By Christopher Gildemeister, Ph.D.
A recent experiment performed on Facebook users demonstrated once again that what people see in media influences their thoughts and reactions.
Recently, millions were disturbed by the news that the social media outlet Facebook had performed a psychological experiment on users without their knowledge. In the experiment, the tone of messages displayed in different users’ news feeds was varied. The result was that users who saw more negative news tended to write more negative posts themselves, while those exposed to more positive news tended to be more positive in what they wrote.
In performing this experiment, Facebook was manipulating its users without their consent or even knowledge. When news of the project was published a huge public backlash resulted, with most media attention focused on the ethics of Facebook experimenting on its customers without their informed consent. Some groups even went so far as to file a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission over Facebook’s actions.
By contrast, relatively little attention centered on the main outcome of the study: that media is capable of influencing how its viewers think, feel and react. This is probably because, however disturbing Facebook’s actions, in fact it was essentially business as usual for the media.
At its base, the entire purpose of media is to provoke reactions. TV show sitcoms and movie comedies are intended to provoke laughter; “tear-jerker” romances are intended to inspire tears and feelings of romance; dramas are intended to provoke an entire range of thoughts and feelings, from outrage at moral wrongs to thoughtful discourse about deep philosophical questions. Video games – particularly violent ones – are intended to stimulate a player’s desire for action, and then satiate it.
This is true of the entire range of media stimulation, from a Vivaldi concerto to a hip-hop singer’s rap, from a Shakespeare play to an elementary school production of “The Three Little Pigs.” All of media is intended to provoke an emotional reaction…none more so than advertising, the whole purpose of which is to cause viewers to feel good about a particular product, service, or company – and then spend money purchasing it.
Literally hundreds of scientific studies have shown a linkage between media consumption and behavior. And the fact that advertising and media influences young viewers in particular is not news to any parent who has had to resist their child’s cries for a particular toy or sugary cereal the child has seen on TV. In 1971, cigarette advertising was banned on television, because public health authorities and the American people understood that such advertising influenced more people, especially teens, to smoke.
Yet today, the entertainment industry tells advertisers that a 30-second TV commercial will cause millions of people to buy their product – but that hundreds of hours of TV drama containing graphic violence and explicit sex has no influence on viewers whatsoever.
In fact, such programming is not even in the best interests of advertisers. A recent survey by Nielsen found that viewers were far more likely to buy products whose commercials were placed on family-friendly programs and networks than those advertised on shows and channels with extreme content.
Some people claim that concern about media’s influence on viewers and users is nothing more than an irrational sign of “moral panic.” However, the fact that Facebook has now demonstrated just how easy it is for media to manipulate emotional reactions – not to mention decades’ worth of advertisers doing the same thing – proves that people are right to be concerned about the graphic violence, explicit sexual content, and civility-destroying language and attitudes present in advertising and entertainment.
In a world where “entertainment” is increasingly centered on dark, socially destructive influences like serial killers, rapists, and child molesters, and contains ever-greater levels of explicit sex and violence, as evidenced by research conducted by the Parents Television Council, it is clear that Americans are right to be concerned about the influence of media – particularly on children.
Christopher Gildemeister, Ph.D., is Senior Writer/Editor at the Parents Television Council, a nonpartisan education organization advocating responsible entertainment. (www.parentstv.org)