Most people can relate to this situation: your hand just picks up your smartphone and automatically turns on Facebook. That happens even when we know that nothing important goes on there. It is like that stupid habit of constantly checking the fridge when you’re hungry.
What is the point of doing that? Just to suffer?
To understand the bigger picture of the situation we need to dig deeper. Today, more than ever before, we are geared towards using media. We have it everywhere – on our smartphones, computers, earphones, TV’s, tablets, radio in a car and so on. I did not even include the print media.
Essentially, it seems like we are addicted to the media. According to the Zenith media consumption forecast, the average person spends 446 minutes on both online and offline media daily, which is approx. 7,5 hours.
If that doesn’t raise your eyebrows, consider that in more developed areas, such as North America or Europe, these numbers exceed 600 minutes, which is more than 10 hours of media per day. Moreover, these figures are expected to gradually increase over the years.
So why do people use so much media?
The truth is that the media has been of vital importance since people formed a collective society. Back then, the elder used to tell stories that shaped people’s worldview, transmitted cultural values and kept track of history. Nowadays, we managed to adapt media to our personal needs.
Academics have found that there are four primary reasons behind such behavior: entertainment, companionship, surveillance and interpretation.
One of the basic human needs is the desire for entertainment. Watching your favorite Netflix shows, networking on social media, reading an interesting book and listening to music on Spotify or Youtube usually bring enjoyment.
In fact, there are so many excellent entertainment products that it is impossible to keep up with them all. Media entertainment allows us to escape daily realities and fill our leisure time. At the same time, entertainment helps us to create a mass culture and gives us something to talk about. In other words, media that people use for entertainment becomes our social currency and helps us to connect with other people.
Think about it: how many of your conversations start with “Have you seen the game last night?” or “Have you seen that viral video where…?”.
However, different sources of entertainment also individuate our taste and worldview, which sometimes lead to building walls instead of bridges. For example, a person who enjoys metal music will find it difficult to talk about music with a friend that prefers techno.
Of course, media entertainment also has opposite effect if people experience the content together. When your friend tags you in a Facebook post or comment, or you go to the music festival together, or just simply watch a good movie, it creates a special connection and helps us to bond.
When we feel lonely, media helps to relieve stress. For example, when you are home alone, it always feels more comfortable when some kind of music or noise plays in the background.
For instance, when I was smaller, my mother always used to get angry at me for playing with the computer while the TV was on. Even thou I was not watching it, it made me feel a certain type of ease.
Moreover, media studies have shown that people tend to establish personal psychological connections with their favorite public figures, characters, actors or sports teams. It is called parasocial interaction. You may have a friend who gets so engaged with the media images of their favorite public person or character, that they act like they know him or her personally.
Such imaginary friendships may sound creepy, but they are quite common if you think about it. Also, they are beneficial for anti-social people and can assist in drawing them out of their closet.
Probably the strongest basic human need that media serves us is surveillance.
We expect media bring us the latest news and information, especially if it has a significant impact on our way of life. Our brain seeks news both consciously and unconsciously, whether it is checking the weather, social media updates, economic situation, job placements or shopping deals and that is only a few examples of surveillance. We are interested in what is happening around the world, and it helps us to be better prepared for the future and heightens our chances of long-term survival.
Even when we obtain the freshest information, often it is still difficult to grasp what happened and why. Therefore, we look for mediators that could explain the situation better and base our stance on their view.
Many media outlets take a step further and educate people on certain matters, such as history (the History channel) or nature (National Geographic). Without interpretation, it would be difficult to solve certain issues, understand situations and things. Also, it helps us to establish our social norms, values and heritage.
Often, explanations engage audiences in discussions and express opinion on certain subjects. By doing so, it becomes easier to identify the values that align with the majority and form a basis of culture.
Because interpretation is very powerful, various power institutions often try to bend the information their way. For instance, governments often abuse their authority to establish certain censorship or beliefs. Similar interests guide media organisations that refuse to publish content, that might damage their sponsor’s reputation. That results in editorial propaganda.
However, people do not take all explanations for granted. Research has shown that people reach out to the comments that align with their values. For example, an individual who is raised in a conservative family will not agree with a book that is based on liberal ideas and will consider it biased. Therefore, people usually do not engage with the content that threatens their worldview, unless they need to defend it.
So do we need media or does the media need us?
Considering all the information above, we know that people spend over 7 hours per day in media seeking for entertainment, companionship, news and explanations. Media is a critical part of our lives and helps us to connect, discuss, cope and establish a culture.
Therefore, it seems that we need our media more, but essentially it is a two-way relationship. A simple law of economics states that where the demand is, supply follows. Nevertheless, it is critical to remember, that as media users and content generators, we all share the power and responsibility to manage our use of the media. No matter how hard the media tries to occupy our attention, the final decision to give in is always ours.
Besides all the entertainment, education and joy that media brings us, it also has a negative side, which originates from using too much media. I will review media dysfunctions in the next post.
Severin, J. W., & Tankard, J. W. (2014). Communication Theories: Origins, Methods and Uses in Mass Media (5th ed.). Harlow, England: Pearson Education Limited.
Turow, J. (2014). Media Today: Mass Communication in a Converging World (5th ed.). New York: Routledge.
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