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Hart Jefferson, a senior at Murrah High School, describes how increased digital-media consumption plays a role in human desensitization. Photo by Gian Cescon on Unsplash

Chronically Online: How Digital Media Affects Human Behavior

Since the dawn of advanced civilization, people have often looked on the emergence of newer technologies and media with disdain and worry, fearing permanent negative changes to their society’s cultural norms and more. These sentiments have persisted from generation to generation, and the people of today are no different. However, we are faced with a much more extreme adversary: digital media.

What makes digital media so different is its use of advanced technology to exacerbate digital affordances, the enhanced communication capabilities that come along with all new forms of media (reach specifically), as well as its interactivity and social cues. Some argue that digital media is the next step in the natural progression of societal interaction, but the long-lasting effects on individuals and how we interact with one another are already being documented.

In her book, “Personal Connections in the Digital Age,” author and professor Nancy Baym provides structure for thinking critically about the roles digital media play in personal relationships. Photo courtesy

To understand how digital affordances have affected us, we must first understand what they are and how exactly they operate. Author and professor Nancy Baym describes reach, one of the affordances in her book, “Personal Connections in the Digital Age,” as the ability of technology to spread information or ideas—with the goal of the highest number of people seeing that message as possible, which every form of communication possesses to a certain extent.

What separates digital media from other forms is the sheer speed of its reach. Not only has the internet allowed for people to receive information from across the world in an instant, but research shows that people are also spending more time on the internet. Forbes and the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported in 2022 that the average person spends about 4.1 hours on their mobile device daily. During the amount of time that a person spends on their phones, specifically on social-media platforms, they are being exposed to a myriad of information, and they will also share information with other people who more than likely have similar media-consumption habits.

What this means is that a simple concept can spread like wildfire, which affects people on an individual basis as well. Because of how far information spreads, the world has become smaller than it was before, with fewer regional differences and more cultural homogeneity. This presents a unique issue, where groupthink is being taken to new extremes.

Deindividuation, Echo Chambers and Desensitization

There is a term in psychology called deindividuation where people, surrounded by those who agree with them, can become dangerously extreme in their beliefs and ideas. This happenstance has happened historically, with examples of extreme bigotry and violence such as the Holocaust or the Salem Witch Trials. Deindividuation has been enhanced through communication on social-media platforms.

One of the key changes that social media has brought to how humans communicate is that now we can interact with media. Through the digital affordance of interactivity, we can choose who we want to talk to, ergo also choosing what we hear. Often, this leads to people only listening and communicating with others that agree with them.

When this happens, the collective ideas that they hold only get stronger, as well as biases that they might have. Students at the University of Barcelona, the Sapienza University of Rome and the National Italian Research Council performed a study that found that the presence of echo chambers on social-media sites led to the spread of like-minded opinions more quickly than previous means.

In 2019, Healthline reported that systematic desensitization involves routine exposure to emotional stimuli, like fear or excitement. Over time, the responses to these stimuli will become weaker as the brain adapts. On digital media, we are constantly bombarded with emotional stimuli, such as the intensely graphic video of George Floyd’s murder, or the recent Netflix series about Jeffrey Dahmer, which weakens that response.

“Systematic desensitization involves routine exposure to emotional stimuli, such as fear or excitement,” Hart Jefferson writes. “Over time, the responses to these stimuli will become weaker as the brain adapts.” Photo by Domingo Alvarez E on Unsplash

In 1955, the brutal torture and subsequent murder of 14 year-old Emmett Till launched the American Civil Rights Movement. The facts that he had an open-casket funeral and that his mother released those pictures of him to the press played a huge part in this catalyst for social change. Many northern white people, who up until then conveniently ignored racial injustice in the South, were extremely moved to action—participating in protests and lobbying in ways that staunchly went against the status quo of the time.

Now, the most daring form of activism for many people is posting a black square on Instagram in support of the Black Lives Matter movement.

While many factors contributed to this change, the most apparent one seems to be that the picture of Emmett Till, which was printed in many northern newspapers, was unusual. Because many people weren’t used to seeing things as graphic and gory as what they saw, it triggered an emotional response for them. Because the same can’t be said as often about our responses to information today, there is a different paradigm. This means that the information—situations, pictures or videos—that served as a call to action before are now nothing more than another scroll.

Right now, our society is at a point of reckoning. As we are slowly moving out of the pandemic, we are also recognizing the ways that it has affected us socially and culturally, in ways that can’t necessarily be easily undone. However, this is not a cause for fear or discouragement. Understanding human behavior and how technology influences it is key to altering our habits in order to ensure a safer, more equitable society for our future.

This MFP Voices essay does not necessarily represent the views of the Mississippi Journalism and Education Group, the Mississippi Free Press, its staff or board members. To submit an opinion for the MFP Voices section, send up to 1,200 words and sources fact-checking the included information to We welcome a wide variety of viewpoints.

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