I recently had the opportunity to reflect on the progress that sociology has made, as a disciple, in studying the Internet, social media, and related technologies. I see a general trend, away form multiple disciplinary voices engaged in the study of digital media, towards a dominant ‘communication perspective’ that does not adequately represent sociological perspectives on digital media. This core perspective often serves to constrain the range of phenomena considered worthy of study, the methods, and the research goals of the broader field concerned with digital media. I see the homogeneity of this dominant communication perspective as damaging to the field of communication as it is to sociological perspectives and the health of a (multi)disciplinary field of digital media. Sociology offers a unique perspective on digital media that enriches the field. I attempt to delineate some of the major theoretical and methodological differences. I suggest a path forward that would strengthen a sociology of digital media, make communication more applicable to sociology (and other social sciences beyond psychology), and would help breed a plurality of perspectives in the field. Such change is necessary, if we are to strengthen sociological perspectives and avoid a myopic lens on our understanding of digital media and social life.
This paper draws on my experience over two decades as part of an early generation of scholars who graduated with a Ph.D. in sociology into a career as a researcher and teacher in the multidisciplinary field of digital media. I reflect on my experiences to offer an assessment of the state of digital media scholarship within sociology and the field of communication. The study of digital media remains underdeveloped within sociology. In part, this is due to disciplinary failures, an array of relevant, specialized areas within sociology have yet to fully realize the role of digital media. Sociological perspectives are also constrained through a dominant “communication perspective” at the center of the field of communication. Communication is home to most digital media scholarship and uses its institutional dominance to arbitrate what qualifies as scholarship. Whereas communication serves as a plural disciplinary catch-all for the subjects of the social sciences, it often does so without crossing the boundaries of a relatively homogeneous, epistemological framework. That framework does not adequately represent sociological perspectives on digital media. I point to key differences between sociology and communication that tend to marginalize sociological perspectives. These differences have also served to render the field of communication less relevant to sociology (and likely to other disciplines in the social sciences). I stress the importance of building institutions and practices that support (multi)disciplinary representation in the field to strengthen sociology and other perspectives and avoid a myopic lens on our understanding of digital media and social life.Hampton, Keith N. (2023). Disciplinary Brakes on the Sociology of Digital Media: The Incongruity of Communication and the Sociological Imagination. Information, Communication & Society 26(5), 881-890. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/1369118X.2023.2166365
This paper looks at the relationship between “excessive” screen time (e.g., social media and video games) and teen self-esteem relative to “disconnection” and traditional inequalities (e.g., gender) and well-established predictors of well-being (e.g., academic performance). We find that social media use does not displace (it supports) in person contact, and that disconnection (poor home access, or heavy parental control) has a larger negative relationship to self-esteem than heavy use of any digital media. There is a good summary of the article available here and a video news story with an interesting take. The full article is available with open access from the Social Science Computer Review.
Some argue that social media use displaces time that adolescents spend with friends and family and is therefore associated with lower psychological well-being. They reason that young people who experience “disconnection,” because their parents actively restrict media use, or they have limited material access to the Internet, are better protected from psychological harm. Prior research has misspecified and exaggerated the magnitude of the relationship between screen time and adolescent psychological well-being. If the harm associated with heavy (excessive) or even average use of new media has been overstated, then the recommendation of disconnection may also be problematic. New media use is heavily integrated into youth culture and sociality, restrictive media parenting practices or digital inequalities may rob adolescents of experiences that would otherwise be protective of self-esteem. We conducted a survey of rural adolescents, who are more likely to experience disconnection at home because of a lack of physical availability of broadband, not simply affordability. Based on that survey, we find that a negative relationship between screen time and lower self-esteem is eclipsed by a more substantive, negative relationship to inequalities in material access to the Internet and restrictive mediation of media by parents. Findings show that new media use does not substantively displace time spent socializing with family and friends and in other social activities (e.g., volunteering). Omitting the supportive, indirect relationship between time on social media and self-esteem, through time spent socializing, exaggerates the negative relationship between social media use and adolescent well-being for girls, and for boys, misspecified the direction of the relationship. Adolescents, who experience heavy restrictive mediation of media by parents or have limited Internet access at home, tend to report substantively lower self-esteem than heavy users of any new media.
New paper with Inyoung Shin on “New media use and the belief in a just world: awareness of life events and the perception of fairness for self and injustice for others“. Facebook and the use of many other new media are related to awareness of major life events in the lives of friends and family. Awareness of undesirable events in the lives of strong ties fosters a lower perception of equity and justice for others, whereas an awareness of desirable experiences in the lives of strong ties is related to greater, perceived, personal justice. We discuss the implications in terms of the psychological benefits that can come from the vicarious joy and comfort one receives from other’s experiences; what we call mudita and comfort from others (MACO) (the opposite of FOMO); and support for social movements that seek to reduce injustices experienced by disadvantaged groups. We view this work as an extension of cultivation theory into the study of social media.
The disclosure of life events is among the most common behaviors on social media and is part of the everyday activities revealed through the use of many other new media. This paper explores the awareness of major life events through these media as they relate to a person’s belief in a just world for themselves and others. Using survey data, we find that text messaging, commenting on Facebook, and having more Facebook friends are associated with awareness of desirable events. Passive modes of communication, e.g., the use of the ‘like’ interaction on Facebook, are related to an awareness of both desirable and undesirable life events across a greater range of social ties. Awareness of undesirable events in the lives of strong ties fosters a lower perception of equity and justice for others, whereas an awareness of desirable experiences in the lives of strong ties is related to greater, perceived, personal justice. We discuss the implications of the awareness of major life events through new media in terms of the psychological benefits that can come from the vicarious joy and comfort one receives from other’s experiences; what we call mudita and comfort from others (MACO). We argue that the long-term, cumulative effects of greater awareness of undesirable life events may lend support to social movements that seek to reduce injustices experienced by disadvantaged groups.