Dr. Paul Mihailidis discusses the impact of social media on civic engagement and journalism.

Producer: Grace Lovins
11/22/2022 • 11:42 AM EST

Dr. Paul Mihailidis, author and professor of civic engagement and journalism in the School of Communications at Emerson College, discusses how the values of social media contrast with those of civic or democratic values and how traditional news organizations have had to adopt this value system in order to compete, providing more headline-driven, sensationalized content that the algorithms prefer. He also discusses the detrimental impact smartphones have had on youth mental health and how these devices, meant to bring us together, have created more social distance between us.

0:00: Grace Lovins:

With us today, we have Dr. Paul Mihailidis, Professor of Civic Engagement and Journalism in the School of Communications at Emerson College, and author of many books on media literacy and civic engagement. Dr. Mihailidis, thank you so much for joining us today.

0:15: Dr. Paul Mihailidis:

It's great to be with everyone. Thanks for having me.

0:19: Grace Lovins:

So how is media the focal point of everything we know, see, and do in the world?

0:24: Dr. Paul Mihailidis:

Well, I mean, I think if we simply look at this anecdotally, we see that media is become at the center of our daily information and communication routines. There's beyond any doubt now, decades of research have shown how central our platforms, our mobile technologies have become in the way that we see the world. So how we learn about local, national, and global political, cultural, economic issues. There's little doubt anymore that media has replaced these common meeting points or coffee shops or town halls or forums.

So, we need to be very sensitive to the way in which those messages come to us and how they shape our views of the world. This is especially acute with younger populations, who I work more with. If we look at their information diets and their information routines it is, there's beyond a pale of doubt that they are using media for all of the information they get today.

1:33: Grace Lovins:

You've previously talked about how the values behind social media don't necessarily align with civic or democratic values. Can you elaborate on this a little bit?

1:43: Dr. Paul Mihailidis:

Appreciate the question. It's a very good point. So how do the values of social media align with kind of our civic and democratic values? And I often think that they not only don't align, they're in direct contrast with one another. So, the values of social media are about engagement. They're about extraction of data. They are about maximizing time on a platform, regardless of vibrancy of content, regardless of credibility of content, regardless of diversity of content, right? So our platforms are really designed to keep us engaged, to keep us distracted, to keep us continually immersed in their platforms.

So I say that those platforms were very effective early on in bringing people together and sharing humorous content. They're really great for advocating, bringing people together across different cultures and across borders and divides. But in terms of the necessary need of complex, local, credible information, they aren't designed to provide people with complexity. They aren't designed to provide our citizens with information that might need time to digest.

So what news organizations, for example, when they opt into these platforms as the central way in which they share information, they opt into the values of the platform. So they have to be tweaking their headlines so that they get noticed. They have to be providing more engaging and sensational content, because that's the content that the algorithms prefer. And so if you look at what's happened with news environments, they have been adjusting their content to fit into social media platforms.

And I think the result has been that our news organizations have been catering to more sensationalized and headline-driven, less deep, less complex information, because they need to make sure that their headlines are being seen, and more visible in these spaces. The result of which is there's no time for humans to engage in the necessary rigors of, of engagement in democratic spaces online, because they're consistently being asked to filter through lots of information that is increasingly sensational or spectacular.

4:07: Grace Lovins:

How has the smartphone changed our culture and what disturbing trends is research uncovering?

4:14: Dr. Paul Mihailidis:

That's an easy question, Grace. Thank you for sharing that. The smartphone has changed our culture in so many ways, and I think first anecdotally, and then I can point to some research. I mean, if we simply look at the way it's reshaped our daily routines. It's quite fascinating, in terms of how many of us, you know, at the end of the day, what we do right before we go to bed. What we do before we even get out of our beds in the morning. Notifications, the way that it's designed as a tool.The way that it asks us to be ever-present. The way that it filters information and curates information for us. The way that app culture has taken over our lives.

I mean, I think that the phone has, it's redesigned the core of our daily information lives and almost our daily physical lives. We are completely dependent on it for how we navigate our world, for how we get from point A to point B, for the resources that we need to get there, right? It houses our economies. It houses our locations. It houses our communication and social events, right? How much we need to have it to be present in daily lives.

So I think on the one hand, it's done more to reorient how we live than ever before. I think research now shows that it has been pretty detrimental for the development of young people. There's a lot of new research now that shows that the apps that we spend most of our time with have increased anxiety, depression, decreased self-worth, decreased confidence. It's decreased our agency. We've  become more dependent on idealized images that are completely unrealistic. And, you know, another concept that we've been toying with is this concept of intellectual debt. So when everything is readily available, it started to decrease the cognitive time we have to spend with issues.

And so if we think about what the result is when we know everything now and have to think later, is that we're increasing our intellectual debt, which is our inability to spend deep time with ideas that we need to kind of function in complex societies. We've just seen new reports on TikTok, and, you know, for younger generations, what's fascinating is that's almost replacing Google as where young people go when they want to search for information. And this is a shift from the textual searching to visual searching. But the TikTok algorithm is so invasive that it is driving content to more extreme areas for young people, first of all. And second of all, it's more extractive than any other technology in terms of how its algorithm works. So we are at this kind of inflection point where we now see how strong and unregulated use of these apps in our mobile phones is being really detrimental to our society. And we are kind of reacting instead of proactive in this space.

The last thing I'll say about the mobile phones impacts on our daily lives is the concept of distance. And I think this is an important one, and so some new research we've been doing is showing that mobile phones have been, they have inserted distance into our lives. And by that we mean that we can be in close proximity to other humans, but very distant from the empathy that we can create with other humans, because we are consistently immersed in the technology, in the metal and glass of the phone. And we create the metaphor of the car, of the automobile, and that you're encased in metal and glass. And when you're in the car, you might be physically close to other humans, but picture people driving alone, you're making a lot of decisions in real time. You're making a lot of judgments in real time. The judgments are often superficial in passing, and they're often more negative than they are positive. If someone perhaps cuts in front of you while you're driving, your first insight is not to be, well, maybe they're in a rush or maybe they have a child that's sick, or maybe they're tending to an ill family member, or maybe they're just having a bad day. Our first instinct might be to say, well, that person is awful and expletive, expletive, expletive, and I'd like to do something mean to them, and then we let it go.

And if you think about the lives with our mobile phones, we often make the same distinctions in that we spend so much time in them where we're making very quick value judgements without the human rigor that's necessary. And so we do that because we're immersed in these spaces, but also when we're doing that in human spaces, every time we're in a public space where we're alone, we go to our phone to hide. And it creates that distance in society. And if you extrapolate that beyond those little minutes to our whole social minutes, I think, you know, we're seeing that it brings people, almost kind of divides people more and more even when they're in close proximity to one another.

9:54: Grace Lovins:

What was the Tethered World Project and what did the findings of this study reveal about our relationship with mobile phones?

10:03: Dr. Paul Mihailidis:

Yeah, the Tethered World study was done to track everything that young people, that young adults were doing with their phones over a day. And it was done a few years ago now, but the idea behind that was that we wanted to see the texture of phone use, not only in terms of what they were using, but how much our mobile phones have been part of our society. So what we did was we asked about a thousand people around the world to track their mobile phone use over a period of time. And then we took those and obviously did some data analysis around that. And I think insights were that the phone had become so prominent in people's lives that they were, you know, some of the more interesting stuff, we found out that most people had about 30 or 40 apps on their phone, but primarily people were using three to four apps, right? So social networks have become such heavy drivers. People were not using it for, you know, it was kind of social networks and a large gap, and then it was maps and weather.

And the idea that people were using their mobile phones to engage in some bigger information or diverse information ecosystems was a misnomer. There weren't many people going to other types of information spaces.

People were using their phones to such an extent that we found that about a third of the sample, everyone was going to bed with their phone, and about a third of the sample actually reported sleeping with their phones, right? So not just on their nightstand, but actually on their pillow and actually in their bed, right? It was, it was pretty amazing to see how connected they were. That it's with them, it's with them. And then they talk about it as kind of they use it for an alarm or some utility, but really what we uncovered was that the culture of notifying and the culture of needing to feel connected at all times, again, this is going back to that, like, to justify our fragile self sense of worth. And we're kind of justifying that fragility through needing to always be involved. So, there's a big need to continually monitor the notifications, so you have to wake up and kind of feel that sense of belonging. And if you didn't feel that there were a need to reach out and express and post quite often.

So I think the study was just reaffirming that this kind of, this tethering was a way to validate self-worth. And it was such a central part, even now, almost a decade ago that we conducted this research. I think it was just the tip of the iceberg of just how central these technologies were. And what we've seen since is that this tethering has become, you know, not just a... we don't use clinical words like addiction, but it has become a fairly, fairly large dependence, not, not simply a tethering. And there has been some pushback to that with apps, but it's not really, it's kind of been like once Facebook goes away, something replaces it. And then once that goes away, something is continually replacing it. So it has not waned over time. But I think that study, it's really good to shift it from simply, what do you use to look at the ecosystem of tethering? Like the phone is always within an arm's length no matter what happens.

And what we do with it is not simply increase our information diets, we're using it to try to manufacture a sense of belonging throughout all parts of our day. And the results are the ability to have time of boredom, time of creativity, time to be alone, right? Those are necessary resilient traits that help build sense of self-worth and communal worth. And the phone intervenes in all of those times. And when you're tethered to the phone, the result is that you don't have that necessary space to be creative and to be bored and to be with yourself, to reflect and to think and to learn, which are so necessary in youth development. And the phone continues to you know, insert itself in those spaces.

14:27: Grace Lovins:

You cited a Pew research survey that showed in 2019 less people had actually met a journalist or a news professional than at any point in the past. How can media literacy help to mend this separation from media institutions?

14:42: Dr. Paul Mihailidis:

Right. We talk about lack of trust in our journalism and news systems. And trust is built from, I mean, if we take a step back and think about how trust works in our own lives, right? We build trust by being with people, by understanding their lived environments. We trust our children to walk to school when we've seen what that walk is like. We trust them with neighbors when we know who the neighbors are. And if we extract that to our civic systems and our media systems, we trust our town government when we feel like we know how that works, what the environment is, who's there, how they work on our behalf. And building that trust takes time and effort. And I think the same goes for news ecosystems is the hollowing out of our local media ecosystems has really been a detriment to local trusted information.

So the status is it's pretty amazing in that, it shows that we not only know less journalists. And if you don't ever, if you don't know a journalist or you can't feel the journalist or you can't talk to journalists, then you're simply left on trusting something that is an abstraction. And it's really easy to reduce that to, well, we don't know who this is or what they're saying and how can we trust them, right? And so I don't know necessarily that it's the answer, the media literacy answer is really I think it's really about finding our local news ecosystems, making connections with those people, telling those stories and finding ways to learn as much as we can about them and collaborate. Like we're in an age where journalism and journalists as few are left in local ecosystems, it's no longer a one way communication route. They're constantly looking for engagements in community. They're looking for information. And I think media literate communities are able to understand the media ecosystems and be advocates and be out there and be talking and be engaged and not just leave it up to the journalist.

One caveat to that, one of the biggest detriments to civic engagement has been the hollowing out of local media ecosystems. Because there's not many journalists left to represent communities. And that's a huge problem, one that probably is more structural than media literacy based. But one of the detriments to that is there are all of these hyper-partisan, local pink slime news sites that are rising up wherever you see local news deserts, of sites that are masking as local news sites, but are really kind of high level propaganda machines. And they're inserting themselves very strategically where they see local media sites have vanished.

And so, just to come full circle, and I know this is a longer answer, but for me, like media literate communities need to both demand better journalism. I think media literate communities would be more prone to invest in it. And I think local communities need to be more agile in using their resources, in using their local universities and high schools and community groups to be kind of building information environments that people can trust and that can bring back local news. Like we can't just, we can no longer depend on regional. We can no longer depend on some abstract startup website to be giving us this news. So we need to think about what is possible, what the community will wanna invest in. And media literate communities will see the value of these more than communities that are just relying on social media.

18:25: Grace Lovins:

Okay. It looks like we're out of time for today. We've been talking to Dr. Paul Mihailidis, author and researcher of media literacy theory and practices, and professor of civic engagement in journalism at Emerson College. Dr. Mihailidis, thank you so much for joining us.

18:41: Dr. Paul Mihailidis:

Thanks everybody. It's great to have been with you, and I appreciate the time.