Introduction to Sociology/Technology, the Internet, and Virtual Worlds
A relatively new area of research in the social sciences has focused on technology, including cellphones, video games, virtual worlds, social networking services, and digital media. This chapter explores some of the findings related to these new domains of social life.
Technology is the collection of techniques, methods or processes used in the production of goods or services or in the accomplishment of objectives, such as scientific investigation. Technology can be the knowledge of techniques, processes, etc. or it can be embedded in machines, computers, devices and factories, which can be operated by individuals without detailed knowledge of the workings of such things. Thus, farming techniques are a type of technology, but so, too, is the technology that makes it possible to manufacture electric cars, computers, and homes. While technology primarily refers to the knowledge that facilitates production, often the products of technology are also referred to as technology as they can facilitate the production of goods or services, or help in the accomplishment of objectives. Thus, the processes used to build cars are an illustration of technology, but cars, too, are a form of technology as they allow us to accomplish specific objectives.
One well-known example of modern technology is the mobile phone. Mobile phones make it possible to make phone calls without having a direct connection to a telephone line, which was the technology that pre-dated mobile phones. While this technology is widespread in many developed countries (92% of US adults have mobile phones), its introduction has led to a number of changes in society. For instance, prior to the widespread availability of mobile phones, it was very common to find pay phones in airports, at gas stations, and as stand-alone phone booths (as shown in the photo to the right). It is decreasingly common to find such payphones, as their usefulness has declined in societies with widespread mobile phone adoption.
Mobile phones have also led to changing social mores. Informal social norms have developed around the use of mobile phones in public situations. One survey in the US found that there are specific times when people believe it is okay to use a mobile phone and other times when it is inappropriate. According to that survey, most adult Americans (77%) believe it is okay to use a cellphone when walking down the street, but not at a movie theater (95% say that is not okay).
|When is it OK and not OK to use a mobile phone|
|activity||Generally not OK||Generally OK|
|While walking down the street||23%||77%|
|On public transportation||25%||75%|
|While waiting in line||26%||74%|
|At a restaurant||62%||38%|
|At a family dinner||88%||12%|
|During a meeting||94%||5%|
|At the movie theater or other places where others are usually quiet||95%||5%|
|At church or worship service||96%||4%|
Another way mobile phone use has changed social life is in people's dependence upon them. One study found that, when individuals were given a variety of tasks to complete but were separated from their iPhones while doing those tasks, they exhibited much higher levels of anxiety than if they were allowed to use their iPhones during those tasks. In short, new social norms have developed to govern the use of mobile phones, and humans have become increasingly dependent on their phones for all sorts of tasks that used to require other technologies, like maps, cameras, portable game devices, and alarm clocks.
While there are many benefits to social networks, like developing business networks or maintaining contact with friends and family who live far away, one criticism that has been leveled of social networks is that they provide a history of objectionable behaviors that may cause problems in one's life in the future. For instance, some people have posted pictures of themselves and their friends engaging in raucous behavior, like drinking heavily or using illicit drugs. Given the knowledge that these pictures can be damaging to their future, some have asked why individuals would post such pictures. Recent research suggests that the reason may be that these individuals do not want to feel left out of social groups that are important to them, leading them to engage in the same types of behaviors and posting photographs on social networks as proof of their behavior. Another concern with social networks can be that they take time away from other activities, like work and study. Some research has found that college students who spend more time on Facebook do worse in school, though this appears to vary by tenure in college - Seniors are better at managing their time on Facebook and use the social network more productively than do Freshmen.
Just because interactions on social networks are digital doesn't mean the inequality that exists in the regular world doesn't also exist on social networks. For instance, one recent study found that women who posted sexualized Facebook profile photos were evaluated as less physically attractive, less socially attractive, and less competent to complete tasks than were women who posted nonsexualized photos.
By one estimate, close to 68% of all Americans play some form of video or computer game. A different study looking at video gaming among teens found that 51.2% of high school students play video games, though this differs substantially by gender, with 76.3% of boys and 29.2% of girls playing video games.
Video Games and Gender
Benefits of Video Games
One benefit of video games is enhanced visual attention. Action games that are fast-paced and emphasize rapid responses to visual information while demanding divided attention, like Halo, improve players ability to focus on relevant visual information. In the modern world filled with information and possible sensory input, being able to focus your visual attention on important and relevant information can actually help prevent sensory overload. Individuals who play action games consistently outperform individuals who do not on tasks related to visual attention. To rule out the possibility that it is simply people with better visual attention focusing abilities who play fast-paced games, individuals were trained using the games and their visual attention scores improved as a result. Thus, one benefit of certain types of video games is an enhanced ability to flexibly and precisely control attention.
Detrimental Effects of Video Games
While video gaming does not affect most high school students negatively, in a small subset (4.9%, gaming itself is a problem (i.e., they have difficulties limiting the time spent gaming). Among this subset, gaming is linked to regular cigarette smoking, drug use, depression, and serious fights.
It has long been debated whether or not video game use, particularly playing violent video games, increases aggression. The findings on this are mixed, with some studies suggesting it does and others that it does. Even when there are differences in aggression, they are typically quite small, suggesting the effect of video games on aggression is minimal. Among girls, video gaming in a few cases has been associated with getting in serious fights and carrying a weapon to school. In contrast, some studies have found that playing video games may reduce aggression because it is cathartic.
- Rainie, Lee and Kathryn Zickuhr. 2015. Americans’ Views on Mobile Etiquette. Pew Research Center. http://www.pewinternet.org/2015/08/26/americans-views-on-mobile-etiquette/
- Clayton, R. B., Leshner, G., & Almond, A. (2015). The Extended iSelf: The Impact of iPhone Separation on Cognition, Emotion, and Physiology. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, n/a–n/a. doi:10.1111/jcc4.12109
- Huang, Grace C. et al. 2014. “Peer Influences: The Impact of Online and Offline Friendship Networks on Adolescent Smoking and Alcohol Use.” Journal of Adolescent Health 54(5):508–14.
- Junco, R. (2015). Student class standing, Facebook use, and academic performance. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, 36, 18–29. doi:10.1016/j.appdev.2014.11.001
- Daniels, Elizabeth A.; Zurbriggen, Eileen L. 2014. The Price of Sexy: Viewers’ Perceptions of a Sexualized Versus Nonsexualized Facebook Profile Photograph. Psychology of Popular Media Culture
- Bjorn Hubert-Wallander, C. Shawn Green and Daphne Bavelier. Stretching the limits of visual attention: the case of action video games. Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Cognitive Science, 2010.
- Desai, Rani A., Suchitra Krishnan-Sarin, Dana Cavallo, and Marc N. Potenza. 2010. “Video-Gaming Among High School Students: Health Correlates, Gender Differences, and Problematic Gaming.” Pediatrics peds.2009-2706.
- Ferguson, Christopher J., and Cheryl K. Olson. 2014. “Video Game Violence Use Among ‘Vulnerable’ Populations: The Impact of Violent Games on Delinquency and Bullying Among Children with Clinically Elevated Depression or Attention Deficit Symptoms.” Journal of Youth and Adolescence 43(1):127–36.