyte, a political science and international studies major, attended the symposium “because it is a topic that appeals to all of us,” said Jusyte. “But we don’t necessarily think about the mechanics, so this is a cool opportunity to hear prominent professionals speak on the subject.”

The Internet – via its many devices – offers its users a prize, said Greenfield.

“The reward is provided in an intermittent and unpredictable environment,” Greenfield said. “Every time the phone beeps or buzzes, it lets you know some sort of information has come in – whether it be a Facebook update, an email, etc., it gives you a hit of social information. You don’t know how relevant it will be to you. The fact that it is unpredictable of when you are going to get it, and what it is going to be, is what makes it so powerful.”

On the flip side, several of the speakers highlight the ways in which these technologies are used for greater good.

Organizer Elliot Panek discussed Internet blocking productivity software, such as SelfControl, StayFocusd, and Freedom, which allow individuals to plan their media use ahead of time, countering some of the undesired consequences of “always-on” media.

Other examples of the good side of digital media include telepsychiatry, for example, which allows a doctor to remotely treat a patient for mental illness. A mobile app reminds a patient to take a medication. Recommendation engines like the one employed at Netflix, argues Dr. Johanna Blakely of the Norman Lear Center, make the Internet streaming media company a success in understanding how people search for movies and actually help to diversify individuals’ preferences.

“U2’s Bono has a guy – a full-time employee – who goes out and reads everything for him, culls through information to determine what to send along to Bono,” Blakely said. “Don’t we all want that?”

The afternoon session took on a political character, with speakers Aaron Smith, a senior researcher at Pew Research Center, and Natalie Stroud, an Associate Professor of Communication Studies and Assistant Director of the Annette Strauss Institute for Civic Participation at the University of Texas – Austin.

Smith’s findings on news and politics in the social media era showcased political activity on social networking sites. “Facebook – the Honda Accord of social networking sites,” Smith said, “is not seen as a news destination, but lots of people get their news there.”

You may have had a serendipitous encounter with a Facebook friend, where you learned someone’s views were different from what you thought they were; you may have read an article or signed a petition through Facebook because of something a friend posted.

And while social networking sites have found a place in the news consumption landscape, so have partisan news outlets. Stroud, who studies news media diet and how it correlates to political preference, has conducted numerous studies on the effects of where the public turns for news. She is particularly interested in identifying democratically beneficial and commercially viable techniques for engaging news audiences online.

Diversifying media exposure didn’t work, Stroud said. Arming people with proper knowledge didn’t either, nor did telling people to look for signs of bias. Getting one’s politics from political comedy didn’t help users diverge from their political preferences.

But her Engaging News Project, which provides research perspectives on news website features such as comment sections and social media buttons, shows that – at least for some topics – a “Respect” button can increase people’s exposure to a more diverse array of opinions. The “Like” button maintains the partisan mindset, but respondents seeing the “Respect” button read more comments from other political perspectives.

Small interventions like a ”Respect” button in an online news space, Stroud said, equal more clicks and produce more thoughtful behavior about opinions with which users don’t necessarily agree.