Research in Media Effects (Revised October 2009) Mass Media Research: An Introduction, 9 th Edition

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Social and Psychological Effects

Phase 3 research is still evolving, but existing studies provide some early guidance. One potential harmful effect has been labeled “Internet addiction” (Young, K., 1998). This condition is typified by a psychological dependence on the Internet that causes people to turn into “online-aholics” who ignore family, work, and friends as they devote most of their time to surfing the net. Young estimated that perhaps 5 million people may be addicted. Surveys have shown that middle-aged women, the unemployed, and newcomers to the net are most at risk (Hurley, 1997). Students are also susceptible. One study reported that one in three students knew someone whose grades had suffered because of heavy net use. Another found a positive correlation between high Internet use and dropout rate (Young, J., 1998).

LaRose, Lin, and Eastin, M. (2003) used Bandura’s theory of self-regulation to determine that many forms of Internet addiction were related to feelings of depression. More recently, Kim and Haradakis (2008) noted that some forms of Internet addiction were more serious than others and suggested that future research be aimed at identifying those factors that were related to the most injurious form of addiction.

A 1998 study done at Carnegie Mellon University raised some interesting questions about the relationship between Internet use and feelings of depression and loneliness (Harmon, 1998). Somewhat unexpectedly, a 2-year panel study of 169 individuals found that Internet use appeared to cause a decline in psychological well-being. Even though most panel members were frequent visitors to chat rooms and used email heavily, their feelings of loneliness increased as they reported a decline in their amount of interaction with family members and friends. The researchers hypothesized that online communication does not provide the kind of support obtained from conventional face-to-face communication. These findings were reinforced by the results of the Stanford survey. Nie and Erbring (2000) reported that heavy Internet users spent less time talking to family and friends over the phone and spent less time with family and friends in person. On the other hand, the Pew survey found the opposite. Their results suggested that Internet use actually sustained and strengthened social and family ties. Subsequent studies have suggested a “rich get richer” effect. People who are outgoing and extroverted use the Internet to link up with friends and family and increase their social contacts. Those who are more introverted tended to shy away from online social contacts (Kraut, Kiesler, Bonera, Cummings, Hegelson, & Crawford, 2002).

More recent research has noted that the concept of loneliness is actually multidimensional and Internet use should take into account the personalities of those who use the Internet as well as their reasons for going online. Mu and Ramirez (2006), for example, found no relationship between using the use the Internet for social purposes and loneliness but did discover a negative connection between Internet use and perceived social skills.

Lastly, as more people throughout the world gain access to the Internet, much recent research has taken a cross-national and cross-cultural focus. For example, Cheong (2007) found gender differences in Internet use in Singapore while Zhou (2008) studied the adoption of the Internet by Chinese journalists. Rasanen (2008) discovered that Internet usage in the Nordic countries was related to national and cultural differences and Groshek (2009) found that Internet diffusion was positively related to more democratic regimes.

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