(When) do digital media make us happy?

By Katrina Roen, Erik Carlquist, & Lin Prøitz; December 2020

For decades, researchers have debated the pros and cons of digital technology: does it help us live better lives, or does it make that harder? Now, in an era of pandemic and lockdown, our day-to-day experience of digital media has been brought even more clearly into focus. Our research examines the emotional aspects of this experience, asking: how are digital media woven through our lives on an emotional level? 

Let’s say you have a variation of sex characteristics (or an intersex variation). You might not often meet people with the same variation as you. Reaching out to others in the conventional offline sense can provoke feelings of shame and fear. Reaching out via digital media may feel different, and potentially safer. In our research, we are exploring this kind of outreach. We follow emotions around in virtual spaces and examine the emotional aspects of digital connections.

Seeking similar others online

We examined how emotion circulates in contexts where someone discloses that they have a variation of sex characteristics, or a related medical diagnosis. Prior to digital media, many people spent their lives believing they would never find someone they could talk to about their variation. We found that people seeking one another via moderated online forums addressing health and well-being issues are often met with respectful, caring and emotionally engaged responses from strangers.

This is significant not only because it offers an opportunity to break down isolation and stigma, but because it provides a contrast to what sometimes happens in healthcare settings. Research shows that people who try to talk with health professionals about their variation often experience that their feelings were not acknowledged.

Useful for health professionals and peer support organisations

Our research has implications across sectors, including for:

  • Healthcare providers, who may be concerned that people will get the wrong information by searching online. Our work shows that constructive engagement is possible—and perhaps even probable—online.
  • Peer led organizations, who may make support and information available via digital media. In light of the unequal impacts of COVID-related stressors and health concerns, some organizations now offer information about COVID-related issues for people with intersex variations (Intersex Human Rights Australia & InterAct Advocates for Intersex Youth).

One of the key threads running through our research concerned the use of diagnostic terminology (words like: hypospadias, Klinefelter, and Turner’s) rather than umbrella terms such as “intersex”. This is particularly relevant for peer support organisations as it suggests that people looking for emotional support often rely on specific diagnostic terms, potentially missing out on peer support that is tagged with umbrella terms.

About the authors

Katrina Roen is a professor of Sociology at the University of Waitakto (Aotearoa New Zealand). Her research centrally concerns health and well-being, youth identities, sexuality and gender. She draws from critical psychology, sociology, interdisciplinary health research, youth studies, and gender studies, engaging with concepts of discourse, embodiment, and subjectivity. Her work tends to be qualitative, with an emphasis on methodological approaches that enable analysis of the relationships between the individual level and the socio-cultural level.

Erik Carlquist is an associate professor at Bjørknes University College (Norway) where he teaches critical psychology and methodology, and researches psychological phenomena as understood through everyday and professional language, prevailing notions of quality of life and psyche – stability and change, social media and mass media.

Lin Prøitz is an associate professor in the Faculty of Business, Languages and Social Sciences at Østfold University College (Norway). Her academic interests include: Digital media, social and visual media, photography, young people, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, affect, intimacy online, social change, belonging, digital mobilisation, online observations, qualitative methods. Her work is grounded in feminist and media science, and addresses empirical and theoretical questions related to the ‘digital society’ from three perspectives: (1) Affect and emotions online, (2) Digital methods, and (3) Health online.

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