Imagine yourself somewhere secluded, engaging in what’s widely considered the most solitary and least stimulating of all media forms: reading. When you come to a passage that resonates, voicing something you’ve felt in the past but didn’t have words for, you pause and look over it again, savoring a feeling of connection with the author and characters not unlike the bonding moments we seek from face-to-face interactions.
Marcel Proust called this “the miracle of communication in the midst of solitude;” Peggy Mason, professor of neurobiology at the University of Chicago, calls it a social act. She coauthored a 2017 research article that proposed a new definition of sociality as any behavior or biological process that’s influenced by the presence of others.
“The idea that you could do something that’s not social is more theoretical than realistic,” Mason tells DOPE.
This expanded definition is designed to bridge the disconnect between researchers studying human biology with those studying other animals, and counters the “implicit assumption,” characterized in the article’s introduction, “that we are somehow outside of biology.” The same assumption of exceptionalism – that we are static beings who affect the world, but are not affected by it – underlies our casual treatment of media consumption as more-or-less the same as being alone. But under the new definition, going out to a party and staying in to binge a Netflix series are both social activities, since our decision to do either depends on other people, either a desire to be with or avoid them.
“That takes away the value judgment that people make on being social,” Mason says. “We’re all social in the way that works for us.”
With media, we also inevitably depend on social considerations such as coworkers’ recommendations or Spotify playlists to guide what we consume, whether we’re keeping up with the cultural conversation or consciously going against it. Then there’s the fact that no matter what song, book, show, or website we choose to peruse, there will always be a person, or more likely many people, on the other side of that content with their own agenda. In art, it’s usually to make you see a subject as the artist sees it; in advertising or propaganda, it’s motivating you to buy whatever’s being sold – a crucial distinction, but also an increasingly fuzzy one in the age of sponsored content and integrated product placement.
Millions of awkward teens and grownup media junkies stand as a living testament to the power of movies, books, music and other media to socialize and offer scripts for better relating to the complex world around us. Media psychology studies provide further evidence that uplifting movies and news stories inspire compassionate behavior more than pleasurable movies or negative news stories, which respectively inspire popularity-seeking and suspicion instead. Preferred characters and creators become like one-way friends and mentors, while communities of likeminded fans help us feel understood and accepted in ways those in our physical surroundings might not.
“What begins as an escape from social anxiety can also end up reinforcing it, and online or fictional friend groups can become just as toxic as real ones.”
What begins as an escape from social anxiety can also end up reinforcing it, and online or fictional friend groups can become just as toxic as real ones. Hilarie Cash, the cofounder and chief clinical officer of reSTART, the nation’s first inpatient facility for internet and gaming addiction, says these effects “are very much determined by how much time they spend there, isolating and insulating themselves from real world social experiences.”
While media consumption is inherently social, it’s no substitute for unstructured, face-to-face interaction, and those who use it as such almost invariably wind up anxious and depressed. Our brains develop neural connections based on what we spend time doing. In a nation where the average citizen spends 11 hours daily interacting with media and screens become children’s babysitters at an increasingly young age, there’s legitimate concern that our media consumption is taking away from valuable time learning to be alone with our thoughts or navigate real-world social difficulties. This phenomenon may be contributing to an unprecedented spike in adolescent mental illness.
While Mason’s updated definition may free researchers from moral judgments of good and bad in studying human sociality, for parents and others trying to distinguish between socially helpful and harmful media sources practically, the best metric to go by may be moderation.
“It’s content, amount of time and age of exposure,” says Cash. “These are the variables I think make all the difference.”
Motivational speaker Jim Rohn famously summed up the remarkable influence of social relationships by saying we become an average of the five people we spend the most time with. Considering our brains make no clear distinctions between real and imaginary, it follows that we’d similarly adapt to whatever media environments we spend most time immersed in. It’s frightening to think how many of us might be unconsciously assuming characteristics from even guilty pleasure obsessions, like the vacuity of Kardashian-style reality TV, the ceaseless social comparisons of Facebook or the vitriol and 280-character attention spans of Twitter.
None of this is to scaremonger about any particular type of media, though many such platforms are “persuasively designed” like gambling to get us hooked on the neurochemical release getting more likes and retweets provides. As with drugs, it’s important to stress the line between media use and abuse and to consider how both the form and content of what we consume can affect us, or even interfere in younger viewers’ development.
Just being mindful of the inescapable nature of social influence can have an impact. Mason herself explains the positive outlook that comes from realizing how someone’s social context, media or otherwise, can be even more important than their own preferences.
“I have a lot more sympathy for people,” she says. “I don’t play the blame game; I look at things and try to figure out why someone’s fundamental desire to help was thwarted. Probably not because they’re evil people, but the situation was simply not conducive to them helping – so we can do something about that situation.”