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PSY 355 Psychology & Media in the Digital Age

This page was last modified on February 12, 2018

Evaluating Claims About Psychology and Media

("Opinion vs. Evidence...," 2009)

  • Are claims filled with statements to provoke strong emotion? condemnation? fear? praise or endorsement? predictions of disaster/doom OR unlimited possibilities? Emotional claims often mask or hide the absence of real evidence.
  • All good or all bad?
  • Financial or other conflict of interest?
  • Strength of research supporting the claim?
  • Experts may disagree about a conclusion in science
  • Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence
  • Statistical versus practical difference
    • Statistical significant difference = confidence two groups are distinctive, but
Statistical difference
    • Difference is not necessarily important or has any practical implications
      • For example, the difference in height between the men of two different nations may be statistically significant. The average male US soldier in 1980 was 5' 10 1/2" (179 cm) and the average male Italian soldier was 5' 8 1/2" (174 cm). For practical purposes that 2 inch difference probably doesn't have much of an effect on their ability to serve as soldiers.

Moral Panics

(Cohen, 1973/2011, p. 9; also, Bonn, 2015)

The impact of digital media is frequently described as strongly negative, e.g., we are becoming "addicted," children and adults are losing their cognitive abilities such as verbal skills or knowledge of essential world information; we are distracted most of the time; interpersonal relationships are being harmed; people are being subject to cyberbullying or other forms of harassment which is harming them, etc.

Are these claims forms of what can be termed a "moral panic" in which the media itself has become the threat to society?

  • = "A condition, episode, person or groups of persons emerges to become defined as a threat to societal values and interests
  • its nature is presented in a stylized and stereotypical fashion by the mass media
  • the moral barricades are manned by editors, bishops, politicians and other right-thinking people
  • socially accredited experts pronounce their diagnoses and solutions

  • ways of coping are evolved or (more often) resorted to

  • the condition then disappears, submerges, or deteriorates...

  • "Marijuana Menace" (MJ as "narcotic") 1900s-1930s
  • Juvenile delinquency & youth violence on the rise in the 1950s
  • Video games & violence 1970s-today
  • Increasing crime in the United States: 1970s-today (crime increase stopped in 1990)
  • War on Drugs 1970s-today
  • Popular music undermining children’s behavior (too much violence, drugs, sex) according to the Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC; Tipper Gore) & need for parental warning labels for music 1985
  • Dungeons & Dragons (Fantasy Role Playing Games) 1980s-1990s
  • Satanic Ritual Abuse 1980s-1990s
  • HIV as “gay plague” 1980s-today


Bonn, S. A. (2015, July). Moral panic: Who benefits from public fear? PsychologyToday.com. https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/wicked-deeds/201507/moral-panic-who-benefits-public-fear


Cohen, S. (2011). Folk devils and moral panics: The creation of the Mods and the Rockers. London, UK: Routledge. (Original work published 1973).


Opinion vs. Evidence—What is the difference? (2009). Utah State University: National Center for Hearing Assessment and Management. https://www.infanthearing.org/meeting/ ehdi2009/EHDI%202009%20Presentations/185.pdf

This page was first posted on 2/12/2018