Unit 7: Emotion and the Internet

Did you know that what you see online can actually affect your mood for the rest of the day? This phenomenon is known as emotional contagion, and it is defined by Dictionary.com as “the tendency to feel and express emotions similar to and influenced by those of others.” For example, if you see someone smiling at you on the street, you will instinctively smile back. The same goes for negative emotions; one person’s negative mood may cause another person to start thinking negatively.

We used to think that this phenomenon only occurred during in-person interactions, but a study by Kramer et al. (2014) called “Experimental Evidence of Massive-Scale Emotional Contagion through Social Networks” proved otherwise. The researchers in this study manipulated thousands of Facebook users’ newsfeeds by changing the extent to which they were exposed to both positive and negative emotional Facebook statuses. Then they looked at the users’ newsfeed to see how their own posting behavior changed. There were two parallel experiments: one where positive emotional content was reduced, and another where negative emotional content was reduced. The study found that when positive content is reduced, the users’ posts overall became more negative. The opposite was true when negative content was reduced; the users’ posts overall became more positive, proving that emotional contagion also applies to the internet.

This study was criticized by many Facebook users, feeling like their emotions had been manipulated. However, as William Hughes’s criticism of the article points out, the study was ethical. Before Facebook users can make an account, they have to agree to the terms and conditions which includes agreeing to their data use policy. This is what makes the research acceptable, and why informed consent of the study is not an issue.

I know I’ve personally felt emotional contagion on the internet. One  specific incidence especially stands out to me- when I was in high school, someone I went to school with was diagnosed with cancer. I remember being really affected by it, even though we weren’t close. I remember thinking how it was so unexpected because he always seemed perfectly healthy to me when I’d see him in the halls at school. I was sad for the rest of the night- all because I read a Facebook status.

Emotional contagion on the internet can also spread happiness. If you’ve ever seen a photo or video of a cat, you can confirm this is true. If not, this is your chance to see for yourself! Check out the original “Keyboard Cat” on YouTube, or the famous cat that has taken over the internet “Grumpy Cat.” There’s even a whole website dedicated to cats on the internet, called LOL Cats.

Many people have hypothesized why exactly it is that people like videos and pictures of cats so much, but no single hypothesis has been accepted as fact. I’ve compiled a list of some of the best theories in my opinion, from 6 different articles:

  1. No one ever expected cats to be funny, because dogs have always done it first.
  2. Geeks own cats- cats are for introverts, and dogs for extroverts.
  3. Dogs try too hard to be funny.
  4. Weird is in, the weirder the better.
  5. Cats are easy to personify; they’re the perfect canvas for human projection.
  6. Cats are cute.
  7. Cats are also not cute.
  8. Cats are jerks and their indifference is a crowd pleaser.
  9. Cats are reserved and withholding, naturally seducing us into paying closer attention to them.
  10. We’re in awe of them.

The authors the came up with these theories include Tian JinElizabeth FishAmy-Mae Elliott, Jack Shepherd,  and Jack Stein. If you’re curious and want to read their full articles, just click on their names.

The internet can not only affect our moods, but can also even provide us with emotional support- there have been tons of studies done on the subject. One study by Miller et al. (2014) called “How connected Are People with Schizophrenia? Cellphone, Commuter, Email, and Social Media Use” was particularly interesting to me. The study looked at 80 people with schizophrenia or schizoaffective disorder. Researchers examined the frequency and prevalence of cell phone, texting, computer, email, and social media usage. They were also looking to figure out the attitudes participants had toward these technologies and whether or not they would be favored in treatment.

The study found that a majority of participants use these technologies: 73% own or have access to a cell phone, 43% text every day, 20% use a computer every day, and 27% use social media every day. More than half disagreed that technology has made them feel depressed or anxious, or made the voices in their heads worse. About 40% said that these technologies don’t make them feel paranoid or suspicious.

What I thought was interesting was that more than half of the participants said that these technologies help them to interact more with friends and family, and also that around half of them are interested in actually using this technology to treat their mental illnesses by getting reminders about appointments or to take medications. It’s good to hear that technology has been able to provide emotional support to those with schizophrenia and that it can even help with treatment.

There are a few limitations in this study; it has a small, non-randomized sample, which means it isn’t generalizable. More research should be done on the effectiveness of using technology in the treatment of schizophrenia, and also on the relationship between demographic variables and the use of technology. Overall I think the findings from this study are promising, showing that technology is not only valuable to the general population, but also in treating those with mental illnesses. However, more research still needs to be done.


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