How and in What Ways Does Social Media Affect Everyone? It Depends....

One of the hottest areas in communication research currently is social media. There are so many studies published each year now on the topic of social media, that very few stones are likely to remain unturned for too long. A quick search on the term ‘social media’ in the Google Scholar search engine produces over five million results while a regular Google search returns over eleven billion results.

With so much being written about social media, one might suspect that one already knows all there is to know by now. This is of course not true. As it is, raw search engine results do not equate to direct knowledge of the subject matter; the search results are often too broad and vague. So, to understand social media, one needs to decide what specific areas he/she is interested in first. It is important to ask the right questions, and what additional terms to use to search. Once the results are obtained, the right training to separate the wheat from the chaff would be required – that is to say, to know which documents represent valid empirical research and will best be able to address the questions.

Chances are that if one can think of a question that might have about social media, the researchers have probably also thought of that question – and are likely to have done a study in that area. One study does not make a theory. But when more and more researchers study a particular area, one can develop metanalyses – that is to say, several studies can be examined to help build theories about what is going on. Some of the more common questions people ask about social media are: Does it affect mental health? Does it contribute to bullying? Does it affect the way people shop? Does it affect body image? Does it bring together or isolate people? How do old media interact with new media? These are but a few of the many questions people have asked and that researchers have been answering over the years.

Students in the Department of Communication often chose to pursue questions relating to social media in their final year research projects. Students are especially interested in social media, mainly because they use social media a lot in their daily lives. So, what does one know? What are the answers to the burning questions? Well, it has taken communication scholars over a hundred years to come up with the following answer to most questions as they relate to communication (and more recently social media) -- “it depends.”

To understand how one came to this perhaps is underwhelming, but importantly, after several decades of research, one needs to briefly go back in time to trace the origins and development of modern media research – back to the Payne Film Studies of the 1920s. As the film industry grew, parents were concerned about the effect that films might have on their children, much in the same way that today’s parents are concerned about social media’s effects on their kids. In the 1920s and 1930s researchers came to believe that the media (e.g., film, comic books, radio) had powerful effects on audiences. The powerful effects of media were imagined and described as a hypodermic needle or a magic bullet – conjuring the image of the media that could penetrate the minds of the audiences and, in a way, control them. Later research in the 1940s reversed this thinking.

A study investigating the media’s influences on political elections found that family and friends held a greater impact on voting decisions, and thus the era of “limited effects” was proclaimed. By the 1980s and 90s, the number of university programmes and researchers focusing on media had increased, and new studies led to the era of “moderate effects” where researchers discovered that there are so many different variables that need to be considered in the study of media and its effects that the most suitable answer to the media and its effects was -- “it depends.”

And so, it is with the study of social media today that researchers must take into consideration multitudinous variables and intercultural contexts when investigating the realities surrounding the latest websites and mobile apps that are capturing the public’s attention. Keeping up with the latest research is a daunting task. Many lecturers are undertaking the hard work of conducting the research and providing a Malaysian context to the important research that is being done. This will be important for students and society – as one learns more about how the media, including the social variety, and how these are impacting lives.  


Professor Bradley Freeman
School of Arts