Exploring the Impact of Mindless Media Exposure

Jan Van den Bulck, PhD, is a professor in the Department of Communication and Media, and the director of the Quantitative Methods in the Social Sciences Program at the University of Michigan College of Literature, Science, and the Arts. His research focuses on involuntary and incidental media effects, and explores how entertainment media affect our perception of the real world. In this episode of Michigan Minds, Van den Bulck discusses how watching television affects our knowledge of various fields including law enforcement and emergency medicine, and talks about the relationship between media use and sleep.

“I’m interested in what happens when media use has unintended effects,” he says. “So whenever we’re using media for entertainment or some other reason, is there something that seeps through that teaches us something about what the world looks like, or is there anything that changes our behaviors?”

Van den Bulck’s research lab, M2E2: Mindless Media Exposure and Effects, studies the impact of daily media use on our thoughts, feelings, attitudes and behavior. The lab focuses on three types of unintended effects of entertainment and social media: understanding mindless media use, media and the social construction of reality, and behavioral outcomes of media use. 

“I call it mindless, not because it’s negative, but it’s the stuff that we do almost automatically without really thinking much about it,” he explains. “Nobody accidentally eats a cake, but we may accidentally end up spending an hour and a half on Wikipedia figuring out what the difference is between a duke and a marquess.”

At about 11 years old, he says, many youth are starting to realize the difference between the real world and fictional stories about the world. For example, an 11-year-old knows that when they’re watching a Terminator movie, it isn’t something that is really happening: it’s a science fiction story about one possible future. Sometimes, however, cliches from entertainment media seep into the real world–and vice versa–causing us to see reality in a different light.

Van den Bulck offers an example: a graduate student who was doing research on first offenders’ experience of prison was told repeatedly by the prisoners that “it wasn’t like the movies.” This example demonstrates how the background information we glean from watching TV shows can impact how we perceive different situations.

“We don’t really think much about it because we’re enjoying ourselves—we’re just watching a movie or we’re just playing a video game or whatever, and then you’re in a situation where you have two seconds to decide. You’re in an ER, something’s happened to you, you don’t know what to expect—you are not in a position to carefully start thinking, ‘where do I get my opinions and my perceptions from?’ So that’s typically a moment, I think, where any information we have in us, including the stuff we vaguely learned from entertainment—that’s our database.

Jan Van den Bulck on Michigan Minds

“So we learn these themes, these cliches. And I think especially in moments where you don’t have a lot of time to think about ‘where do I get my knowledge from,’ that’s when it starts to affect us.”

Another aspect of life that social media and entertainment affects is sleep. Van den Bulck discusses the difficult relationship between media use and healthy sleep, and says that in many cases, it’s not the blue light keeping  people awake, it’s deciding to watch another episode after being left with a cliffhanger on your favorite show. 

“We call it a cliffhanger—it’s designed to make you want to watch the next episode. So that’s not you being weak, that’s the media knowing very well how our brains work. So your favorite character at the end of the episode dies…or does he? And then streaming media gives us a few seconds to make up our minds, or we just get the new episode. You’re going to watch the next episode and it’s not going to be the blue light that keeps you up.”

It’s not just streaming entertainment content that keeps people from sleeping, either: Not going to bed because you’re answering work emails, or you want to learn more about some news story and right before bed is the only time you have to do it—these types of scenarios prevent people from getting adequate sleep, which overall affects daily life. 

“What I think is most useful is for people to start thinking about ‘what is my media use, what are my habits?’ And then to start worrying about ‘what are my triggers?’” he says. “So figure out what are the things that make you tick and modify them so they don’t upset you, so you have a sense of remaining in control. And especially if you think about sleep, ‘what is it that messes my sleep and can I modify that?’”

“So we learn these themes, these cliches. And I think especially in moments where you don't have a lot of time to think about ‘where do I get my knowledge from,’ that's when it starts to affect us.” Jan Van den Bulck, PhD, Professor, U-M LSA Communication & Media