Icon PSY 355

PSY 355 Psychology & Media in the Digital Age

This page was last modified on February 7, 2023

Evaluating Claims About Psychology and Media

Claims of Negative Effects of Media
  • Are video games causing young people to become more violent?
  • Is social media making young people less able to think for themselves?
  • Is social media causing us (and particularly younger people) to experience increased levels of depression?
  • Does long exposure to the screens of digital devices by children and preteens cause changes in brain wiring?

Are any of these claims true? How should we go about evaluating them?

("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 conflicts of interest by those making the claim? Are there any political motives or conflicts associated with the claim?
  • Strength of research supporting the claim?
  • Experts may disagree about a conclusion in science
  • Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence (ECREE or the "Carl Sagan Standard")
    • Invoked by the astronomer Carl Sagan in 1979 to challenge claims of paranormal phenomena such as levitation, alien spacecraft coming to Earth, astral projection (out of body travel by the soul), etc.
    • Related to the notion that the burden of proof lies on the person who is making a factual claim that contradicts commonly-accepted realities
    • Note, though, that it is not always clear what is meant by "extraordinary" as a claim or as evidence.
    • "An extraordinary claim is one that is contradicted by a massive amount of existing evidence" (Deming, 2016, p. 1329)
  • 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.

Conspiracy Theories & Conspiratorial Thinking
(Lewandowski & Cook, 2020)

Conspiracy Theory Handbook (Cover)
  • Did the United States Government actually plan the attacks on 9/11?
  • Was COVID-19 really created by the drug industry and medicine to make money?
  • Did Hillary Clinton & other top Democrats run a child-kidnapping ring using an underground network below a pizza restaurant in Washington DC where they would kill the children and use their blood as a drug against aging?
  • Is the Earth actually flat and government agencies like NASA are using rigged GPS systems to fool pilots who think they are flying around a globe?
  • Was Barack Obama actually born in Kenya in Africa even though there is a long-form State of Hawaii birth certificate showing his birth in Honolulu in 1961?
  • Was Melania Trump, the former First Lady, replaced by a body double because she is either dead, refused to attend events with her husband, or decided to leave public life completely?
  • Did Elvis Presley fake his own death in 1977 in order to escape from being killed by the Mafia whom he was spying on for the FBI?

All of these are examples of "conspiracy theories" which, in the digital age, have been promoted far more widely than was ever true in earlier periods. These theories each reflect what is called "conspiratorial thinking" by those who promote them.

Conventional vs. Conspitorial Thinking

As Lewandowski & Cook (2020) summarize, there are seven major traits (what they call "CONSPIR") that most conspiracy theory demonstrate:
  • Contradictory: Believing simultaneously in ideas that are mutually contradictory, e.g., the 9/11 attack on the Pentagon was done by both Islamic terrorists and planned by the US government
  • Overriding Suspicion: A complete rejection of any belief in any official accounts that don't fit with the conspiracy theory, e.g., Obama's Hawaii 1961 birth certificate was made-up only when he became President in 2009.
  • Nefarious Intent: The motivation behind any conspiracy is always for something evil or nefarious, never for positive goals.
  • Something Must Be Wrong: If some parts of the theory can no longer be held, the overall theory must be right because "something must be wrong" and any official accounts are deceptions.
  • Persecuted Victim: Conspiracy theorists see themselves as persecuted victims while at the same time they are brave heroes challenging what is wrong.
  • Immune to Evidence. Clear evidence against a conspiracy theory is really just originating from the conspiracy itself, e.g., if the FBI presents records that contradict the conspiracy, then the FBI is itself part of the conspiracy.
  • Re-interpreting Randomness. Nothing in the world happens by accident. A random event is re-interpreted as part of the conspiracy, e.g., no plane hit the Pentagon on 9/11 because there were intact windows in the building and any real attack would have broken all the windows.

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

The Great Comic Book Panic of the early 1950s

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...

Examples of Moral Panics in the United States
  • "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
  • "Harry Potter" books/movies as promoting witchcraft and satanic values 2000s


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).

Deming, D. (2016). Do extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence? Philosophia, 44, 1319-1331. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11406-016-9779-7

Lewandowsky, S., & Cook, J. (2020). The conspiracy theory handbook. Center for Climate Change Communication, George Mason University. Available at https://skepticalscience.com/conspiracy-theory-handbook-downloads-translations.html

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