My research aims to understand and predict modern communication technology’s impact on people’s everyday lives. In the past, almost any new technology sparks a two-sided debate: On the one hand, we find ourselves celebrating technology’s potential to create new social dynamics such as e.g., empowering individuals, facilitating communication. On the other hand, however, we are paranoid by potential negative consequences such as e.g., ubiquitous surveillance, exploitations of behavioral processes, implications for mental health, or a seemingly growing loss of control over media use.
In order to make informed decisions and to provide adequate recommendations in this debate, I aim at understanding and evaluate both positive and negative effects of communication technologies on people’s attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors. In my view, good and meaningful research is not only characterized by theoretical rigor and state-of-the-art methods. More importantly, it should ask relevant and timely questions and thereby solve pressing societal problems. I constantly measure my work against these standards.
Overall, my research can be divided into five interrelated areas which all deal with different aspects of digital media and online communication:
1. Privacy and Self-Disclosure Processes in Online Environments
Over the last years, I have focused particularly on understanding how networked environments (e.g., social network sites, instant messenger,…) determine people’s privacy perceptions and how these, in turn, influence their communication behavior and their relationships with and their evaluations of other people, companies, and institutions. Using a variety methods (qualitative and quantitative designs; large-scale panel analyses, experience sampling methods, as well as experiment), I studied – among other things – privacy regulation mechanism on social media, the disclosure of person-related information in commercial as well as social settings, and the influence of situational circumstances on people’s willingness to disclose themselves.
Prior research has often focused on conducting (cross-sectional) surveys and thus on investigating communication processes from a general or aggregative perspective (i.e., a between-person perspective). In my recent book on privacy and self-disclosure, I try to overcome this limitation by adopting a situational approach. I developed a theoretical framework that allow to analyze how both non-situational factors (e.g., stable person characteristics such as personality or skills) as well as situational factors (both personal and environmental factors that vary across different situations) affect people’s behavior. I believe that we can only truly understand people’s choices and behaviors by considering both situational circumstances and person characteristics as well as their potential interactions.
2. The Role of (Critical) Media Literacy in Modern Societies
In my recent work, I ask what knowledge, skills, and abilities people need in order to deal with the challenges of new online environments. The collapse of formerly distinct social contexts, the convergence of traditional media, the large-scale data collection by providers and institutions, or new media’s potential to occupy people’s minds in new ways require individuals to take elaborate and oftentimes difficult decisions when communicating and acting in multimodal online environments. What characterizes these challenges? How do they affect people’s lives, their well-being, and their communication routines? How do people cope with these novel challenges?
I believe that certain abilities and skills can help to mitigate people’s inability to act and communicate self-determined and rationally in online environments. In this work, I aim at reconceptualizing media literacy, providing reliable and valid instruments to assess people’s skills and abilities, and at studying critical media literacy as a key variable for understanding current online phenomena (e.g., irrational disclosure of private information, dysfunctional usage patterns such as compulsive smartphone use, blind adoption of norms, etc…). In this blogpost, I am summarizing my recent work on online privacy literacy.
3. Social Norms in Networked Publics
What norms emerge from novel communication technologies and how do they influence people’s behavior? Do people adapt to other people by showing similar behaviors or thinking similar thoughts? How can we empower individuals and strengthen their self-determination in these modern media environments in which individuals are always confronted with a larger group of people?
Prior research has shown that users of SNSs seem to adapt to prevailing social norms. In many surveys – and thus based on self-reports – SNS users indicate to share intimate details of their life, thus promoting a social norm of sharing private information as an appropriate or even expected behavior. In this line of research, I aim to study social norm processes using more objective behavioral measures. I further aim to investigate whether higher media literacy and subtle alterations of a social network site’s (SNS) architecture can promote more self-determined behavior and thus less adaption to (potentially negative) social norms.
4. Online Communication and Well-Being
Does technology affect people’s and particularly adolescents’ well-being? With thousands of studies that have been published in various journals and disciplines, this questions is more pressing than ever. But the scientific evidence for either positive or negative effects is nonetheless weak. Primarily cross-sectional survey designs and unstandardized instruments led to a largely inconsistent literature. In my work, I aim to advance this line of research by focusing on longitudinal developments (e.g., across 1 to 10 years) and by identifying situational, contextual, and temporal factors of potentially negative or positive media effects on adolescents’ well-being.
In my opinion, we need to stop looking for an easy, overall answer. We know by now – based on the analysis of large-scale survey studies as well as a number of recent meta-analysis – that long-term effects of e.g., social media or smartphone use on various indicators of well-being are comparatively small or non-existent. Yet, we still don’t know much about short-term, situational effects that might still be detrimental for the individual. My goal is to develop theoretical perspectives as well as a sound methodology that allows to identify the temporal and spatial boundaries of such effects. In this commentary, we have published some recommendation for future work in this areas.
5. Methodology, Statistics, and Open Science Practices
In all my studies, I aim at using the best and most appropriate methods for the question at hand. I therefore use a variety of data collection methods such as e.g., panel survey designs, experience sampling methods, simulations or experimental designs. To study situational processes (instead of aggregated patterns), I developed an automatic event-based experience sampling technique which allows to trigger short situational questionnaires based on individual smartphone usage patterns.
With regard to data analysis, I am particularly interested in alternative and advanced data modeling techniques such as multilevel modeling, structure equation modeling, and Bayesian approaches.
I am further interested in how analytical choices affect statistical results and, in turn, inferences. I recently developed a R-package called “specr” that allows to conduct specification curve analyses (also called multiverse analyses) in a more systematic manner.
Lastly, I contribute insights and tools to make science more transparent, reproducible, and replicable. In a recent paper with 36 international colleagues, I outline basic principles and recommendations for conducting open science in communication research. I further work on tools and procedures to make my own empirical work computationally reproducible (see my OSF page or my github).