The fascination of social media
Bildungsthemen: What fascinates people about social media platforms?
Claudia Lampert: That is a very complex question. There’s no doubt that part of the excitement is that social media platforms are entertaining and offer a distraction. They provide an enjoyable way for people to spend their free time, and they are very well designed. Nowadays, there are also many ways to be creative using social media, especially when it comes to interacting with others. In fact, there are many different dimensions that come together. Some children and teenagers simply want to be entertained. Others go out of their way to utilise the creative po¬tential offered by different media for a variety of things. When it comes to using media, numerous processes are in action. You might want to find information about specific topics of interest for your personal development. You can also take a close look at how other people choose to live. First and foremost, though, you can use social media to get in touch with others.
In your view, is there a difference between online communication and face-to-face communication?
At a fundamental level, there’s no major difference between chatting online and picking up the phone. The biggest difference in my view concerns one-to-many communication. This is more of an issue when younger children post something without appreciating the scope of their communication or what the long-term effects might be. There have already been many discussions about this problem: someone posts an image or text online that is meant to be funny, and it then takes on a life of its own, somehow. Of course, children are too young to anticipate this. The ability to post something is funny for them. Their first reaction is not to think about how other people might react, what could happen as a result of their post or how it might be passed around online. Younger users still lack the ability to reflect on questions like these – to think about the consequences of their communication. They also lack a full appreciation of how appropriate certain acts of communication are in a given social context.
Is that mainly a matter of age, or does it have more to do with the medium used for communication?
Many things are often harder to make sense of online. In a face-to-face conversation, I have to think carefully about what I say and whether I’m giving away any secrets. There are established conventions in the real world. But there are also conventions in the digital world. The problem is that younger users in particular lack tact and intuition. There are also fewer barriers when it comes to name-calling and the like because you cannot see the other person. This is an area where more needs to be done in media education to help youngsters develop better skills in communication. Another point is that children like to experiment. There is sometimes too little social correction on this front. For example, if children start to use more vulgar language in conversation, it can be helpful if there’s someone around to say, ‘Hey, that’s not appropriate! You can’t say things like that.’ The competent use of media includes treating other people in the community with respect.
The distinction between online and offline is disappearing?
Few people talk about why this distinction is disappearing. The usual conclusion is that it is no longer possible to draw a clear line between the virtual world and the real world. Instead, it would be fair to say that digital and social media are an extension of reality, or additional realms of experience. There are explanations as to why these platforms fascinate people so much. For example, you can come into contact with others, forging new social relationships and cultivating networks. At the same time, any activity in social networks involves taking a close look at your-self. Such issues play a central role in the development of children and teenagers. Another popular argument has always been that social media offers a wide range of possibilities to participate and get involved. However, it is clear on closer inspection that these opportunities are not really being used by children and teenagers. They are more concerned about questions such as: how should I present myself? What kind of person do I want to be? How do I want other people to see me? In other words, exactly the kind of thing you see happening on Facebook: I set up a profile and think about how to present myself so that I make the best possible impression. This has a lot to do with the development of personal identity. That is one reason why Facebook is so popular among young people – it provides the ideal platform for such processes of self-examination.
Would you say we’re witnessing the rise of a new generation of exhibitionists?
You have to be careful about making sweeping generalisations. However, if you log on to Facebook and take a look at all the selfies being posted everywhere, you do get the impression that young people like to put themselves on display. There’s no question that presenting yourself to the world has become something of a trend. At the same time, every generation has had its own tendencies and trends. Generally speaking, it’s also true that very distinct youth subcultures are always emerging, and each of these use different media in a particular way.
How important are social media platforms for establishing an identity?
For some, the opportunity to present themselves and think about how they want to be seen by others certainly plays an important role. Social media offers a kind of stage on which their lives can play out. For example, if I present myself with a focus on my external attributes and, in response, someone says to me ‘Hey, you look great! I like you’, it is only logical that this will influence the development of my identity. Conversely, there may also be negative effects if you show yourself from a certain angle and receive nothing but negative comments from all quarters.
People often criticise social media. Can you also see positive aspects?
Yes, of course, especially in terms of imparting knowledge. Children and teenagers use forms of entertainment such as TV shows and the Internet – including social media platforms – every day. These channels provide many ways for content creators to impart knowledge more easily. The transfer of knowledge does not only take place on the cognitive level. In many cases, people are engaged through their emotional response. TV shows are a particularly good example of this. When young people identify closely with a certain character, they end up exploring the mind of that person and thinking about the same issues associated with the role. We often talk about educational entertainment here. This approach is a fairly effective way of striking a chord with a specific target audience – especially children and teenagers.
Is the same true for computer games?
Well, there is now the concept of ‘serious games’ in the gaming industry. These games basically use the potential of social and interactive media to impart knowledge on the one hand, but also to enable simulations. As you play the game, you can change certain factors and see the influence of your actions in different contexts. Players can simply try things out for themselves as they experiment with the game. Naturally, this encourages a process of learning in children and teenagers because they have to think about certain issues. It makes little difference whether these issues concern them as individuals or focus instead on the environment, health or politics – games are a format that fascinate children and can be used effectively to convey information.
Dr. Claudia Lampert has been a research consultant at the Hans-Bredow-Institut since 1999. She studied education at the University of Lüneburg and at the University of Hamburg, specialising in media pedagogy. Key areas of her work are media socialisation and media education. She is involved in various projects to examine the role of digital media in the lives of children and teenagers and in general family upbringing